Thursday, Oct. 16, 2008

Oliver Stone's W.

By David Luhrssen
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When he last turned to presidential biography for his subject, director Oliver Stone transformed the reign of Richard M. Nixon into Shakespearean tragedy. With W., his insightfully funny satire of George W. Bush, Stone turns the bumbling but affable president and his entourage into Dr. Strangelove.

The difference is striking. With Anthony Hopkins in the title role, Nixon was a towering figure warped by resentment as he struggled out of the lower middle class and toward the White House. In Josh Brolin’s loose and game performance, the second Bush was a grinning goofball in his youth, a drunken wastrel whose “Poppy” reluctantly bailed him out of trouble after trouble.

The resentment harbored by the younger Bush isn’t directed against Nixon’s hobgoblin, the “East Coast elite,” but mostly at the elite’s closest representative, his own father. George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell) is an old school statesman who sadly shakes his head at the poor performance of his failed son. (His other boy, Jeb, is on track for a career in one of the family’s several trades, politics.) Gleefully wearing the Texas bad boy persona until it becomes his skin, and impervious to book learnin’, young George becomes a Paul Newman character in some overheated 1950s psycho-drama with Poppy as the Burl Ives patriarch glowering from across his desk.

W.’s casting is almost scary in its verisimilitude. Thandie Newton plays Condoleezza Rice as a birdlike twit; Jeffrey Wright gives Colin Powell the compromised dignity of a man who realizes—too late—that he has cast his lot with thieves; Richard Dreyfuss’ smirking Cheney is a cold hearted schemer who loves only oil; and nerdy Toby Jones enacts Karl Rove as a perverse policy wonk who gets a kick out of his Machiavellian brainstorms. And poor Elizabeth Banks as Laura? She deserved a man in full, not an overgrown boy whose ambition to show up Poppy outgrew his ability.

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