Oliver Stone goes too soft with rushed ‘W.’

Posted Oct. 23, 2008, at 5:22 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:02 a.m.

In theaters

W., directed by Oliver Stone, written by Stanley Weiser, 129 minutes, rated PG-13.

The new Oliver Stone movie, “W.,” is based on the unlikely rise of George W. Bush to the presidency of the United States. As such, it has one massive feast on its plate, but since it isn’t especially hungry, it just picks. It doesn’t eat.

Going into it, you think that because the film is coming from a staunch, outspoken Democrat like Stone, it’s going to be one biting vilification of Bush. But much like that director’s examination of Nixon in his superior movie of the same name, it isn’t.

Instead, “W.” takes the high road and more often than not is a movie with heart. It doesn’t want to attack Bush so much as it wants to understand him, humanize him and hell, even pity him. While some will agree that’s an admirable position to take, the trouble is that in the process, much of the insight Stone tries to glean from Bush is nevertheless muddied, likely because the movie was rushed into production and shot over the course of only 46 days.

Knowing this, it’s easier to see why “W.” is such a sloppy, claustrophobic mess — it features some of the worst camerawork of the year. The performances range from the risible (Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice) to the weak (Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush) to the pitch-perfect pantomime (Josh Brolin as Bush) to the very fine (Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Toby Jones as Karl Rove), but Stone has such difficulty grappling with the scope of it all, he ultimately doesn’t contain any of it.

Maybe it’s tough to blame him. We are, after all, dealing with a president and an administration who used the events of Sept. 11 as a vehicle to launch into our war against Iraq, a country that didn’t attack us but which presumably had to be taken down with force because it was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Only, of course, it wasn’t.

Meanwhile, that same administration has been critical in making decisions that have led to a major economic crisis whose ripples have been felt throughout the world, as well as an energy crisis that has crippled many right where they live. (That is, of course, assuming that in the face of the foreclosure fiasco, they even have a place to live.) It has added more than $4 trillion to the national debt, the biggest increase ever in the history of the United States. It also has critically damaged our reputation abroad.

Obviously, it hasn’t done this alone — Congress was there to help — but there’s no denying that Bush and his administration have driven us recklessly into a situation that’s so inexcusably misguided and mishandled, parties on both sides now are screaming one unified mantra: “Change!”

And yet here’s the thing about “W.” — in spite of all this, the movie lacks an edge. There’s no rage on display here; there’s little sense that great damage has been done. Stone is so determined to offer a balanced film, he neuters it.

What we get instead is a movie about a wealthy, privileged young screw-up who grew up to be a raging alcoholic, went to jail, danced on bar tops with women, consistently disappointed his distant father (James Cromwell), had a religious reawakening while on a 3-mile run, and incredibly went on to become the governor of Texas and then the president of the United States. We learn that he did all this — including invading Iraq — for his father’s love and approval.

While Freud might have found some of this passably interesting, for those who pay even fleeting attention to the news, the question here is whether any of this will be news to them.

Grade: C-

On DVD and Blu-ray Disc

In addition to “Casino Royale,” which is just out on high-definition Blu-ray disc in anticipation of the Nov. 14 release of the latest James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace,” joining it on Blu-ray are six Bond throwbacks: Sean Connery in “Dr. No,” “Thunderball” and “From Russia With Love”; Roger Moore in “Live and Let Die” and “For Your Eyes Only”; and Pierce Brosnan in “Die Another Day.”

While there’s no disputing that the best of the lot are the Connery films, Moore acquitted himself nicely in “Live and Let Die” and, to a lesser degree, in “For Your Eyes Only.” All of those are recommended. The weakest of the lot is the 20th Bond film in the franchise, “Die Another Day,” which plays it too safe and features a midsection that’s among the dullest, most uneventful of the entire Bond lot.

This time out, Bond is trying to put the screws to some shady North Koreans planning an illegal diamond deal—mad billionaire Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), who wants to take over the world by harnessing the sun’s energy, and his henchman, Zao (Rick Yune), a man whose last encounter with Bond left him with diamonds embedded in his face.

As Bond villains go, these two have the necessary toys — an Icelandic compound, a fleet of hovercrafts, laser beams galore — but what they lack is what they need most: a personality. The film finds just that in John Cleese’s Q, who gets most of the film’s laughs. Also strong are a sword fight between Graves and Bond and the film’s terrific final 40 minutes, in which Graves and Zao butt heads with Bond and Jinx (Halle Berry).

Madonna’s overhyped cameo is never as loose or as engaging as the video based on her theme song, “Die Another Day,” but Rosamund Pike as Bond’s partner, Miranda Frost, does add necessary bite. It’s she — not Berry — who has the best chemistry with Bond, though it’s Berry, not Pike, who made the smartest move. She wore that revealing bikini, created a firestorm of attention for doing so, and thus it’s her appearance in the movie that will be remembered most.

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of hundreds of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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