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Movie Review

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What is it with the director of JFK and Nixon? There’s something perverse in the way Oliver Stone approaches the telling of tragic presidential stories: The more tragic they are, the less he gives them the Oliver Stone treatment.

If you don’t believe me, go see W. There’s little other reason to. Given the scope of the global havoc its subject has wreaked, the scale of his administration’s corruption and failures, and the extent of the all-out lunacy involved, Stone’s latest could have been this generation’s Dr. Strangelove. Instead, it’s more like a cable TV biopic. And, for the most part, George W. Bush is portrayed sympathetically.

Scripted by Stone pal Stanley Weiser (Wall Street), the film unfolds on dual narrative tracks. One follows Bush from his hard-partying days as a Yale frat boy through a series of failed careers to his marriage and transformation into a born-again Christian. Josh Brolin delivers a performance that — oddly, given his youth — becomes more convincing as his character ages. It’s the best thing about the picture.

The second track starts shortly after 9/11 and stops short of the 2004 campaign. It offers a by-now-familiar step-by-step account of the run-up to the Iraq invasion. If you’ve seen No End in Sight or any of half a dozen other docs on the subject, read any of the tell-all tomes by former aides, or just picked up the occasional newspaper, you won’t learn anything new.

Nor will you witness any of the visually audacious flourishes that have become the filmmaker’s trademark. More than anything, the movie plays like a 129-minute “Saturday Night Live” sketch full of impersonations. There aren’t a lot of yuks, so you end up occupying yourself with thoughts about how much Richard Dreyfuss seems to embody Dick Cheney, what a dead-on Condoleezza Rice Thandie Newton does, how it’s too bad Jeffrey Wright doesn’t look more like Colin Powell, and why Toby Jones didn’t pack on a few pounds to play Karl Rove, since the latter didn’t slim down until the second term. All in all, not the sort of thought-provoking stuff one expects from an Oliver Stone film.

Astonishingly, the director offers something approaching an apology for the madness of the Bush administration. Sure, Dubya is a self-deluded Jesus freak. Sure, he allowed advisors to make a trumped-up case for a war he’d already made up his mind to start. All of this needs to be understood in context, though, Stone implies. First, Bush as portrayed here truly believes God spoke to him and told him to run for President (making his rise to high office miraculous in more ways than one). Once elected, he operates with a sense of divine right, finding it not so much unnecessary to second-guess his instincts as blasphemous.

And then there’s this whole Oedipal thing between Bush 41 (James Cromwell) and Bush 43, which the filmmaker sees as equally key to the latter’s character and destiny. The black sheep of the family, he gets his act together and rises to power to impress his perpetually dismissive father. Once in the White House, he hyper-focuses on destroying Saddam as payback for threats the ruler made against the senior Bush during the first Gulf War. Again and again, the director paints his subject as an underestimated son of privilege who simply wants to win his old man’s approval.

Given the mess Bush and his buddies have made of things, one might have expected a whiff of outrage from Stone, but the film is curiously lacking when it comes to anything resembling attitude. The director fumbles for a tone but never quite settles on one. Because W. is part standard biopic, part black comedy, part political satire, part Greek tragedy and part character study, it becomes, in the end, none of these but rather a disappointingly straightforward highlight reel of recent history that edits out as much as it includes. There’s not a word in the script, for example, about Halliburton, Abu Ghraib, the record-breaking deficits that continue to break records, or the Valerie Plame scandal — much less about the stolen 2000 election.

The filmmaker seems to have been so preoccupied with his attempts to get inside the president’s head and play director’s-chair shrink that he all but forgot he had an audience to entertain. Unless you’ve lived in a cave or been in a coma for the past eight years, you’re likely to come away from this light-on-laughs rehash of current events feeling like this story of a lame duck is the lamest movie of Stone’s career.

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