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Oliver Stone's Latest Film 'W.' Portrays Bush Administration-While He's Still at the Helm

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The opening of Oliver Stone's "W." plays like a shameless parody of the Bush cabinet circa 2003. Gathered around the Oval Office are the familiar characters of this all-too-real burlesque: The President (Josh Brolin) drawls and struggles with his English. Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) lurks in the corner. Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton) stares into space and occasionally nods. Karl Rove (Toby Jones) is just generally creepy. The group brainstorms, with perfect comedic deadpan, a name to bestow upon anti-U.S. terrorist-harboring nations. They arrive at "axis of evil."

The hilarity of the opening scene belies its grave historical implications-a balance "W." rarely strikes to satisfaction. Rice, for example, is played with an almost embarrassing shallowness, which quickly defeats any comedic value her portrayal might have had. While the same can be said about the depictions of most Bush cronies-which amount to caricatures instead of characters-"Dubya" himself is another matter. Brolin's performance is serious and believable throughout the film, tracing the life of "43" circuitously from his days at Yale to the post-"Mission Accomplished" White House.

Scrutinized by constant close-ups, Brolin plays the Bush the public knows. He calls his speech writers "word boys" and adds an inexplicable "y" to the end of everyone's name. But he's also "Junior," a tortured young man with a penchant for trouble and a serious daddy complex. In one brilliant scene, he casually lights a cigarette and makes his "one call" from the jailhouse phone, asking Poppy Bush to bail him out-all while sporting a blood-covered Yale sweater. Brolin's conversion from this aimless delinquent into a born-again Christian and leader of the free world is predictable, but it's a journey full of endearing moments. Helping him along the way are earnest portrayals of Bush Sr. (James Cromwell) and Laura (Elizabeth Banks), whose scenes with W. render him at times a genuinely sympathetic character. Brolin's portrayal of pre-president Bush is especially nuanced, but as President he sometimes falls victim to the frivolity of his fellow actors.

The problem with presidency-era Bush is generally the writing, not Brolin. Too often, the screenplay settles for cheap laughs with references to oft-satirized Bushisms, like his botching of the "fool me once, fool me twice" adage or his infamous question, "Is our children learning?" The best scenes of "W." depict events with which we aren't familiar, ones that-in the mode of classic Oliver Stone-probably never even happened. A casual lunchtime conversation between Bush and Cheney (simply "Vice" to Bush, who nicknames everyone) gives the audience a unique perspective on the infamous power couple, albeit one of dubious accuracy. Exchanges like these are regrettably outnumbered by the film's many "situation room" scenes, each of which plays out like the opener and focuses too much on all actors not named Brolin.

"W." falters, especially toward the end, because the people behind it failed to decide what kind of film it is. If meant as a satire, then someone forgot to tell Josh Brolin. If a tragedy, then why frustrate the audience with a non-chronological narrative? And why rob the tragic hero of his finest moment by omitting 9/11? Despite these mystifying questions, "W." is worth seeing-and not because it makes any significant political points. Brolin, who reportedly turned down more lucrative roles, admirably tackles what has to be the most challenging performance in recent memory-granting a multi-faceted personality to a man reviled as a bumbling idiot. This notion is unfair, and certain moments of the film are aimed directly at dispelling it. Without any doubt, they often succeed.

Tell Nick your favorite Bushism at [email protected]

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