“W.” – As in Woe is Us – 3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Whew and omigosh. Or, as my great, great grandfather was probably prone to say, “Oy, yoy, yoy.” Either will do as you exit from the theater after seeing director Oliver Stone’s adaptation of writer Stanley Weiser’s “W.,” about the life and Presidency of George W. Bush. If only half of the film is true it’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out.

Indeed, as the tale of how a drunk became the most powerful man in the world unravels to the backdrop of the recent history he has impacted, we stare mouths agape. And we ponder the wisdom of the fellow who first said truth is stranger than fiction. It would take Shakespeare to write a better tragedy.

Which it essentially is, in the classical sense, no less than Clinton’s compromised tenure in the Oval Office was a comedy. Bush becomes undone as a result of his hubris. Whereas Clinton, perhaps the brightest President since Wilson, the Roosevelts and Kennedy, couldn’t keep his libido in check.

This latest blot on the national landscape, provocatively filmed by Mr. Stone in his trademark style, informs of the grave insult powerful people issue when they forget the honorable task with which they’ve been entrusted. In the case of Bush, it’s the proverbial tale of the little boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

We all know one…the poor privileged kid who can’t get Pop’s approval no way, nohow. Now, that scenario is bad enough if Dad owns a diner and Junior is hassling the waitresses. But to drag out the family laundry and play out this pathetic Freudian drama at our expense, live from the White House for eight years, well, that’s just a darn shame.

Funny, we got rid of kings precisely for this reason…to never again be subject to the whims of a landed gentry. Yet, after seeing the error of his drunken ways, becoming born again and winning the governorship of Texas, George W. Bush declares his bizarre version of divine right. No less entity than G-d himself says he should be the President.

Of course, the umbrage we take is predicated on whether or not this crazy story is really true. The film makes no disclaimer. Viewing it, we whisper, “Say it ain’t so, Dubya.” Yet no official word comes from the administration. No libel is charged. Mr. Stone contends that Weiser’s work is culled from non-fiction works in the public domain. Yipes!

It’s as if we are watching a holdup in broad daylight and the cops are holding the doors for the crooks. Which brings us to Bush’s cabinet. What a crew. Submitting to the will of their master, a chemistry of rationalization weaves a tangled web of ineptitude, the original purpose of their forlorn policy all but forgotten.

Josh Brolin heads the cast of historic blunderers. The likeness is at times eerie, his performance an uncanny blend of mimic and thespic ability. Great makeup ages him from frat brat to furrowed-brow cynic as Stone goes up and down through the chronology, sadly proving once again that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

James Cromwell, who has now played a U.S. President four times, is explanatorily icy as George H.W. Bush; Ellen Burstyn is funny as Barbara Bush, especially her incredulity when W. says he’s running for governor; Toby Jones is appropriately icky as Karl Rove, and Thandie Newton is a dead-ringer as an equivocating Condoleezza Rice.

Other fine performances include Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney; Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld and Jeffrey Wright as General Colin Powell, the latter largely seen as a moderating influence and the only inner circle member shown to dissent. You can cut the discomfiting, survival instinct tension at cabinet meetings with a knife.

Laughs of disbelief mix with despair. Intelligent grownups don’t behave this way, especially those who come to sit in the same office occupied by Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. Surely this is all a bad dream. We’ll wake up to find a philosopher-statesman as President.

No such luck. But there’s something equally worrisome at work here. It’s said that in a Democracy people get the government they pretty much deserve. It’s also been opined that the President reflects his times. True, a pall hangs over both the 2000 and 2004 Bush wins. But at least half of America did vote for him.

Pity is, many conservatives who suspect the film is merely a Bush bashing won’t see it. Likewise, some liberals will say they don’t need their disdain reinforced. Well, that’s like the guy who says he doesn’t vote because his ballot doesn’t count. Poppycock!

Granted, we can’t erase Bush’s presidencies. But if learning some of the ABCs of politics by seeing “W.” starts a dialogue that makes us a better informed electorate, who knows? Maybe we can even cast a better reflection of ourselves come election time.

“W.,” rated PG-13, is a Lionsgate release directed by Oliver Stone and stars Josh Brolin, James Cromwell and Elizabeth Banks. Running time: 131 minutes

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