2008, PG-13, 131 min. Directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Jeffrey Wright, Toby Jones, Thandie Newton, Scott Glenn, Richard Dreyfuss.
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Oct. 17, 2008
Stone’s latest head-first dive into the deep end of the American political pool is a tale of two movies: one a humanizing portrait of a failure as a young man, the other a damning but unsurprising look inside an administration gone loopy on ideological zealotry. The first is a story that was dying to be told; the second, one that’s been told to death. Stone’s young George W. Bush (played with gusto by Brolin) is a Horatio Alger hero in reverse: Born into wealth and power, he chooses to wallow in the mire of fleeting romantic affairs, intellectual indifference, meaningless day jobs, and alcohol (especially alcohol) rather than buy into his role as the standard-bearer of the Bush legacy. Stone shoots these early years as a brisk, irreverent romp, matching his hero’s brazenness and immaturity step for boozy step. He cuts quickly from the future president’s fraternity hazing at Yale to his abbreviated courtship of a self-possessed young librarian named Laura (Banks), from his first unsuccessful foray into politics (highlighted by a wonderful but bruising debate between Bush and his opponent, Kent Hance, in the 1978 race for Texas’ 19th Congressional District where the inexperienced Republican learns a valuable lesson in the art of cutthroat politics) to his eventual rebirth as an evangelical Christian and his rise to the governorship of Texas. Had Stone stopped there and gone deeper, had he probed more subtly the Freudian angst and self-doubt of an heir apparent to a stern and disappointed father (would anyone put it past Stone to paint a sitting American president as Henry V?), had he examined more closely Bush’s political education at the feet of mastermind Karl Rove, then I might just be sitting here telling you about a new masterpiece from the man who brought us JFK and Nixon. Instead, as W. settles into the White House, Stone the partisan rabble-rouser gradually overpowers Stone the artist, turning his movie into yet another condemnation of the ideological strong-arming that led us into Iraq and the administrative bumbling that got us mired there. In our age of 24-hour news coverage, this rehashing of current events doesn’t just come off familiar but completely unnecessary. And, worst of all, prosaic. Gone are the visual grandeur and sweeping narrative scope that raised Stone’s previous political films to the level of art and their heroes to the bracing heights of tragedy, replaced by an uninspired and unfocused recapitulation of some of the darkest events in modern American political history.