W

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis



            “W” is a conundrum. A puzzle palace of sorts that has sprung on his terms from the ever active mind of Oliver Stone, it draws us quickly into several plotlines and leaves us to decide for ourselves whether Stone has succeeded in presenting the present as history.

            While the country remains in a state of icy polarization about the incumbent president, Oliver Stone tries more to explore George Bush than to condemn him. Even those who blame Mr. Bush for most of America’s current ills can be fascinated by the chemistry of the Bush clan – though there is no way Stone can be privy to their actual conversations. We can also be riveted by power seized and wielded by Dick Cheney and by the inevitable fall of the president so ill-equipped for the job he sought. In an emotion we did not expect from him, Oliver Stone generates compassion for his subject.

            The movie is not a documentary though it is shot through with actual quotes and events we have all watched on TV news. It is a Hollywood entertainment that trips over the potholes that snare anyone who fictionalizes history as it is unfolding. Imagining what living people say and do in private is risky business; doing John Adams is one thing; doing George Bush or even John Kennedy is quite another. The immediacy of the film is distracting because we don’t yet know the ending. The present is best served by documentary.

            Where Stone succeeds is in dramatizing material that is already on the public record. We already know about the inner circle dissension in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. Unable to accept Cheney’s oil-hungry dictum of “There is no exit strategy; we stay,” Bush translates his mentor’s philosophy into an invasion to spread “democracy and freedom.” This unresolved conflict that led us to where we now are in Iraq is devastating. 

            Fictionalizing also leads to a casting problem. Do we judge the cast by their impersonations? If so, Richard Dreyfus wins for catching the look, mannerisms, and smoldering power of Dick Cheney. Josh Brolin understands Bush, the man. Karl Rove and Colin Powell are captured well while Condi Rice is a caricature. Still, nothing captures the power of Powell’s dilemma as powerfully as the included newsreel shot of his speech before United Nations.

            One plot line gives us the sodden Yale frat boy, the black sheep of the Bush family who disappointed his father repeatedly and refused to make way for his older brother. The other shows us the born again president whose heart and mind are rooted not in evil but in an inability to learn from his life experience. He hears what he wants to hear. His own dismay when he finally grasps that Cheney and Rumsfeld had built a phony case for invading Iraq elicits a toxic mix of anger and pity in the audience. Should Stone have released this movie before Bush leaves office? You decide.


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