Maybe it is just too soon, maybe we are just too used to the high-gloss satire of “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show,” maybe it’s the kaleidoscopic structure, but this movie feels like a rough draft. Director Oliver Stone throws almost-randomly arranged scenes from the 43rd President’s life up on screen in an attempt at insight but too often it dissolves into caricature.
It begins promisingly with a defining moment for the George W. Bush presidency, or at least a moment intended to be defining. In an Oval Office meeting, W. (Josh Brolin) and his top advisors are debating the terminology they will use to explain the President’s view — literally — of the world in his first State of the Union address in January 2002, just months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. How to describe our enemies? They settle on “axis of evil.” And we get acquainted with the cast of characters who will be portraying the headline names — Jeffrey Wright as Secretary of State Colin Powell, Scott Glen as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Toby Jones as Senior Advisor and political strategist Karl Rove, and Richard Dreyfuss as Vice President Dick Cheney. A strong beginning is diminished as the characters are introduced because the audience is distracted by the effort of determining which actors do the best job of look and sound like the real-life characters they portray (that would be Newton and Dreyfuss) and which look and sound nothing whatsoever like their characters (Glen).
Then we get some flashbacks to unroll the well-known story of President Bush’s misspent youth, the drinking, the partying, the series of failed careers. Brolin gives a thoughtful performance, but the superficiality of the assessment of Bush as a man (trying to both please and do better than his father) and as a leader (there is not enough here to understand his policies or priorities) give the film an uncertain tone, sometimes verging on satire, sometimes sinking to melodrama, sometimes showing flashes of farce, especially when almost every scene shows him chomping on a sandwich or when Rice murmurs support for everything the President says. Why give us Bush choking on a pretzel? Then why have it a second time?
Elizabeth Banks gives a warm and appealing performance as Laura Bush, Ellen Burstyn is fiery as Barbara Bush, and Dreyfuss has Cheney’s steely purr down perfectly. The movie ambitiously tries to make President Bush appear more overmatched than cynical or incompetent. There are hints of hubris but Stone does not doubt the sincerity of Bush’s intentions or the merits of his aspirations. But there are too many characters and the events are glossed over too quickly. It’s very tempting to make it a metaphor for the Bush Presidency — unclear in direction and suffering from attention deficit disorder. But ultimately, it is just a movie, and despite moments of value finally an unsuccessful one.