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Film Review: W.

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Lost: W.’s absurdist take on Bushworld.

At an opening-night screening of W., Oliver Stone’s new biopic of our 43rd president, guffaws and snickers engulfed the theater for the first 10 minutes or so. It was the sound of the audience reacting to the movie they were expecting to see rather than to the one on the screen.

While certainly satirical at times, W. is no Team America World Police-style attack on the current decider-in-chief. The film has a cartoonish gleam born of a heightened take on a slice of history seen as both tragic and bizarre. But it also takes a serious — if far from deferential — approach to its subject. It’s a fascinating film, if not as weighty as it wants to be.

In Stone’s entirely conventional and likely accurate view, George W. Bush is a mediocre man born to prominence, who consistently fails upward, often to the chagrin of his family, who saw his rise as cutting off the path to power of his younger, smarter brother Jeb.

W. skips around Bush’s life, ranging from a 1966 Yale pledge party to the second-term press conference in which he’s somehow unable to cite a single instance of personal presidential failure. It hits on several colorful bits of Dubya lore — the pretzel choke, the drunken “mano a mano” confrontation with “Poppy,” his born-again conversion. But it omits Florida, 9/11, or any of his gubernatorial or presidential campaigns.

Stone’s film is instead focused squarely on the tragedy of the Iraq war decision and the biographical and psychological roots of it. It is not a terribly complex psychological portrait, because Stone doesn’t view Bush as a terribly complex person. He shows a man whose world-historical mishaps were driven by born-again certitude and enormous daddy issues. Bush’s personal journey from rowdy alcoholism to bland sobriety is communicated deftly and subtly via beverage labels — Jack Daniel’s, PBR, and Lone Star giving way to Dr. Pepper and O’Doul’s.

In this well-cast stew of rich caricature, Poppy Bush (James Cromwell), Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), and Laura Bush (Elizabeth Banks) come out best, while an awkwardly appeasing Condi Rice (Thandie Newton) and a blustery, simple-minded Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) come out worst. Josh Brolin is better than could be expected in the title role.

Anger sets in when Iraq goes bad, but mostly W. is a muted, bemused, observational movie — Being There turned into history. Its greatest moment occurs when Bush brings his foreign policy and political team to his Crawford ranch and leads them astray far from the house. Capturing this group walking lost in silent long shot, Stone finds his most damning, succinct critique — a great absurdist moment reminiscent of Samuel Beckett or Luis Bunuel. — Chris Herrington

W.

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