It isn't quite accurate to say that Oliver Stone paints history in sweeping brushstrokes; he's actually using a roller. His new biopic W., a slapped-together assessment of a lame-duck sitting president, plays like a TV-movie primer on a figure Americans have spent the last eight years getting to know. Other than an overwrought Oedipal relationship between George W. Bush and his father, Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser don't have a strong, coherent take on the man. Instead, they make do with a rudderless highlight reel of familiar anecdotes and soundbites that touch on the major events of Bush's early years and first term as president, but without having much of an angle on any one event in particular. Always a "big picture" kind of guy, Stone paddles down the giant river of Bush's life without exploring any of the tributaries; he passes by two or three dozen better movies along the way.
It's a credit to Josh Brolin's superb performance that the film works at all; as the lead, he transcends a gallery of Saturday Night Live-level impersonations by seizing on the essence of Bush's character rather than his arsenal of funny mannerisms. Brolin plays Bush as an incurious, rule-from-the-gut leader who bought into the cowboy image his campaign teams liked to promote. As president, he comes across both as easily manipulated and as needing to be "the decider"; his advisers cleverly thread the needle by feeding him their ideas and making it seem like they were his. W. covers his journey from the frat house to the White House, following him from his hard-drinking young adulthood to his evangelical conversion in Texas, and picking up later in the Oval Office post-9/11, as he and his cabinet members were devising a calamitous foreign policy.
Central to Stone's vision is the idea that Bush's resentment of his more prudent, old-school Republican father (James Cromwell) and jealousy of his brother Jeb were behind much of his decision-making in office, particularly his ill-considered quest to invade Iraq a second time and finish the job his dad couldn't. There may be a kernel of truth to that—it isn't tough to imagine some tension over Bush addressing his father's failings—but Stone plays up their rivalry at the expense of all other considerations, as if it were some skeleton key to explain Bush's entire life. Meanwhile, Stone converts the Oval Office into the set of an uneven sketch comedy, with particularly tart contributions from Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld, and a scene-stealing Toby Jones as Karl Rove. Had Stone realized he was making Dr. Strangelove, W. might have been an absurdist hoot, but that would require the sort of dramatic choice he stubbornly resists making.