Oliver Stone is a director who, ever since his controversial 1999 hit JFK, has always proved something of a catalyst for polarisation amongst critics and public alike. It is as someone familiar with the helmer’s work but not overly opinionated regarding it, then, that I say that W. is Stone’s best film in thirteen years.
Indeed, 1995 marked the release of the director’s Nixon, a film which draws numerous parallels with W., both depicting an unpopular Commander-in-Chief plagued by personal demons. In W., these demons are personified in the conflict between George HW Bush (the ever-delightful James Cromwell) and Dubya himself (Josh Brolin). This essentially provides the backbone of the film’s first and second acts, dealing with Jr. fighting alcoholism, finding God and searching for his calling in life, all whilst a distant Cromwell watches on disapprovingly. This makes for fascinating viewing, providing a sympathetic insight into the mindset of a widely-hated figure perpetuated by some excellent chemistry between the two leads.
However, as fascinating as the struggle between father and son is it has contributed to Stone overlooking a few key details. George W. Bush’s highly controversial election victory in 2000 over Al Gore, for example – quite why Stone chose to omit the closest election in American presidential history is beyond this reviewer. Likewise, 9/11, is only fleetingly referenced. Surely the sight of Brolin reading from The Pet Goat would make for truly iconic viewing?
Stone has, nonetheless, succeeded in assembling a wonderfully adept ensemble cast. Richard Dreyfuss’ Machiavellian depiction of Dick Cheney, for one, is a fantastically believable and equally frightening performance. Jeffrey Wright, too, plays his Colin Powell with some nicely understated gravitas, particularly in the scene in which he sells his soul to the Bush administration. However, whilst these actors succeed in embodying their characters rather than simply impersonating them, Thandie Newton’s Condoleezza Rice, though eerily accurate, veers too closely towards Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, and is given little else to do than act as a comic yes-woman to Brolin’s Bush.
However, it is Brolin himself who really holds the film together. Capturing not only the gait and walk but also the misguided idealism of the forty-third President, Stone ensures that, drawing further parallels with Nixon, his subject matter is never simply demonised, merely presented as a flawed human being who did what they thought was right in the circumstances. It is, quite simply, an outstanding and extremely natural performance.
No matter your views on the subject matter or the director, be assured that W. is an endlessly fascinating and ever-entertaining insight into the turbulent world of high politics.