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W.

The life of our 43rd president gets the big-screen treatment

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We've come to expect much more incendiary films from Oliver Stone than W., his dramatization of the life of our current president, from his alcoholic young manhood to his destructive perpetual war in Iraq and who-knows-where-else-next. (Whatever war-cum-Armageddon follows this one, it'll be Bush's responsibility regardless of who's president.)

In JFK, Stone fabricated wildly. In Nixon, he could barely deign to try to find the heart of the man. But the central figure of W. -- beautifully portrayed by Josh Brolin -- emerges early on as a plausible human being, if not a very complex one.

This lack of complexity is no fault of Bush. The screenplay for W., written by Stanley Weiser, is too safe and superficial, and in the end, the project comes off more like a good TV movie than a feature film. There are plenty of Lifetime moments in W., and I mean that merely as an observation. This is Stone's sturdiest film in years, and if you're looking for a parody of a buffoon with cardboard villains, then stay home and watch Saturday Night Live.

W. opens in the present day, with Bush standing in the middle of an empty baseball field. He hears the national anthem, and the roar of a crowd that isn't there. It's his fantasy, but it tells us something about the leader of the free world: He longs for simpler, less stressful days. In that, he's not alone.

Cut to the Oval Office, where he's surrounded by his top aides: Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell. They're trying to come up with a word to complete the phrase "axis of ..." to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea. The discussion is rigorous, with Bush firmly in charge. Finally, a tiny little Karl Rove (Toby Jones, who's played Truman Capote!) invokes Ronald Reagan's "evil empire," and so the phrase is born.

That's one of several policy-wonk moments in W., all of them thoughtful and balanced. If you don't like watching PBS, you might not like some of W. (One fellow at the screening I attended fell asleep and started snoring.) The rest of W. moves back and forth between the present and the past, walking us briskly through the events that made Bush what he is.

The chronology begins in 1966, at Yale, with George and his fellow fraternity pledges immersed in ice as the brothers pour liquor down their throats. One fat pledge can name only three or four brothers, and he's ridiculed for his ignorance. But George knows a lot of them, including their nicknames. He's an instant hit.

After college, he keeps drinking and whoring and failing at every job his father gets for him. ("Who do you think you are," his father asks, "a Kennedy?") Eventually George meets Laura, his future wife, a high-spirited woman who sees something more in him. One day, out for a jog, he falls to the ground in a sunny grove, where he has a religious conversion. He stops drinking, takes born-again lessons, and turns his life around. "You can't live your life over again," his pastor tells him, "you can only be born again." He's right, of course: The past is indelible, while the future waits to be written.

Stone apparently isn't predisposed to finding any of this funny, and everything that happens to Bush in W. happens soberly, without exaggeration or derision. For example, we see no cocaine use, which has never been admitted to or proven. We hear some of Bush's famous malaprops and inanities, but those mostly occur when he's under pressure and already president. In his element, alone with people he trusts, he's confident, focused and in control, a combination of what he knows and what he feels.

Yeah, I know: What on earth! I can't explain it either, except to say that if I didn't know any American history, I'd think W. was the story of a mediocre man who avoids self-destruction by sheer willpower, and then spends the rest of his life trying to live up to the work ethic of his principled father, who heaps all of his favor on Abel -- sorry, Jeb.

This George W. Bush doesn't go to war in Iraq to prove himself or complete his father's mission. He doesn't do it for the oil. (That's Cheney's argument.) He does it because he believes America will be safer if we can destroy Saddam Hussein and his putative weapons of mass destruction. You can take it or leave it, but that's what Stone comes up with.

The acting is uniformly fine: Thandie Newton's Condi Rice gets some chuckles, but only because she's too spot-on; Richard Dreyfuss captures Dick Cheney and yet still flatters him; Jeffrey Wright, as Colin Powell, sometimes sounds more like Everett Dirksen. And the great James Cromwell, as the first President Bush, may give you new respect for Reagan's placid yes-man, who placed the accent on the first syllable of "Saddam" because, the movie suggests, in Arabic that word means "shoe-shine boy." This may or may not be true, but it's certainly an interesting moment of character in a movie that surprised me.

White House dog days: George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) and Karl Rove (Toby Jones)
  • White House dog days: George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) and Karl Rove (Toby Jones)

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