Love him or hate him, Oliver Stone is rarely predictable and never timid. The man has balls to spare. Despite his reputation as one of the most hard-leaning Lefty filmmakers in Hollywood (second only to Michael Moore) and the knocks he's taken for that over the years, the director made perhaps the most audacious decision of his career by taking on 'W.', his bio-pic of sitting President George W. Bush, released before the man had even left office. Naturally, knowing what we do about Stone's political leanings, just about everyone expected the movie to be a hatchet-job diatribe about the most politically-polarizing figure of the modern era, a man whose views and policies stand in direct opposition to everything Stone believes in as a human being. The trailers certainly played up that assumption by making the film look like a wild 'Saturday Night Live'-style spoof of Bush and all the key figures of his administration.
Frankly, we should have known better. Stone demonstrated in his superlative 'Nixon' that he's capable (when he wants to be) of standing back and separating his own politics from the subject matter of his movies. As he was with Richard Nixon, the director is more interested in the character of George W. Bush as a man, and the lifetime of events that led him to become the President that he did. If anything, 'W.' bends over backwards to be the most "balanced" and sympathetic (if not necessarily empathetic) portrait of Bush you're likely to see on celluloid anytime soon.
In what could have been career suicide, Josh Brolin uncannily captures George W.'s resemblance and mannerisms, stopping just a little short of parody. The film, in typical Oliver Stone-ian fashion, jumps backwards and forward in time to cover the man's life from drunken frat boy to failed businessman, through his religious conversion and recovery from alcoholism, up to his Presidency and the start of the Iraq war. As Stone tells it (and which is generally accepted knowledge), W. spent most of his early life as a screw-up perpetually living in the shadow of his father and his younger brother Jeb (the family's golden boy). His transformation into politician is seen largely as an attempt to reinvent and redeem himself in the family's eyes. In other words, he has big-time daddy issues.
A host of famous names portray the major players in Bush's life. James Cromwell looks and sounds nothing at all like George Sr., but suitably embodies the stern patrician disapproval. Likewise, Ellen Burstyn as mother Barbara looks… well, kind of like Ellen Burstyn is a crazy cauliflower wig. But she fills the role well enough. Elizabeth Banks is a blank slate as Laura, the dutiful wife just happy to be whatever her husband wants her to be. Toby Jones (the other Truman Capote, the one that didn't win an Oscar) is Karl Rove, the most dangerous nerd in the world. Jeffrey Wright plays Colin Powell as almost totally ineffectual, but the only person willing to even put on a show of disagreeing with his Commander in Chief.
Thandie Newton delivers the most cartoonishly mannered performance as Condoleezza Rice. She really does seem to think that she's in an 'SNL' skit. I'm not sure why Stone didn't try to dial her back. Perhaps that's why he didn't give her very many lines. Unfortunately, she tries to overcompensate for the lack of dialogue with strangely pinched facial expressions and steely glares in far too many scenes. In the context of any other normal movie, I might say the same of Richard Dreyfuss, who lacks only a handlebar mustache to twirl in his play on Dick Cheney as a sneeringly evil villain. However, this is Dick Cheney we're talking about, and quite frankly Dreyfuss way underplays the role. The real Cheney makes the actor look like he's doing Gandhi in comparison.
As a movie, 'W.' never goes after Bush full-bore as you'd expect (or want) it to. Stone sees the former President as a basically decent fellow who means well but just isn't very good at his job, doesn't like to think through the details of what he's doing, and allows himself to be guided by people he shouldn't. It's an unexpected take on the subject, to be sure. I'm not convinced that it's an effective or useful one. In his attempts to avoid charges of fabricating facts, the director sticks mainly to information on the public record. That causes a big dramatic problem, because the Bush administration is easily the most secretive in history. This leaves gaping holes in the movie, which is probably more notable for the parts of Bush's life it doesn't cover than those it does. Although we see that he had a drinking problem, the allegations of drug use are never mentioned. Bush's National Guard record is only obliquely discussed in a single line of dialogue. Neither of his Presidential campaigns is shown. No recounts, no hanging chad, no Swiftboating, nothing. Nothing at all…
I understand that this film wasn't meant to be an exposé of all the scandals of the Bush Presidency. If it were, it would have to run nine or ten hours long by necessity. Instead, it's a portrait of a man. But, as such, in choosing the parts of the story he feels safe telling, Oliver Stone hasn't told us anything about George W. Bush we didn't already know. This movie could have been made by just about anyone who's watched a fair amount of news coverage over the last decade.
Don't get me wrong, 'W.' is a solid dramatic film about the unlikely rise to power of a decidedly underqualified man. In many ways, it's a better movie than it might have been if handled with less restraint. Yet it's also a less interesting movie than it might have been. Honestly, at the end, I was left wondering what the point was. Why make this movie, in this way, at this time? Those are the big questions that Oliver Stone never answers.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'W.' comes to Blu-ray from Lionsgate Entertainment. Like most of their Blu-ray releases, the studio has front-loaded the disc with no fewer than six annoying trailers before the main menu. Just to further twist the knife, they've disabled the Top Menu command, so you'll have to skip each trailer individually every time you play the disc.
Once you get to it, the Java-enabled menu is extremely sensitive to button presses on your remote. It's easy to accidentally select the wrong option. Some bizarre Parisian accordion music that has absolutely nothing to do with this movie plays over the menu for no discernable reason.
Lionsgate is often erratic in the quality of their Blu-ray releases. Fortunately, they did a bang-up job with this one. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio) is bright and vivid, with striking colors and a strong representation of fine object detail. Like most of Oliver Stone's movies, the photography for 'W.' is quite contrasty. The Blu-ray picture has inky blacks and good shadow detail. A mild texture of film grain is accurately preserved without excessive filtering. I spotted no distracting edge enhancement or digital compression artifacts.
The movie has a fair number of scenes that were designed to look like low-res video, where the actors have been inserted into historical news footage. Obviously, those look pretty bad on purpose. Aside from that, the Blu-ray has a satisfying film-like appearance.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack is a low-key affair. The movie is mostly dialogue, which is clearly and cleanly delivered. Surround activity tends to be subtle. There aren't any slam-bang action scenes. The music has a warm, pleasing fidelity.
To be honest, the audio didn't stand out enough for me to write many notes about it while I was watching the movie. At the same time, I have no complaints and my overall impression is very favorable.
If you felt that Oliver Stone held back from saying what he really thinks about George W. Bush in the movie, he saved up some of that material for the "Dangerous Dynasty" featurette in the supplement package.
Even after watching it, I'm not quite sure what to make of 'W.' Oliver Stone takes on George W. Bush head-on, and pulls his punches. The film is an unexpectedly sympathetic portrait of the 43rd President of the United States, but what really is the point of it? I haven't figured that out, but it was interesting to watch.
Lionsgate's Blu-ray has excellent picture and sound, and a handful of decent supplements. The movie won't be everyone's cup of tea, but those interested will find it worth a look.