Released in 2008, shortly before the US Presidential Election, W. was Oliver Stone's third President-themed feature. It focused on George W. Bush's pre-politics years, his ascension to the Presidency, as well as his handling of the invasion of Iraq.
Taking a somewhat more lighthearted approach than he did with both JFK and Nixon, Oliver Stone tells the story of Bush Jr. in a similar fly-on-the-wall fashion to the latter. George W. Bush being a completely different beast than Richard Nixon, the chosen tone was certainly fitting. We meet W. (Josh Brolin) in his early days at Yale and follow some of his struggles with alcohol before he meets his future wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks), takes on various business ventures and sets his sights on politics. The film paints his relationship with his father George Sr. (James Cromwell) as an integral part of his emotional growth and his rise on the political stage. Rather than parody the titular character or attack his decisions while in power, Stone wanted to simply present key events in Bush's life, humanizing him to a certain extent but, ultimately, assessing his character honestly and critically.
With his biopics, Stone tends to put on a show and, sometimes, the show gets a bit too flashy for the subject's own good to the point where, by the end of the film, you don't feel like you have learned much at all about them. Unfortunately, W. is one of those movies. This is frankly a solid example of how not to approach this kind of biopic and Vice, released a full 10 years later, clearly did not learn from this film's mistakes. There are elements in this film that, admittedly, had potential from the cast to the stylish visuals.
Richard Dreyfuss' understated performance as Dick Cheney, for example, is far better than Christian Bale's method, caked-in-make-up attempt from Vice. That said, the rest of the cast either feels not quite right or plain cartoonish. Thandiwe Newton's Condoleezza Rice is a ludicrous caricature and a missed opportunity, Toby Jones and Jeffrey Wright (as Karl Rove and Colin Powell, respectively) both fit the part but also come off as way too over-the-top while Josh Brolin and James Cromwell (George Bush Sr.) give good performances but simply don't fit.
W.'s biggest problem, however, is its failure to offer anything beyond what one could glance on the news or simply tuning in to SNL back in the day. The refusal to do anything artistically unique or interesting with this actually fascinating true story is also hugely disappointing from such a talented writer and director. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, whether you love it or hate it, felt so much richer and more rewarding than this film, which goes for broad strokes when this called for something a lot more substantial. The decision to have Josh Brolin constantly shove food and drinks in his mouth, in every single scene, was a mistake as it is simply infuriating to watch. It just feels like Oliver Stone really didn't have much to add to or say about George W. Bush's story but wanted to throw his hat in the ring regardless for the sake of putting a pin down on a specific point in time and completing his own trilogy.
While some elements of W. work well enough to make the film itself watchable, at least the first time, it suffers upon repeat viewing quite a bit as you start to notice that this is a disappointingly sub-par biopic from a director who knows better. W. is an underwhelming, unconvincing, often annoying misplay that never feels necessary. There are worse biopics out there, to be sure, but I would still give this one a miss.
What a shame.