Sunday, October 19, 2008

From the Archive: "W." Film Review

Film Rating: B-

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “W.”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
Originally published October 19th, 2008

Oliver Stone certainly had a tough job on his hands making a film about our 43rd President; it’s the kind of project that doesn’t just incite controversy, it embraces controversy.  It’s the kind of project that will make at least one group of people angry.  Plus, given his political leanings, Stone doesn’t seem like the kind of guy willing to make anything less than a “hack-job” film.  Surprise of all surprises, W. is definitely not a hack-job, and Stone has a strong, clear empathy for Bush that extends to sympathy in quite a few scenes.  People have their minds made up about Bush, and Stone isn’t going to change that—but he does humanize the President and helps the viewer to understand the man on a more personal level.

Sadly, it’s still not that good of a movie.

The story itself is interesting—it follows Bush from his party-filled days in college to his maturation and strong assertion of will to the climactic invasion of Iraq—but it isn’t told well.  The film opens with Bush and various members of his cabinet perfecting the “axis of evil” speech, and it’s an incredibly strong way to open the film.  Josh Brolin’s Oscar-worthy performance as Bush simply commands the scene, but it’s apparent, from the start, that every other actor has their role down pat as well.  The film cuts back to Bush’s initiation into a college fraternity, and from there, scenes with Bush ranging from the mid-60’s to 1999 are intercut with scenes from his presidency until the stories meet up in 2003.

Now, I like films that are creative with the timeline, but I’m convinced that Oliver Stone is the wrong director to be fiddling with chronology; it’s apparent in W., but it was just as apparent in an earlier work of his, Alexander.  Unlike that film, the time jumps in W. are at least easy to follow, but as with Alexander, the switches in time feel contrived and lesson the drama instead of enhancing it.  I can’t put my finger on what the exact problem is, but it includes the lack of thematic similarities between what happens in the future and what happens in the past; furthermore, scenes in the future last too long, leaving the viewer wondering whether the present or the future is the film’s focal point.

The time-jumps aren’t nearly as much of a problem as the vignette-style storytelling, again, a problem held-over from Stone’s Alexander.  Certain segments of Bush’s life would work well as a montage, like the elections for Governor or President.  Instead, we’ll get a scene or a set of scenes detailing why Bush wants to run for an office, and the next scene jumps a few years into the future when Bush is occupying that office.  This problem isn’t limited to elections; any major event in Bush’s life is explained through a scene of decision and a scene of fulfillment, with the A to B story left out.  Eventually, it starts to feel contrived, and you long to see more of each story.  One of the key problems with the story is the exclusion of the controversial 2000 election, and even more confusing, the absence of any scenes on or around 9/11.  I think we all remember footage of Bush walking in the wreckage, and it would have been a powerful scene to include.

Still, while Stone may not be the best biographic storyteller, I can’t deny that the film is fascinating.  Stone presents Bush as a human being with genuine emotions, desires, beliefs, and problems.  At the center of all this is his desire to get out of his father’s shadow.  His discovery and love of Christianity and his heavy belief in freedom and democracy are also focal points, and add dimensions to him.  The character is endearing, in a way, feeling very human; it would be hard to accomplish this in a biopic of any President, but especially with a figure as controversial as Bush.  Stone portrays him as a man who always wanted to do good things, but whose plans didn’t always pan out.  When Bush realizes that the campaign in Iraq will go on for much longer than he planned, you feel sorry for him.

Who knew that Stone, of all people, would make us sympathize with Bush?

I would say the film has a critical viewpoint of Bush’s policies, but Stone is fair and even enough, and treads the line lightly enough, so that one can draw their own conclusions of the man and read into it what they want.  This is both a problem and an advantage.  For someone independently minded, the film is very thought-provoking, but those who are far left or far right will be dissatisfied.  I doubt Pro-Bushies will see it, and if they do they probably won’t enjoy it, and liberals expecting a fun night of seeing Bush made fun of will be disappointed as well.  It makes you wonder just who the audience is, but if you don’t have too strong an opinion, then W. is good food for thought, despite problems with the storytelling.

I haven’t even touched on the performances, many of which are staggeringly good.  First and foremost is Josh Brolin’s mind-blowing turn as W himself.  In some bio-pics, an actor impersonates a real person.  Rarely does someone become that person, and the simplest way to describe the performance is that Brolin becomes Bush.  It’s easily to do a Texas accent and mock the President, like Will Ferrell or other comedians, but Brolin might be the first actor to really overcome the stereotype and become the President.  The make-up makes him look like W, but it’s the way he holds himself, the way he moves, and the way he talks that make him Bush.  There’s a scene where W gives a speech to Congress, and it intercuts with real footage of Congress at the time.  You can barely tell the difference between Brolin and the real person.  If Brolin gets an Oscar-nod, or even a win, it would be well deserved.

But W. has more than one award-worthy performance.  James Cromwell doesn’t look exactly like Bush Sr., but his excellent turn really captures the calmness and intelligence of the man.  Richard Dreyfuss becomes Dick Cheney just as much as Brolin becomes W; it’s almost creepy how much of a dead-ringer he is.  Jeffrey Wright is a terrific Colin Powell, but the story never reaches his resignation, making his plotline lack a resolution.  Scott Glenn and Toby Jones are both great in their roles as Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove, respectively.  Elizabeth Banks is a charming Laura Bush, but no make-up is ever applied to make her look older, and near the end of the film, it becomes creepy to see the 60-year-old W with a thirty-year-old woman.  Thandie Newton’s portrayal of Condoleezza Rice is annoying; there’s nothing wrong with the role as written, but Newton totally overdoes it, complete with an annoying overblown accent.

Overall, W. has some serious pacing and storytelling issues; because Bush is still President, the film lacks a real ending, which is a definite problem (the film ends before his second term, but I would have preferred it to end after his re-election and the resignation of Colin Powell).  Stone didn’t want to release the film this early, and having a few more months to experiment in the editing room would have done some good.  Still, despite problems, the film does a good job humanizing the President and providing viewers with plenty to think about, fueled by some truly amazing performances.  It’s not perfect, but don’t misunderestimate W.       

No comments:

Post a Comment