Just don’t think about it so much. Screws you up.
— George W. Bush (Josh Brolin)
When Thandie Newton first appears in W., her wig flipped and her cadence taut, she’s briefly unnerving. Seated in a facsimile of the Oval Office, surrounded by less convincing but no less appalling facsimiles of other Bush Administration VIPs, she underscores the movie’s essential, unremarkable insight — namely, George W. (Josh Brolin) is a readymade caricature.
In this, he is as much a reflection of his moment as he is an occasion for Oliver Stone’s latest stab at revisionist history. Just so, Bush sits behind his Oval Office desk, he and his inner circle toss around pithy phrases for the upcoming 2002 State of the Union speech. Buoyed by his post-9/11 public approval rating (82%), Bush is looking for a course-changing zinger, something along the lines of Reagan’s “evil empire.” Condi peruses her notepad, Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris) nods, and the team agrees, “The people want revenge.” As the group debates the phrase “axis of evils,” Bush confuses Iraq and Iran, but notes also that it hardly matters. All those “ayatollah cockamamies,” he sputters, they’re all the same.
It’s a cartoonish early moment in Oliver Stone’s much anticipated movie, and sets in motion the easy-targeting that follows. If you haven’t seen enough Bushisms on Letterman lately, W piles on. Brolin embodies a mostly amiable version of Bush, tormented by tediously imagined competitions with brother Jeb (Jason Ritter) and Poppy (James Cromwell), willfully ignorant of consequences, a born-again recovering alcoholic who loves his dog Barney and vaguely appreciates Laura’s (Elizabeth Banks) seemingly infinite patience. A collection of familiar intonations and famous phrases (“I’m the decider”), he’s simultaneously entertaining and pathetic, so winking-and-nodding that the monstrosity of the real world incarnation is thrown into high relief.
This might also be said of the film’s other players: if Richard Dreyfuss’ Dick Cheney is predictably odious, Toby Jones’ Rove is actually less frightening than the one now appearing on Fox News, while Rob Corddry walks through the frame a couple of times making Ari-Fleischer-like faces. The film slides into flashbacks (to Yale fraternity hijinks or bars in Texas) and a recurring fantasy (Bush appears in an empty Texas Rangers Ballpark, trying to catch a ball he can’t see), in order to suggest not only the sinuous ins and outs of the president’s mind, but also to provide something like a biography: how did he get here, after all?
The film’s overlaying of history onto myth is sometimes cute, at others too obvious. The effectiveness of each crystallized moment has less to do with the historical event (the decision to sign off on off on a memo presented by Cheney that expands executive powers, for instance), than with the Stoneian style: the camera peers up at Bush’s face, too close and wide, the soundtrack offers up the Robin Hood TV show theme song, and Bush’s first encounter with the dazzling librarian Laura is marked by a close of his chomping mouth, full of beer and potato chips (her attraction to him remains profoundly unclear). Some scenes recount rumors that are probably true (his father expresses impatience that W has “knocked up” an unnamed girl), others rehearse well-worn campaign stories, as when Bush ponders the “weight” he feels, as impetus to give up drinking and be born again. Fundamentalist preacher Earle Hudd (Stacy Keach) instructs, “The Christian life is not a constant high.” George laments, “All that people say is I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. They don’t know the burden!”
The film sometimes feels like better Stone movies in slow motion, the gags telegraphed and broad. (W.‘s omission of 9/11 makes it seem a perverse companion piece to World Trade Center, with the ethos turned inside out, now proudly cynical and pissed off.) The smartest joke is embodied by Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), whose resistance to the Vulcans — who declare repeatedly their desire to finish the job Poppy didn’t, to “drain the swamp” — is increasingly pained. During a key meeting, he appears on a video screen, his face looming over the table like a conscience, warning that they are entering into a “forever war,” while Cheney waxes poetic about the “real empire” they can achieve through possession of Middle Eastern oil fields.
Powell seems at least nominally heroic in this context (even if he is receding into history as he speaks). Rice serves as the clanging flipside. Doting on Bush, yessing his every utterance, she’s the caricature that isn’t. Creepily pitch-perfect, this brutally fake Rice helps to clarify the brutal, tragic fakeness of the real administration.