Oliver Stone's 'W.': Taking Aim At A Lame Duck With elections just days away, the director of Nixon and JFK returns with a fantasia on the life of George W. Bush. As the first-ever film about a sitting president, it's certainly a curiosity; but is it much more?
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Oliver Stone's 'W.': Taking Aim At A Lame Duck

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Oliver Stone's 'W.': Taking Aim At A Lame Duck



Oliver Stone's 'W.': Taking Aim At A Lame Duck

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And finally this hour, "W." the movie. The director who courted controversy with the films, "JFK" and "Nixon," has now fixed his viewfinder on the outgoing president. In "W." Oliver Stone offers a fictionalized portrait of President Bush. Bob Mondello has this review.

BOB MONDELLO: If you've seen the trailers for "W." with George Bush Senior chastising his rowdy, frat-boy son for conduct unbecoming, you might be expecting a take-no-prisoners comedy.

(Soundbite of movie "W.")

Mr. JAMES CROMWELL: (As George Herbert Walker Bush) Party? Chasing tail? Driving drunk? Who do you think you are, a Kennedy? You're a Bush, act like one.

MONDELLO: That's a nice line worthy of a "Saturday Night Live" sketch, but it's not really in keeping with the rest of a surprisingly, unsurprising film. Oliver Stone isn't being evenhanded exactly, but if you know a little something about George W.'s back story, about the baseball team he once owned, the state he once governed, the schools he once didn't apply himself at, and the religion he found on his way to sobriety, Stone's not really telling you much you don't already know.

There are details that surprise. Josh Brolin's charming, but boorish "Dubya" does a lot of talking with food in his mouth, for instance. Even cleaning his teeth, while telling Karl Rove what he'll say to reporters when running for governor of Texas.

(Soundbite of movie "W.")

Mr. JOSH BROLIN: (As George W. Bush) Deep down inside, you know I'm a guy like you. A guy you can trust.

Mr. TOBY JONES: (As Karl Rove) Fabulous. Fabulous, Doug. What it all comes down to is who Joe Voter wants to sit down and have a beer with.

Mr. JOSH BROLIN: (As George W. Bush) Just remember to make mine non-alcoholic.

Mr. JONES: (As Karl Rove) So, anything about the issues, you come to me first. I'll tell you what to say.

Mr. BROLIN: (As George W. Bush) Oh, you're not going to tell me what to say, Karl. I'm going to tell you what I want, because you're the word man. This campaign starts and ends with me, and what I think.

Mr. JONES: (As Karl Rove) You got it, W. I've just a little theory, putting down a little magic dust for you.

MONDELLO: Could he have leaned any harder on the ferry in that sentence? Broadness here serves as a kind of shorthand with subordinate characters. Condoleezza Rice is a cartoon, Barbara Bush a hairstyle, and when actors manage to go deeper, they're still dealing largely in caricature. Richard Dreyfuss having a high, old time making Dick Cheney a flat-out Machiavel, for instance, especially when dealing with subordinates.

(Soundbite of movie "W.")

Mr. RICHARD DREYFUSS: (As Dick Cheney) Now, my office sent to you spy-satellite photos that showed that WMDs could be hidden in caves.

Mr. JOSH BROLIN: (As George W. Bush) We analyzed those photos, Mr. Vice President, and they are actually trenches, watering holes for cattle, not caves.

Mr. DREYFUSS: (As Dick Cheney) That's not what my people told me.

Mr. JOSH BROLIN: (As George W. Bush) Vice, you grew up in Wyoming. Because you damn well know cattle. I mean, there you go. You fool me once. Shame on you. Now, fool me twice, and you can't get fooled again.

MONDELLO: That often-mocked line, you'll note, has been repurposed from the public setting that got it on YouTube, to a behind-closed door setting in the movie. But Oliver Stone is no more interested in historical accuracy here, than he was in "Alexander", when he had Angelina Jolie's Greek empress wearing live snakes.

As with that epic portrait of a powerful leader whose insecurities loomed large, Stone sees W. as a man compromised by parental expectations, a son who ran for the presidency to prove something to his father, who took his country to war to avenge his father, and who continues after all of that, to look for fatherly affirmation. It's a perfectly reasonable premise for a character portrait, even of a president. Something similar worked for a king in "Oedipus Rex," after all.

And as Oliver Stone fills the Oval Office with the equivalent of bickering noblemen and court jesters, and has his troubled prince visited by a ghostly apparition of his father in a dream sequence, he makes a case for the approach. It might work better if we had more distance. If say, the film were about President John Adams and his presidential son, John Quincy Adams.

You could even call the movie "Q." But we're awfully close to the real events in "W.," still seeing these people and the results of their decisions on the nightly news. So the director's concentration on personality flaws feel feels off point, insufficient, almost frivolous, especially when he gets around to depicting the war, and uses shots of real carnage in Iraq.

Could a wounded ego, you wonder, really be the explanation for so much savagery? And if so, is the right response a movie as breezy as "W." I'm Bob Mondello.

NORRIS: You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.

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