Whether you love or loathe President George W. Bush, his story is incredible and director Oliver Stone clearly realizes that. In Stone’s version of recent American history, we witness Bush (Josh Brolin) as he fails at one occupation after another, disappoints his father (powerfully played by James Cromwell), gives up substance abuse, embraces Christianity and finds himself in over his head as the 43rd President of the United States.
Is this a fair and balanced portrayal? Absolutely not. Yet Stone’s film can be wickedly entertaining and Brolin’s great performance is one of the many examples in which the cast is as stunning as their resemblance to their real-life counterparts. Thandie Newton is amazing as Condoleezza Rice (you’ll forget you’re watching an actress). There’s also Richard Dreyfuss (as a manipulative Dick Cheney), Elisabeth Banks (winning as Laura Bush), Jeffrey Wright (a sympathetic Colin Powell), Ellen Burstyn (a spitfire as Barbara Bush), Scott Glenn (fantastic as “Rummy”) and Toby Jones (portraying Karl Rove as a calculating suck-up). The performances are so terrific, I wanted to like the movie more than I did.
After a fast, enthralling first half, chronicling Bush’s fall and rise to power, the pace begins to drag (the film feels far longer than the 110-minute running time). There are key moments from Bush’s political career that are strangely omitted (like his controversial 2000 election win and 9/11). On the other hand, Bush’s faith in Christianity is depicted with surprising restraint and without mockery. The song selection for the soundtrack is well chosen but Paul Cantelon’s score is cartoonish and heavy-handed. Stone mostly avoids outrageous touches and lets the story tell itself without additional embellishments (although, to be fair, Bush defenders have a real case that Stone thoroughly depicts Bush as a buffoonish loser). The most audacious scene (a dream sequence where W. and H.W. Bush duel in the Oval Office) is cut too short to make an impression, and many stabs at symbolism (like the closing scene) are too obvious and silly.
Flawed but engrossing, Stone’s near-great film is, sadly, no JFK or Nixon. When it works, it’s fascinating and funny. But when it doesn’t, it plays like an overlong SNL skit. MTW