Watching "W.", you get a sense of the scrupulous care and respect with which director Oliver Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser approached their movie about the troubled presidency of George W. Bush.
This is, for Stone, an unusually restrained and well-behaved film, one that is going to confound viewers expecting a free-for-all demonization of the 43rd president of the United States.
What you don't get while watching "W." is a convincing argument that the movie needed to be made.
Principal photography on the project began in May and Stone rushed through post-production to deliver the picture before the upcoming election. But the finished film leaves you wondering what, exactly, the big hurry was. There's nothing in "W." anyone who buys a ticket to see it won't already know about its focus: The Bush administration's decision to use the supposed existence of weapons of mass destruction as justification to invade Iraq in 2003.
And there is little new to be gained from the film's flashbacks to various formative points in Bush's life: His carousing-fratboy days, his initial failed foray into politics, his struggles with alcohol and his conversion into Evangelical Christianity.
There's no discernible chronology or design to the incidents in Bush's life that "W." chooses to depict — we get the pretzel choking, for example, but not the inauguration — and the scattershot nature of the script robs the story of momentum. The narrative doesn't build on itself, which is why the movie feels a bit dull and dry.
The most surprising thing in "W." is the compassion Stone brings to his protagonist. Portrayed by Josh Brolin with a hugely charismatic swagger that masks a deep insecurity, Bush comes off as a black-sheep son desperate to earn the love of his demanding father (James Cromwell). "You disappoint me, junior — deeply disappoint me," the elder Bush says early in the film, and "W." argues practically everything Bush does is an attempt to make his Poppy proud.
It's a simplistic, perhaps reductive, reading of the man, but Stone has previously shown a weakness for Freudian father-son conflicts ("Wall Street," "Alexander") and "W.'s" relentless emphasis on that premise at least gives the otherwise sprawling, unfocused film something of a foundation.
Cromwell plays Bush Sr. as a humorless, charmless man — a marked contrast to his son — which makes it easy for the audience to sympathize with George W., no matter how badly he manages to screw things up.
That includes going through with an ill-planned invasion of Iraq, which "W." depicts as the result of the president having surrounded himself with a nest of snakes who manipulate him while playing to his ego.
As Vice President Dick Cheney, Richard Dreyfuss radiates pure evil, while Toby Jones renders Karl Rove as a cheerful elf — Santa's helper with an agenda. Jeffrey Wright gives Colin Powell the expected authority and gravitas (the most heartbreaking moment in the film may be when Powell surrenders to the mob and agrees to go along with the attack on Iraq).
More disappointing are Thandie Newton, who plays Condoleezza Rice essentially as a bobble-head doll, and a miscast Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld, who doesn’t get the flintiness right. Contributing greatly to the movie's humanization of Bush is Elizabeth Banks as the first lady, who falls in love with the president-to-be despite his tendency to chew with his mouth open, isn't fazed when Bush rams their car into a garage door and offers to buy him tickets to see Cats to cheer him up when he's down.
Ultimately, though, "W." rests on Brolin's shoulders, and although there are instances when he nails the president's mannerisms perfectly, his performance is more an interpretation than mimickry. Political leanings aside, Brolin makes you like Bush as a person, so when you laugh at his "Fool me once'' speech, for example, you're not so much mocking him as laughing along with him. It is a testament to how sympathetic Bush is portrayed in "W." that when there's a scene of him sitting on the toilet, it takes a minute to realize Stone is giving you a scene of the president sitting on the toilet.
Late in "W.," we get a hallucinatory dream sequence that hints at what the film might have been if Stone had gone at it full-throttle, but you couldn't really make that movie without a proper ending, which "W." doesn't yet have. Instead, "W." is passably interesting, occasionally riveting, and largely superfluous. But it's certainly a worthwhile curiosity, and it's not what anyone expected. At the movies these days, that alone is worth something.
Rene Rodriguez is the film critic for The Miami Herald. Read his blog.