W.

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W.
Like watching an Alison Jackson photo brought to life by a team of ‘Dynasty’ producer Aaron Spelling and ‘The Queen’ writer Peter Morgan , Oliver Stone’s leaving-present for George W Bush is a ramshackle affair that borders on opportunist trash. But there’s something grimly compelling about this maudlin, sporadically funny, dynastic tale of a rich boy made bad that makes up for what Stone’s third and most moderate film about a US president lacks in journalistic rigour, dramatic invention and theoretical novelty. The biggest surprise of all is that Stone’s film isn’t half as wild or as damning as one might expect from the director of ‘JFK’ and ‘Nixon’.

What entertains most is the soapy, greatest-hits approach to Bush’s back-story, alongside committed performances (especially from Josh Brolin as Bush), and an atmosphere of end-of-term ribbing, not least when Bush and his ministers get lost in the heat of his ranch while discussing ‘shock and awe’. That the cast mostly play characters older than themselves – Thandie Newton is 35, while Condoleeza Rice is 53 – only adds to the air of school revue. There are laughs and there are moments that nail the forty-third president (such as the reconstruction of a disastrous press conference which Bush follows by retiring to eat pretzels, watch baseball and swallow non-alcoholic beer); but mostly the film falls between the two, never working fully as comedy and never entirely hitting the bullseye as critical biography. The key pressure points are familiar (booze, professional failures, paternal pressures, God); and the absences suggest restraint (the allegations of drug use, the National Guards service, the 2000 election).

What rescues ‘W.’ from being an extended episode of ‘Dallas’ is Stone’s decision to limit scenes of Bush’s presidency to the invasion of Iraq. We see scenes that compress and present the discussions and pressures that led to war: there’s the neo-con influence of Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), the militarism of Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) and the reluctant acquiescence of Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright). For audiences with short memories, it’s sobering stuff.

Where does that leave Bush? With God and his father. The pop-Oedipal psychology that stresses the importance of a feud with Bush Sr (James Cromwell) and rivalry with his brother is given too much weight; it makes excuses for him. But the Jesus factor is handled more gently. ‘W.’ is neither coruscating nor edifying – but without the benefit of hindsight, it’s probably the best we can hope for.

By: Dave Calhoun

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Cast and crew

Director: Oliver Stone
Screenwriter: Stanley Weiser
Cast: Josh Brolin
Elizabeth Banks
Richard Dreyfuss
Thandie Newton
James Cromwell
Jeffrey Wright
Scott Glenn
Toby Jones
Ioan Gruffudd
Ellen Burstyn
Teresa Cheung
Rob Corddry
Stacy Keach
Jason Ritter
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