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At the Movies: The Lights Are On but Nobody Is at Home: W. **1/2

It’s hard to figure exactly what is so forgettable about Oliver Stone’s W. Is it that George W. Bush, our President, doesn’t make that complex a subject? Is it that the film didn’t cover any new territory? Did it play things too safe? Not safe enough? Whatever it was, W. left my head moments after I saw it, and I haven’t thought of it since.

Perhaps it’s the plight of being a liberal; we all have been screaming about the goings-on of Bush and Co. since he first stole the election back in 2000. Or maybe there’s simply no desire to have sympathy for a pig-headed leader who has gotten this country into such a pickle. We were expected to believe the same nonsense about Ronald Reagan, that he had good intentions, but didn’t do any of the heavy lifting.

Oliver Stone’s ideas of Bush, Nixon, and Kennedy seem fueled by his own personal agenda. He foists these demons on his main characters; he tells us that all Nixon ever wanted was to be loved, that all Bush ever wanted was approval from his father. Kennedy was the only good one because he was going to stop the war. Don’t get me wrong – Stone is a brilliant filmmaker and storyteller, but he also seems like someone in need of a big hug.

W. follows George Bush’s life trajectory, from Yale loser to cokehead to drunk driver to good ol’ boy, oil man, Governor of Texas, and then finally, President. Most liberals know that it wasn’t so much Bush – sure, he had the looks, swagger, and natural charm – as it was Karl Rove who resorted to dirty tricks from his college days on through the Bush elections. The real story here is the one between these two – it’s kind of a Mozart/Salieri.

Stone’s interpretation of Rove is all wrong, and in fact sets the movie off kilter. Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), and Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell are all fairly believable, but Rove, the powerful mastermind, is played by Toby Jones, and he’s just too mild-mannered and nice for the role. Rove is, in fact, the reason that Bush ever got anywhere in politics, and the strategist’s evil dealings are worth making an entire film about, with Bush playing a supporting role.

Another misstep was casting Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush when that part in particular must be played by the brightest light in the sky; if there was anything great about Bush it was his intelligent, calm, pretty wife. Banks does her best, but she simply isn’t cut from the same cloth as the woman she portrays.

The film focuses heavily on Bush’s relationship with his father, and with God, in driving him onward. Bush, Sr. (James Cromwell) comes off as a level-headed Commander in Chief who is alternately embarrassed by, and proud of, his son. It is possible that W’s desire to obliterate Saddam and overtake Iraq was to show up his father, or maybe to finish what his father couldn’t, or maybe to make his father proud – the truth is that Big Oil made that decision, and Bush was a willing accomplice. The film makes this clear, too.

What is interesting about the film, though, is that Stone seems to have consciously made a decision to dumb the film down in order to reach minds across all age groups. Conservatives will write it off as hogwash, but people who want to hate Bush but don’t know why they should might find something of value here. And the international audiences will eat it up.

Josh Brolin is letter perfect as Bush, capturing his speech, mannerisms, and that loveable teddy bear thing that won Bush both presidential elections, or at least one. Well, that and 9/11.

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