Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the election almost upon us and the Obama drama Southside With You coming soon to theaters, we tweak an old Watch This topic and hail some of our favorite films about real U.S. Presidents.
Widely considered the least liked of Oliver Stone’s three presidentially themed films, W. may have suffered from its inability to rip the lid off the second George W. Bush presidency on its way out the door. The movie’s release was timed to coincide with the end of the 2008 election season, before Bush had completed his second term, but while Stone’s biography-in-progress certainly doesn’t skimp on damning moments in Bush’s life and presidency, it’s not quite the expected rabble-rouser either. Stone gives Bush a speedier version of the Nixon treatment, exploring a flawed man’s psyche with a surprising dose of empathy.
Josh Brolin plays Bush, leading a cast full of famous movie people playing famous political people: Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, and James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush. Some of the cabinet all-stars feel a little gimmicky, but the Bush family dynamics embodied by Brolin, Banks, and Cromwell have real dimension.
Both sides of Bush’s life get plenty of screen time as the movie cuts back and forth between the run-up to the second Iraq War and earlier pre-presidency episodes. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Dubya endlessly fucks up and receives endless berating from his stern, self-important father (“Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?”). Stone plants the seeds of Bush’s public persona in these younger years, observing him as he uses his propensity for faux-folksy nicknames to ingratiate himself to Yalie frat brutes, gets childishly defensive in an early congressional debate, and swaps alcoholism for born-again Christianity.
Stone doesn’t go into full, ’90s-style multimedia overload, but his camera burrows around close and low, undermining the usual grandeur of a presidential biography. He keeps the movie light on its feet and low on bombast, even as it hits plenty of familiar points in the G.W. Bush story. Brolin makes Bush less than fully contemptible without falling back on the oft-cited voter preference to have a beer with him. (Indeed, that good-time beer is portrayed as a major crutch for much of his life.) Instead, he digs into Bush’s (seemingly justified) feelings of inferiority and simultaneous desires to win his father’s approval and prove him wrong. Bush certainly comes across as something of a fool in W., but more of the pathetic, overreaching variety—a victim of his insecurities and hubris. Stone has made better films, but this one, even years later, has the buzz of immediacy.
Availability: W. is available on Blu-ray or DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital outlets, and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus.