W, Oliver Stone, 129 mins, 15

Josh Brolin has a good stab at rendering President Bush as complex. But the film comes too late to be useful, too early to dish the dirt

Oliver Stone's latest film ends, pointedly, with the words "The End" – this in a week when Americans and America-watchers were thinking about a beginning. There are now far more pressing and heartening matters to preoccupy the world than George W Bush and W, Stone's dramatisation of the outgoing president's wayward life.

W is a film that has come too late, and too early. Too late because, if someone had made a truly swingeing, finger-pointing film about Bush before now, it might have done a lot of good. But then, it probably couldn't have happened; by all accounts, it was hard enough for Stone to make this comparatively benign piece while its subject was in power. If, however, he had waited a few years to gain historical perspective, he might really have illuminated the scandal of Bush's presidency. As it is, we get a soft-edged cartoon that is neither that trenchant nor that funny. W is as much of the moment as a year-old New Yorker yellowing in a dentist's waiting room.

Stone portrays George W (Josh Brolin) as an aggrieved eternal adolescent desperate to win his father's approval: this is a Freudian drama that, rather than derides its subject, joshes him gently but ultimately is compassionate and understanding towards him. And if you can see any point, artistic or moral, in extending compassion to George W Bush, you might appreciate this film more than I did.

Stone and writer Stanley Weiser interweave the White House tenure with scenes from Bush's apprenticeship, showing how a feckless rich boy came to occupy the most elevated and dangerous post on earth. Young Dubya's progress is the meat of the film, especially in his scenes with George Snr, a humane but forbidding patrician played with impeccable loftiness by James Cromwell: cameraman Phedon Papamichael makes a point of shooting the pair so that Bush Snr towers imposingly over his son. This is a relationship based on Shock and Awe: son feels awe, father observes him with shock. Junior's motivations are oedipal from the start: we first see young George at a Yale frat house hazing ceremony, where he eagerly tries to please the alpha males of Delta Kappa; he then staggers out of a drunk tank to take a call from Dad, enthusing about the old boy's sporting prowess before getting the paternal book thrown at him. Even when he belatedly displays some gumption, his parents can't believe in him: "Governor of Texas!" snorts mother Barbara (Ellen Burstyn), when he reveals his ambitions. "You must be joking!"

The film offers a few telling insights into the making of the public persona: beaten to Congress by a Democrat who calls him a slick Easterner, George W seethes, "There's no way I'll ever be out-Texaned or out-Christianed again" – and darnit if he wasn't true to his word. But there's little lampooning of the Saturday Night Live variety: in the more comic scenes, Dubya, for all his gaffes, comes off more like a wise fool than a mere dullard. But oh how the film creaks in the run-up to Iraq. In an extended, grindingly lifeless scene, Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) stands as the voice of sanity as he tries to hold Bush back from war, only to be silenced by Dick Cheney (a sly, savoury Richard Dreyfuss). "Control Iran, control Eurasia, control the world! Empire – real Empire!" snarls Cheney, practically jabbing the air with the point of his forked tail.

A-grade supporting players perfectly catch the tone of the inner circle: Toby Jones is an affably crafty Karl Rove and Scott Glenn a desiccated Rumsfeld, although Thandie Newton's Condoleezza Rice has little to do but wince sourly till late in the film, when her nervy staccato cadences kick in uncannily. Stacy Keach steals the show as the preacher who gets Dubya on the Jesus team; even he looks nervous when his acolyte starts spouting about divine calling.

W's one cast-iron asset is Josh Brolin, who achieves the impossible: turning the public cartoon into a complex human being. Inevitably, we start off seeing Bush as a loping, lunkish caricature: it's what we're used to. But as Brolin progresses through the ages of W – eager jock, slackass barfly, peevish middle-aged teenager – he carries real emotional heft, even in the borderline-cute scenes between George and his adoring Laura (Elizabeth Banks). Giving Bush a stolid, vulnerable warmth, Brolin makes you see why Laura falls for, then sticks by him.

Brolin on the podium is uncannily like the President we know: the misplaced inflections, the dogmatic overassertion, the inappropriate good-ol'-boy bonhomie, and that narrowing of the eyes as he says "al-Qa'ida". Yet Brolin can't hide the candour of his own muscular physiognomy: what's missing is the sheer dead-eyed belligerence of Bush's simian gaze.

W lacks the rage without which a Bush movie, now at least, is inconceivable. The film comes across as a tragicomedy about what happens when a mediocrity gets out of his depth. It doesn't hammer Bush personally for the iniquities of his regime: Guantanamo is relegated to one jokey line. Well, Stone clearly had his reasons for not making that film, the one we would have expected of him. But neither has he made the George W Bush film that the world needed. Still, we can breathe a sigh of relief that Stone won't have to make a Sarah Palin movie next.



Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory