The biopic is such a tough genre.
Adapting a book, TV show, or play into a film is challenging enough but at least the writer or director has a finite pool of material. When adapting a life, though? How does one condense a life into two to three hours?
Unless you've got a single primary source, as Spike Lee did with "Malcolm X," and is more or less just doing a book adaptation, one's work is really cut out for them. A single life contains hundreds of films. How to decide which one to make?
And of course that's the case for the life of President George W. Bush. Which story is one to tell? One could make "Oedipus W" and focus on a son struggling with his father and family's legacy. Perhaps one could do "Barfly W" or "Leaving W Vegas" and show Bush's struggle with alcoholism. Or how about "Full W Jacket" and make a film about the Iraq war? Things grow even more complex when ideology gets interjected into the mix. One could do a sympathetic right-wing portrayal of a determined leader or a leftist conception of conspiracy and incompetence.
Oliver Stone's much-anticipated "W." has a little bit of all these pieces, with none of them developed to a satisfactory level.
The central narrative, if the film really has one, is of the administration's push for and execution of the Iraq war. We get a behind-the-scenes look as W (Josh Brolin) discusses the rhetoric of the war on terror. He's surrounded by such advisors as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn,) Vice President Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss,) National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton,) CIA head George Tenet (Bruce McGill,) and undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris.) The lone dissenter in virtually every scene is Secretary of State Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright.)
Interspersed among these scenes W frequently remembers the trials he went through on his road to the presidency and respectability. There are sequences of him as a Yale cheerleader who has to be bailed out of jail by his father. There are fraternity hazing and binge drinking scenes. (I was surprised that Stone could resist throwing in a Skull and Bones reference into this chapter.)
We see W's struggles with different jobs. Working on an oil rig he takes a break for a beer and gets berated by his boss. The alcoholic W quits. A sequence with George H.W. Bush, Poppy (James Cromwell) follows: "What are you cut out for? Partying? Chasing tail? Driving Drunk? Who do you think you are? A Kennedy? You're a Bush! Act like one!"
So that's what W does. He kicks his alcoholism, falls for sweet librarian Laura (Elizabeth Banks) and starts his political career with a disastrous run for congress. He then finds Jesus, runs a baseball team, and eventually pushes to run for governor. He embraces the political hardball tactics of his strategist Karl Rove (Toby Jones) and manages to seize the governorship.
The film concludes with the unmaking of the Iraq War as the much publicized weapons of mass destruction are as absent as anyone in the Bush administration willing to take responsibility. At a press conference W sums up his presidency by being unable to think of a single mistake he has made.
There are great films that can be made of the Bush life and presidency but this isn't one of them. Stone simply gives himself so much ground to cover that he's never able to really establish anything to an acceptable degree. The relationship between W and Poppy is the only one that gets developed. It would have been great to see more of the relationships between W and Rove, Cheney, Tony Blair and Rice. Stone teases us with individual scenes that play out fairly well and manage to be entertaining or intellectually challenging but fail to create any kind of coherent whole.
Those primarily looking for Bushisms and Will Ferrell-style parody of a dopey Bush will occasionally be satisfied by some of the sillier moments but probably disappointed. The film has a tendency to frequently get very policy oriented to a degree most appreciated by political junkies.
Regarding the question of bias the film is likely to annoy both the Left and the Right. An inability to wholly embrace the film on behalf of Bush critics might be a surprise given how well known Stone's politics are. In many regards the film is almost affectionate toward Bush, painting him as a likable figure struggling with his family's standards.
Of course conservatives will hate it because the film is seeped in all the trademark facts, jabs, and criticisms of the Left. Watching certain scenes I could almost tell which books Stone read. An early scene features a lunch discussion between Bush and Cheney in which the Vice President challenges W: "If there was a one percent chance that the lettuce in your sandwich would kill you would you still eat it?" See Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine. I imagine Stone will do what he did with such previous films as "Nixon" and "JFK" and publish a book citing his sources.
It's not so much that Stone's approach doesn't work but rather it doesn't work at movie length. If all the parties involved had just made a six hour HBO miniseries then much of the criticisms would be eliminated. They would have had time to really develop all the stories and relationships. Pretty soon we'll have the next best thing, though. Knowing Stone's history once the DVD comes out we'll have a director's cut with perhaps an extra half hour, an opinionated audio commentary and extensive bonus features.