Oliver Stone’s latest film, W., a seeming semi-satire on only the first term of President George W. Bush (no Hurricane Katrina, no BS on "the Surge has worked," no economic disaster), is a hit and miss affair which, given Stone’s track record in film this decade, is possibly a slight improvement on those earlier films. Recall the deadening mediocrity of U-Turn and utter pointlessness of Any Given Sunday, or the not quite campy enough schlock of Alexander? If you don’t, consider yourself lucky.
That said, W. promised a hoped for return to the great films of Stone’s earlier days: Nixon, JFK, The Doors, or at least the gleeful camp of Wall Street. Unfortunately, Stone forgot the advice that Richard Nixon gave General Eisenhower, during the 1952 campaign, after Nixon’s slush fund was found out: shit or get off the pot. The fact is that Stone simply cannot decide whether or not to make his latest film a straight history or a satire. Thus, it fails on both counts.
As for the failure of history- there is not a single moment in the film that makes a viewer ask why this man deserves a film? There is no revelation into what makes the current President tick (and worse, not even an attempt to do so), save for the way too trite ideas that Junior is a human cipher, and is still looking for Daddy’s approval, even though he explicitly rejects his father in the film, for other ‘fathers’ as Senator Barry Goldwater, President Ronald Reagan, and his own warped version of God.
Instead, we get Josh Brolin mugging his way through an apish impersonation of W. Okay, that may be enough to resolidify Stone’s Hollywood liberal bona fides, but it does nothing for his audience. And yes, Brolin is a good imitator, but what he does not do is act in the film. There’s not a moment a viewer empathizes with the lead character. We only see W. from the exterior, and it is a Howdy Doody-like portrait.
In fact, the only bits of real acting in the film belong to the roles of George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush (the Elder), played by James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn. In fact, Cromwell’s performance (too short, and Burstyn’s is even shorter) is so good that it truly deserves Oscar consideration. Yet, his is one of the few key roles that is not a Saturday Night Live level impersonation. Cromwell does not look, sound, nor act with the easily parodic mannerisms of the elder Bush (think of Anthony Hopkins as Nixon vs. Dana Carvey as the elder Bush, and the gulf between Cromwell’s performance and the other actors’ performances in political roles becomes clear)- yet he nails the performance. When he loses the 1992 election to Bill Clinton, one actually feels for Poppy Bush.