Regardless of whether you think Oliver Stone’s film is intelligently timed, or that it has already missed the boat, the truth is that, to paraphrase one of Stone’s previous movie meditations, Richard M. Nixon, soon you won’t have George W. Bush to kick around anymore.
However, W.’s impending departure from the Oval Office is not the biggest stumbling block for Stone’s beguiling but ultimately disappointing biopic of the 43rd President of the United States. Perhaps it’s just too easy to hit this sitting duck of a target, a fact that withers and weakens the biting satire that many critics and supporters expected, and creates a reductive portrait of a man widely credited to be the worst president in the Union’s history.
The relative failure of W. remains hard to pin down though, as there is nothing wrong with the structure of the film – starting in the present, heading back to W.’s fratboy days, and then documenting the travails of his working and political life up to the recent past. There’s also little to complain about in terms of the leading players, Brolin is solid without falling into the trap of delivering mere caricature, Richard Dreyfuss, as Dick Cheney, is creeping evil personified and James Cromwell provides a suitably honest and imposing father figure as George Bush Snr.
For many critics (and equally audiences) it is Stone’s omissions that will be cited as undermining the film, and chief among these will be the easy ride he gives Bush’s well-documented drink and substance problems. Yes, W.’s self-destructive tendencies are a focus of the film but there is scant regard paid for how this affected the people around him or subsequently shaped his personality. Instead it all moves too neatly towards his religious redemption and rise to high office.
Considering the nature of Bush’s presidency, the wars, the economic mismanagement and the narrow margin of victory over John Kerry in 2004 – and the focus that brought to voter registration – it is disappointing that there is a gag about how the President’s favourite musical is Cats. It’s also rather saddening that this – plus a visual gag about Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al getting lost on a dirt track while debating policy – are the ones that stand out.
Maybe expectations for the film (and of Stone) were just too high and maybe it’s not possible to lampoon an incumbent of the White House any more pointedly than by a man who is defined by his own gaffes and malapropisms. W. is not as funny as you’d think, not as harsh as many would like, and is not the film that perhaps we all deserve.