Oliver Stone's W. may be less frenzied than his typical sensory bombardment. But in revisiting the early '00s by way of the late '60s, this psycho-historical portrait of George W. Bush has all the queasy appeal of a strychnine-laced acid flashback.
Hideous re-creations of the shock-and-awful recent past merge with extravagant lowlights from the formative years and early career of America's most disastrous president (crudely played by Josh Brolin, often in tight close-up). Familiar faces seem to deliquesce before our eyes. It's unavoidably trippy, but does anyone, other than the perpetrators, really need to relive this particular purple haze?
W., which is as much edited as it is directed, working from a script by Stone buddy Stanley Weiser, has a patchwork chronology that takes as its central pattern the run-up to the Iraq War and ensuing search for the missing weapons of mass destruction while pushing two theses regarding the nature of its eponymous antihero.
The more heavy-handed of these dramatizes Dubya's tormented relationship, alternately worshipful and rebellious, with his disapproving father (James Cromwell). "What do you think you are — a Kennedy?" Poppy thunders when confronted with his wastrel son's latest drunken indiscretion. "You're a Bush!" It's the Oedipal saga that Maureen Dowd, for one, began recounting during the 2000 election and reached its climax when the son corrected his father's error by deposing Saddam Hussein.
In this scenario, the younger Bush became president to take revenge on the elder. Stone has Dubya watching the 1992 election returns with his family. As defeated Poppy chokes back tears, Dubya trumps even the bilious, class-fueled anti-Clinton rage expressed by mother Barbara (Ellen Burstyn) in ranting about H.W.'s failure to go all the way to Baghdad. This W. is the saga of a tormented, father-obsessed asshole who manages to play out his family drama on a world-historical stage.
The second thesis — implicit in Kevin Phillips' chronicle of the Bush family's ascent, American Dynasty, and developed elsewhere — credits Dubya with a powerful insight into American politics. Having checked his alcoholism with a regimen of fundamentalist Bible study and consequently served as Poppy's liaison to the Christian right, the younger Bush assimilated Christian values rhetoric and successfully organized an evangelical base that would enable him to pulverize John McCain in the 2000 primaries and win reelection in 2004.
Although W. dramatizes neither of these campaigns — generally eschewing the public Bush in favor of his assumed backstage persona — Stone and Weiser go so far as to cast their antihero as the real Lee Atwater, suggesting that it was his canny appreciation for dirty tricks that got Poppy elected in 1988, years before self-identified "fairy" Karl Rove taught him his political catechism. But undermining his own theory, Stone presents Dubya as an idiot savant who believes his own bullshit, warning Poppy that too much thinking screws up the mind and bragging that he's decided to run for president because God told him to.
Although personality regularly trumps political process in the world of Oliver Stone, W. works the same territory as David Hare's play Stuff Happens. Bush's enablers , each given a presidential nickname to wear like a baseball cap — Dick "Vice" Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss, having evident fun), Donald "Rummy" Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Condi "Girl" Rice (Thandie Newton, looking as though she's going to gag), and Karl "Boy Genius" Rove (Toby Jones) — confound the cautious and rational Colin "Colin" Powell (Jeffrey Wright) to lead the republic toward disaster.
Not fair (not a problem) and definitely not balanced: The least-nuanced performance in a film full of cartoon characterizations is Brolin's Bush. A simian slob, modeled on Andy Griffith's raucous run-amok in A Face in the Crowd and given to bad-tempered pronouncements while stuffing his face, Brolin uses stupidity as a crucifix. He wards off sympathy as though it were a vampire.
W. can't decide whether its aspirations are Shakespearean tragedy, political critique, or cathartic black comedy. The emotionally reductive Stone really only had a shot at the latter. At its best, W. suggests Stuff Happens reconfigured for the cast of Saturday Night Live. Running through Bush's greatest bits — choking on a potato chip, confusing Guantánamo with Guantanamera, calling himself "the decider," complaining that he's always been misunderestimated by Saddam Hussein — W. begs the question posed by its two theses. Like, how did this stunted creature, who considers his greatest mistake to have been trading Sammy Sosa from the Texas Rangers — become our king?
Many more people will see W.'s choice moments as de facto campaign ads on TV or YouTube than will ever sit through the movie. W. may be opening at a good time, but it doesn't exactly promise one. Stone omits the stolen 2000 election, stops short of the 2004 campaign, and spares us the second term, but this is still a painful movie to endure. I blame history more than Stone — it's a shame that when the filmmaker contemplated the nature of imperial hubris four years ago, the gods decreed he should unleash Alexander rather than this. Back then, W. might actually have made a difference.