Movie News & Reviews

'W.' shows a president longing for approval

Philosophers speculated after World War II what would have happened to our planet had Adolf Hitler been a more successful painter. If he had been satisfied smearing daubs on a canvas, would a different chancellor of Germany have felt the need to smear blood across Europe?

It may also be common after George W. Bush leaves office -- especially in the wake of Oliver Stone's movie "W." -- to wonder what America would be like today if he'd been a more talented baseball player.

"W." suggests that Bush was the lifelong equivalent of a little boy consigned to right field because batters are less likely to hit in his direction: He's anxious to prove his worth, insisting he should make the starting nine, but sadly unable to hang onto many fly balls smacked his way. Bush did play in high school, co-owned the Texas Rangers and hoped to be commissioner of Major League Baseball, so this analogy seems apt.

You'll be disappointed if you expect famed leftist Oliver Stone to apply a coup de grace to this man, who's about to leave office after the greatest decline in approval ratings in the history of the modern presidency. Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (who paired with the director on the 1987 "Wall Street") are more interested in examining the conditions that put Bush where he is now and made him the political animal he is.

The movie doesn't pretend to be a biography of the man -- the earliest scene is in college -- or an examination of his legacy, except for his response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and his decision to invade Iraq. There's no mention of domestic policies, environmental legacies or the scandals of his tenure, such as the public shaming of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Stone and Weiser draw a straight narrative line from the time he's bailed out of jail by his dad, then a Texas congressman, to the "what now" look on his face when he finally realizes Iraq never had weapons of mass destruction. He has at last begun to understand he sent troops there because of faulty intelligence, bad advice from his cabinet, a desire to finish the work his daddy began in Desert Storm, Dick Cheney's dream of empire-building, the need to control vast supplies of oil or maybe just the stubbornness that characterized 40 years of W's behavior after college.

He can't listen to his parents (James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn), by whom he always feels judged and has been found wanting. He's too jealous to listen to younger brother Jeb (who's virtually invisible here). Wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks), a shy and eternally uncritical spouse, is no help.

So he surrounds himself with conscience-free connivers such as Karl Rove (Toby Jones) or sycophantic advisers smarter than he, who run his administration like medieval dukes handling the affairs of a well-meaning, ineffectual monarch. When one of them politely opposes him -- that would be Gen. Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) -- Bush feels hurt and betrayed.

Josh Brolin ("No Country for Old Men") has played pig-headed types for most of his career, but he imbues W with a desire to please anyone he respects. That makes this character pitiable, like a dwarf who dons a giant's robes and can never grow into them.

The supporting cast acts well and/or gives killer impersonations. Thandie Newton's intellectually constipated Condie Rice, Wright's patiently honest Colin Powell and Scott Glenn's cheerfully cold Donald Rumsfeld stand out, while Richard Dreyfuss' gleefully scuzzy Cheney, frighteningly believable, is a dead ringer visually.

Stacy Keach has a strong cameo as fictional evangelist Earle Hudd, who helps Bush recover from alcoholism and gives him the best advice anyone could get: Try to love both your friends and your enemies, and treat everyone you know as though they're going to die at midnight and you need to get right with them right away. Poor W can't hang onto that, either.