Two weeks ago, on Anderson Cooper's show on CNN, Paul Begala called the president of the United States "a high-functioning moron." Nobody on the show, which included Republicans and Democrats, batted an eye or uttered a word of protest. What was newsworthy was that the incendiary remark was barely considered newsworthy. That's how far George W. Bush's stock has fallen on the eve of the election: he has passed from controversy to complete irrelevance. Just how peripheral Bush now seems, in the wake of the country's economic meltdown, is not a situation Oliver Stone could have foreseen when he set out to make "W."—nor is it one that works in the movie's favor. The zeitgeist threatens to turn a hot-button movie into a cinematic lame duck.
Stone is working from a Stanley Weiser screenplay, but it's safe to assume he had considerable input into the writing. "W." is the story of a rowdy, feckless screw-up who can never live up to the expectations of his patrician father. He drinks, he can't hold a job, and over and over he gets rescued by Daddy's power and connections, which land him in Yale, Harvard Business School and in possession of the Texas Rangers. Then, as we know, he gives up the bottle, finds Jesus and, under the tutelage of Karl Rove, begins his political rise that ends in the White House, with his fateful decision in the wake of 9/11 to wage war on Iraq. The organizing principle of Stone and Weiser's version is Oedipal: it's all about W's seeking the approval of the withholding H.W., and then competing against his father's presidential legacy.
None of this will be news to anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of the president's life story. Bush lovers will find it a crude cartoon, and wonder why Josh Brolin's performance captures so little of the man's legendary one-on-one charm, visible only in a scene where he first meets his future wife, Laura (Elizabeth Banks), at a Texas barbecue. Bush haters will be disappointed that Stone holds his savagery in check: it's not a flattering portrait—Bush is shown as shallow, boorish and impatient, less the Decider than a tool of Rove (Toby Jones) and Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss). Yet it's not entirely a hatchet job: some viewers think that Bush comes off better than they'd expected. (It's proving to be a political Rorschach test.) Stone shows some sympathy for the man. He clearly identifies with Bush's struggle to forge an identity in the face of a powerful, disapproving father (James Cromwell). And up to a point, Stone even gives the neocons' justification for going to war its day in court in a war-room scene that lays out their ambitious strategy for the Middle East. He grants his ideological foes the sincerity of their delusions.
Like all Stone movies, "W." has energy and forward momentum—particularly in the pre-presidential sections, when Bush is in his loose-cannon phase. It's not boring, and Brolin is often remarkable. Though I wish he'd been allowed more nuance (and more charm), Brolin gets inside the man's skin. But how far can you go with Bush? How do you portray the inner life of a character that—at least as written —doesn't have one? Trying to find a metaphor for W.'s insecurities and fears, Stone comes up with a shockingly clichéd image: Bush, mitt in hand, standing alone in the outfield of an empty baseball stadium listening to the imaginary cheers of the crowd. Stone keeps coming back to this fantasy scene, and it doesn't improve with repetition.
Movies that try to re-create very recent events risk turning into "Saturday Night Live": there's something unavoidably comic about our first glimpse of Dreyfuss as Cheney, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Thandie Newton as Condi Rice and Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush. Newton never gets beyond what seems like an "SNL" impersonation, but Dreyfuss hits the spot, evoking Cheney's wary, saturnine, Machiavellian spirit. Powell, predictably, comes off the best, fighting his losing battle against the rush to war. Will history be this magnanimous?
Stone's "JFK" may have been a more reckless movie, advancing dubious theories about Kennedy's assassination, but it was, on a purely cinematic level, far more adventurous and satisfying moviemaking—as was "Nixon." "W." seems content to skim the surface of conventional wisdom. You wish it could have explored the connection between Bush's alcoholism and his born-again Christianity with some depth or curiosity: what addicts and born-agains share is a terror of ambiguity, an absolute need for a belief system that removes all doubt. "W." treats Bush's conversion with respect, but offers little illumination of this soulaltering turn in the road. "W." might have had some impact had it been made four years ago. But it's both too late and too early for a movie about our sitting president. Its "outrageousness" feels complacent. Controversial? Daring? In the fall of 2008, it seems neither.