Oliver Stone’s “W.” is like our 43rd president’s greatest hits. Here he is chug-a-lugging at Yale and here he is finding Jesus and here he is failing at oil rigs, and oil drilling, and running for Congress. Here he is choking on a pretzel.
Stone intercuts these familiar incidents with the familiar arguments, dramatized over presidential lunches and Oval Office meetings and cabinet meetings, that led us into Iraq. It’s straightforward storytelling — particularly for Stone. Hell, it’s almost breezy. The two hours go by like that, and Josh Brolin, in the lead, is amazing. He gives us a complex portrait of a very simple man.
It’s a father-son film. “You disappoint me, Junior,” Herbert Walker tells him early on. “Deeply disappoint me.” He tells him, “You only get one bite at the apple,” but W. keeps biting and missing. He drinks, carouses, goes after girls. He can’t find himself. Even after he finds Laura, and Jesus, and helps his father get elected the 41st president of the United States, he’s disappointed. Greatness escapes him. Hell, mediocrity escapes him. You go in wondering if Stone’s portrait of W. will be different from our own image of W. and it isn’t. What you see is what you get. Yes, he’s that thick, that muddled, and yet that certain. The film implies that certain Machiavellian types (Rove, Cheney) manipulate W. into going where he already wants to go (into politics, into Iraq), and it feels true, but it’s not like we’re learning anything here. I learned, or re-learned (did I ever know it?) that W. speaks Spanish but that’s the only time I remember being surprised by the title character.
Since so much of the story is familiar, since, like the subject, there’s not much there there, we might have to wait years before we figure out if the movie is any good. It really is too close to us to gauge. It’s a tragedy, certainly, and the tragedy is that in trying to win his father’s love, or outdo what his father did, or make up for his father’s great loss, W. — yes, aided and abetted by a motley crew — put us on a calamitous national and international path... and yet still can’t think of one thing he did wrong. That lack of introspection is his tragedy. The rest is ours.
October 15, 2008
© 2009 Erik Lundegaard