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When it was announced that Oliver Stone was fast-tracking a biopic about President George W. Bush it seemed that we had an official, text book definition of ‘too on the nose’. Stone has spent most of his life in film expressing his not so subtle left-wing agenda, obsessing over the tribulations of the Vietnam War, and generally lashing out against the establishment. George Jr.s’ less than reputable presidential career is, liberally speaking at least, ripe for lashing. My problem with the whole situation, sight unseen, concerns not the question of ‘can’, rather than the question of ‘why’. Yeah, the filmmaker/subject ratio adds up, but it adds up so well that I wonder why any of us would care?

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There was also the matter of timing. There are really only two reasons to make a film about Bush, the way I see, not counting the boring possibility of a tribute. Your first option is the ‘protest’ film. Michael Moore had the right idea here, and though I thought Fahrenheit 9/11 was a sloppy movie, he may have actually had a small effect on the minds of Americans just before Bush’s 2004 re-election. Your second option is a real recollection piece, which would encompass the man’s entire career, possibly made after his death, when his impact on history can be appropriately realized. W. comes either four years too late, or a couple dozen years too soon, depending on your point of view.

The film’s first scene immediately confirms pretty much every one of our trailer based suspicions. A bunch of A-list actors sit around a staged oval office doing goofy impersonations of Bush’s cabinet, poking jabs at some of the more controversial choices made following September 11th. Later, about fifteen minutes in, James Cromwell as George Sr. (stunt casting to the extreme) berates his son about his post-college life. Every line is so brutally scripted it practically bleeds the words ‘show, don’t tell’. I don’t believe for a second that H.W. posed ‘do you think you’re a Kennedy’ to his son. It’s too…what’s the phrase? On the nose? Yeah, that sounds right. W. is exactly what the conservative’s would expect out of ‘liberal Hollywood’, and as a card carrying bleeding heart I really hate to see all the stereotypes fulfilled in this manner.

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There’s nothing in Stanley Weiser’s script that points towards any real insider information, or even a particularly impressive amount of research. The Cliff’s Notes, factoid look at Bush’s life presented here could be put together by anyone with access to a television and Wikipedia (for exact dates, of course). The story is told out of order (of course) with all the dependability of a nine year old shouting out ‘this happened, then this happened, but before that this happened…’. There’s none of the surprising intricacies or ‘what if’ scenarios presented in Stones Nixon, which he scripted himself. W. is just a series of moments. Finally, around the half-way point Stone finds something thematically interesting in Bush’s born again faith, but it comes almost an hour into the film, and things start to devolve again the closer we get to the Iraq war.

Nixon is a great film to measure W. against for a number of reasons. Beyond the obvious comparisons between the subjects, and the director himself, there’s the surprisingly gentle treatment of the often abominated subjects. In the case of Nixon this treatment came as a surprise, but in this case it strikes as placating. If Nixon was the story of a maligned president told as a Greek tragedy, W. is the story of another maligned president told as a dippy spoof movie (just look at the war room sequences, which are virtual fountains of unsubtlety). Nixon also runs on a series of genuine performances not based in characterizations. Just about every member of Stone’s more than capable cast opts for goofy impersonations of their subjects, that even most members of Mad TV would find distasteful.

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At times it appears that Stone is trying to craft a poignant exploration of the terrors of the military industrial complex, while other times it appears he’s trying to create a Kubrickian satire of the whole mess. After enough floundering the director seems to find his tragedy during the Iraq debacle, but it strikes as an even bigger spoof than the early scenes of drunken debauchery. Though the biggest disappointment is how literally the once incendiary director treats a story we all just watched play out.

Video


W is presented in 1080p, 2.35:1 widescreen, and it looks just fine. Stone doesn’t go for any of his usual filmic tricks, opting to shoot most of the film in smooth focus, with standard lighting schemes, and somewhat muted pastel colours. A lack of hard contrast leads to a lack of super-sharp details, with memorable exceptions, mostly facial close-ups. The colour scheme gives the impression of an almost constantly overcast day in office, with soft, white lighting pouring from the sky, and through every window. The indoor shots are largely darker, which leads to smooth halos of soft light around subjects. None of these traits led to any compression difficulty. It’s not an overtly impressive transfer, but it’s also free of any real problems.

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Audio


W. is a very dialogue centric film. The dialogue, and in turn, most of the on-set sound is largely centred. Though clean and consistent, there’s something awkward about the amount of sound crammed into the centre channel, including wind, cars, electronics, just about everything (except applause, which are quite loud). It’s not quite a flat representation, but considering the pedigree of a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, it’s kind of disappointing, even for a dialogue based film. When sound effects do bleed into the other channels it’s very obvious because the sudden liveliness of the LFE channel, which is otherwise pretty quiet. The stereo channels spring to life almost only with the score, which is pretty low-key, usually consisting of a single instrument. It’s kind of like the soundtrack of a Peanuts episode.

Extras


Guillermo del Toro commentary track are are guaranteed must listens, and Tim Burton tracks are guaranteed misses. Oliver Stone is almost a total crapshoot. Your odds are usually better than fifty-fifty, but you might end up with a nearly silent track sparked with occasional dull factoids. The director’s W. track is one of his better ones. Stone is continuously speaking, and not just speaking about the actions on screen, but giving his opinions on the events happening around the events on screen. By the end the track is actually a better biography of Bush than the film. I actually learned things from the commentary, and felt some kind of passion from the filmmakers. I agree with the conventional wisdom that says a filmmaker should mostly divorce his opinions from the facts, but the final film in this case is so wishy-washy I can’t believe it satisfied anyone. This track, more than anything, gives a voice to the movie that should’ve been made.

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‘Dangerous Dynasty: The Bush Legacy’ continues the theme of extras that are vastly superior to the actual film. Though it features plenty of footage from the film, and contextualizes itself mostly within the events of the film, this documentary manages to delve into the actions of both Bushes with more intrigue, even at a rather brief seventeen minutes. The points of the doc are mostly partisan, but there’s little about Bush’s very extreme presidency that doesn’t beg somewhat partisan explorations. I suppose Lionsgate could’ve included an additional featurette from the pro-Bush point of view, but it would serve little point from a money perspective considering the degree of interest in the film from the right. In the end the featurette is too short to really get too excited about, but there are already about three dozen documentaries on the subject out there.

‘No Stranger to Controversy’ is a well made behind the scenes featurette, that doesn’t take the time to delve too far into the project (it’s only sixteen minutes), but comes at the subject from a sweet natured angle. Interviews with Stone, James Brolin, and screenwriter Stanley Weiser are mixed with rough behind the scenes footage. Again, there’s a lot of talk from the participants of the movie that could’ve been. Either I just didn’t get what they were trying to convey, or they lost the film in the writing process (possibly editing).

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The extras are finished with six deleted scenes, an annotations guide, and a selection of trailers. The scenes are mostly complete, like all the other extras are presented in high definition, and feature optional commentary from Stone. None of these scenes would’ve added too much to the final film, but one scene features underrated character actor Michael Shannon, and there are two amusing fantasy sequences. The annotations guide is a good thing to have, but is a bit cumbersome in scope and navigation.

Overall


W. is a weak film from a filmmaker that ought to know better. If the name above the marquee were Bret Ratner’s, John Turtletaub’s, or any other mediocre director-for-hire, I may’ve been more willing to give up ideals for leniency, but this is Oliver Stone we’re talking about. I could’ve expected a bad movie out of the man, but I’m shocked at the limp noodle, literary approach to such ‘controversial’ subject matter (admittedly, I still haven’t seen Alexander or World Trade Center). The disc looks quite nice, the sound features only minor issues, and the extras, though brief, paint a decent portrait of what might have been.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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