Betraying my bias, the very idea of sitting through Oliver Stone weighing in on a recent affront to the sanctity of the American ideals leaves me preemptively exhausted. Stone has two Academy Awards for directing — one more than Martin Scorsese, for those scoring along at home — for delivering precisely those cinematic judgments. I wasn’t immune to Stone’s political outrage back in the day, but he’s swerved a little close to over-agitated crackpot in the intervening years. This review represents the the most recent time I felt compelled (or at least obligated) to see a new Stone film in the theater.
Oliver Stone has long been a bombastic filmmaker, but I’m not sure when he got so damned clumsy. When Stone followed-up the pointless U-Turn with the scrambled sports mosaic Any Given Sunday, the two-time Oscar winner (seems unimaginable now, doesn’t it?) got moved decisively into my “Optional” column. Maybe an uncertainty started appearing since then. During that span of films, I’ve only watched portions of Alexander, fast-forwarding to scenes involving either Angelina Jolie or Val Kilmer because I have a weakness for watching proudly nutjob actors given free rein. The Stone I remember may have had tendencies towards the overblown or the pretentious, but it was matched with a firebrand precision. If I hated the overediting of Any Given Sunday, I never doubted that every chopped-up frame was chopped up in exactly the way Stone desired. He cut like a focused, skilled jeweler. He was just starting to create unsightly gems.
His new film, W., betrays no such sense of control. The screenplay by Stone’s old Wall Street collaborator Stanley Weiser is an assemblage of the many lows in the life of George W. Bush. It’s a warped “greatest hits” in search of a through line, whether it be a compelling narrative or simply a reason for being. This is where a strong director comes in and shapes material into a movie. Stone is disinterested in or incapable of doing so, opting for the script’s bland recreation of fairly well-known events. He points, shoots and seemingly expects the cohesion to come from elsewhere. Some moments undeniably work, such as the tense situation room conversations as the prospect of war is weighed among Bush and his advisers. Here the writing and performances work together admirably to provide a sense of the character of every person in the room, the inner working of their respective minds revealed by their approach to the question on the table. Jeffrey Wright is especially good as Colin Powell, subtly conveying the weight he feels as the only person in the room approaching the situation as something more than a theoretical exercise. The thoughtful gravity of this sequence is the rarity. More common are scenes like Bush nearly choking on a pretzel while watching football alone in the White House. It contributes nothing to the film beyond providing a moment of recognition to those who read about the original incident in the newspaper.
Stone doesn’t even find a consistent approach with his actors. Richard Dreyfuss doesn’t bother with imitating Dick Cheney, instead amusingly pitching his performance as an exercise in cranky, self-satisfied villainy. Meanwhile, an admittedly unrecognizable Thandie Newton is all impersonation as Condoleezza Rice, piling on the vocal tics and physical twists until there’s barely anything identifiably human there. Josh Brolin, thankfully, lands in between the two extremes in the title role. His mimicry of the President is spot-on, but there are clear attempts on his part to find a character behind the malapropisms.
Stone’s film has been lambasted from multiple quarters. It’s too sympathetic to Bush or unfairly reduces him to an insipid caricature, depending on the predisposition of the pundit engaging in the evaluation (often without having seen the film, of course). The problems with W. aren’t political, they’re dramaturgical. The entire film feels slapdash: Too familiar to be insightful journalistic interpretation and too superficial to explore the psychological underpinnings of those that have callously shaped the world in recent years. While it may be the ultimate cruelty to say so, Oliver Stone’s W. is as intellectually incurious as the miserable presidency it depicts.