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Great performances save Oliver Stone's uneven W.
Great performances save Oliver Stone's uneven W.
by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

W.
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I was hoping for slapstick and irreverent entertainment to cure my political ennui wrought by our absurdly lengthy presidential campaign. What I got was a portrait, a composite drawing based on actual quoted material and real circumstances strung together to present a larger truth in colorful cinematic terms. I was a bit disappointed, and halfway through I thought, "This isn't the movie I wanted." So I had to deal with the movie Oliver Stone made.

As it turns out, this isn't a terrible thing. Sprawling biopics that try to cover 40 years often falter as the narrative becomes overcrowded and disjointed. That's not a problem with W. Stone handles the great expanse of linear time with a deft hand. He moves between the distant and not-so-distant past, intercutting carefully selected scenes that tumble purposefully toward the climactic disarray of the post-invasion war room as Bush, himself, shouts the ineluctable question, "Who's in charge?"

W. does not intend to document W.'s life. The film intends to explore his motivations and humanize the man, the black sheep screw-up who inexplicably wound up as the leader of the free world. And the movie does remind us that W. is a son, a husband, a father, and, yes, a Christian. The movie also reminds us that he's a spoiled rich kid, an alcoholic, a failed businessman, and a swaggering idiot with an amazing lack of self-awareness.

Not to worry, the movie isn't turning me into a Bush fan anytime soon. However, by reminding us that W. is a human, the film only serves to make him more tragic and less detestable - okay, make that as detestable as ever and even more tragic. Yeah, that's about right.

Josh Brolin gives a superlative performance in the title role. His 2007 trifecta of No Country for Old Men, In the Valley of Elah, and American Gangster probably saved him from being known largely as the older brother in The Goonies. With this role, an Oscar nod should be in the works, too. It's always nice to see a good actor that has languished for years doing solid work in middling roles finally get a break. In Brolin's case, life really does begin at 40.

James Cromwell and Ellen Bursten are wonderful as George Sr. and Bar. Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush is great, even if she gets a little lost in the pool of solid performances based on real people more interesting than the real Laura Bush. It's good to see Stacy Keach doing great work as W.'s longtime spiritual advisor. He's been underrated for a long time.

The list goes on and on, with nice turns by Scott Glenn (a comically verbose Donald Rumsfeld), Toby Jones (a comically creepy Karl Rove), and Jeffrey Wright (a comically frustrated Colin Powell). Special note should be made of the short-but-sweet and pleasantly surprising effort by Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four) as Tony Blair.

The only performance that falls short is Thandie Newton's impersonation of Condi (no relation to me that I know of) Rice. It would have been better suited to a Saturday Night Live skit than a feature film. Sorry, Thandie, your take on Condi stands out for all the wrong reasons.

That brings us to the sublime performance by Richard Dreyfuss as VP Dick Cheney. Dreyfuss, along with Brolin, should be nominated by the Academy for his restrained, reptilian portrayal of the unrestrained, reptilian Cheney. Dreyfuss captures the essence of Cheney without turning him into an archetypal villain (which would make the character boring and predictable). This is all the more impressive given Cheney's large number of mannerisms and personality traits that are commonly associated with a reptilian villain (not to mention everything Halliburton).

In fact, Brolin and Dreyfuss are so good and I'm so certain they'll get Oscar nominations that if either of them fails to get a nod, I'll stand at the corner of Broadway and Pine in my boxer shorts holding a sign that says, "I LOVE GEORGE BUSH," for four hours. And, like any good politician, I promise I'll do it.

While it's not surprising that the teenage male magnet Max Payne finished first last week, it is surprising that W. got spanked by talking Chihuahuas and the odd couple combo of Queen Latifah and Dakota Fanning (Beverly Hills Chihuahua was No. 2 and The Secret Life of Bees was No. 3). So, what's up?

We can bitch about Fox News all we want. We can nod our heads as Keith Olbermann skews left in response to Rupert Murdoch's ratings juggernaut and the ever-shrinking ownership pool of mainstream media becomes more and more polarized. And we can throw up our hands as this media polarization pushes conservatives and liberals further and further apart.

We can bitch, but each of us has to bear a little responsibility because we (left and right) prefer our news (and our movies) streaked with bias. Fox News isn't struggling for viewers and neither is Olbermann. And this is the problem for Oliver Stone and his film. It's too balanced.

Lefties, like me, wanted the funny version that would illustrate Bush's buffoonery and help us forget for a couple of hours his pervasive failure through biting satire. Neocons might have turned out for a flag-waving cowboy-hero portrait with an ending illustrating just how successful (bullshit) the surge has been, but Stone actually made a fairly sympathetic film. I mean Bush is still an idiot and Stone does nothing to smart him up, so to speak, but Stone is also careful not to demonize. There's plenty of blame, after all, to go around. Still, neither end of the political spectrum got the Bush they perceive is real. And thus W. came in a sad fourth at the box office in its opening week.

We've grown accustomed to media choices that reinforce what we already believe instead of informing us. The result is a massive corporate media monster that disseminates little more than propaganda and whose future depends entirely on the bottom line. Where's Howard Beale when you need him (Google it up, kids)? I feel like leaning out my window and screaming, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" Like the frog left to boil slowly, this might be more dangerous than we collectively realize.

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