Oliver Stone has had his eye, not to mention his wandering imagination, on history and presidents for some time, if in odd ways. With JFK he swam in conspiracy theories, and Nixon offered a murky portrait of the prez, played for some reason by Anthony Hopkins. Of course, what makes Stone’s much-anticipated W. unique is not only its relatively straightforward narrative and the fact that its subject is still in the White House, but its shrewd timing, released just before an election that has the whole world watching.
In taking on little Bush, whose approval ratings have sunk into the Potomac sludge, Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser play a fairly safe hand. Sure, the filmmakers take ripe potshots and focus on the sometimes loveable buffoonery of W., but the film also conveys his bologna sandwich-munching humanity and such driving forces as his complex relationship with a disappointed father. Junior emerges as both pathetic and sympathetic.
Basically, W. tells an audacious American story of a Texan prodigal son in a gilded family, who transcends his sins, gives up the bottle for God, and aims for the White House. Like Nixon, W. relied on brute determination to pick himself up in spite of low expectations. What could be a more inspiring American story? Except for the part where our hero-misguided by an advising gallery of fools-plunges the country and the world into peril and unforeseen dark historical chapters.
Getting that story artfully into a two-plus hour cinematic space is a challenge Stone doesn’t quite meet, but the film is never boring.
Funny-chilling scenes line the way, such as the pre-war ramp-up meeting in which Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) lays out the oil-grabbing imperative of a permanent war in the Middle East. Suddenly, we’re reminded of older films such as Dr. Strangelove, in which terrible human tolls are decided by evil men in tidy war rooms. This story ends, on a tastefully poetic note, before the re-election, but we can fill in the blanks of what has happened. Now, we wait breathlessly for the sequel.
On some level, W. is a horror film, a dark comedy, and a cautionary tale. The horror is still in progress, and planted in the White House.