W. (UK - DVD R2)
Leigh Riding takes a belated look at the latest political biopic from Oliver Stone
Maverick director Oliver Stone tackles the formative years and subsequent political career of one of the most derided and condemned US presidents in living memory, George W. Bush.
For those politically minded film lovers out there, the prospect of firebrand director Oliver Stone tackling the Bush administration must have had them salivating with anticipation as the release of the movie neared. So one can only imagine the disappointment for that audience when W. turned out to be so toothless. The lack of edge from Stone could possibly be due to the fact that, judging by the film's portrayal of the man, Bush is quite simply rather dull subject matter. While I went into the film expecting a savage character assassination of a man I assumed was a bumbling idiot, what I got in return was a portrait of Bush striving to surpass his father's low expectations, and a man that was not a fool as such, just an incredibly poor public speaker. Well, that's fine, but it's not terribly interesting is it?
What I personally wanted to see was an insight into the shadowy workings of the Bush administration Mk 2 (or Mk 1.5; daddy's work is never done), which is an area that Stone should attack with relish. Sadly, the political milestones and millstones are merely bullet points within the film's framework, with the narrative far more concerned with checklisting Bush's personal mishaps such as the notorious pretzel incident in a rather pedestrian manner. It's not that Stone isn't adept in directing political biopics; 1995's Nixon was both a blistering character study and a and a study of Nixon's administration that almost bordered on the thriller genre. I think that Stone simply doesn't have the passion for the subject matter.
Stone even seems to have watered down his trademark visual style for W.. While the bravura visuals of Natural Born Killers and U-Turn would have never suited this type of film, Stone still embraced a slick and stylised look for Nixon, so it's strange that he employs such a flat eye for W.. The film has a rather flat and conventional look which resembles a mid-level television production, and is rather disappointing. Flicking through the film's production history, it didn't really surprise me that the entire production was crammed into a tiny window between last year's writer's strike and the election, and it certainly shows in the end product, with everything from the script to the editing and right down the shooting style suggesting that at least another four months or so of serious polish would have improve the storytelling twofold.
One thing that hasn't been trimmed back is the cast and their work. Josh Brolin delivers a barnstorming performance as Bush that has been universally praised, but the rest of the main cast are as equally faultless in their respective roles, such as Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Scott Glenn as Rumsfeld, Brit Toby Jones as Karl Rove, and Thandie Newton does a respectable Xerox of Condolezza Rice. Sadly Ioan Gruffudd is rather miscast as Tony Blair, but I guess we've been spoiled a little by Michael Sheen's delivery of Blair, so that's not quite so fair. But on the whole, viewing the film becomes a far more rewarding experience than the rather flat production delivers; indeed, good enough to make the film required viewing.
There is little about the 2.35:1 transfer that will have the viewer dancing on the table. For a film that is visually rather perfunctory, the transfer doesn't do much heavy lifting. The image is sharp and clean, with little grain and no defects that I could notice, and strong representation of the colour scheme. A decent representation of a visually plain film.
Much like the video element, the 5.1 track isn't stretched to breaking point here. Aside from the occasional war segue, which admittedly does sound good, the film is predominantly dialogue based. Thankfully the dialogue is lovely and clear, perfectly audible and right where you want it; upfront. Again, what little needs doing is done well.
The first port of call is the audio commentary with director Oliver Stone, which is as always a must for fans. While Stone never dwells too much upon the technical aspects of the film, he does talk in length about the script choices made, and exactly how much stayed in or out and why. Stone is always engaging, and this is another classic document from the man. ‘Dangerous Dynasty: The Bush Presidency’ is a twenty minute look at both Bush tenures that is simply too short to deliver any seriously meaty debate, ‘No Stranger to Controversy: Oliver Stone's George W. Bush’ doesn't engage as much as one would like, being as it is general behind the scenes B-roll footage interspersed with Stone delivering a talking head interview that is surprisingly dry. Things are rounded up with several deleted scenes with commentary by director Oliver Stone that don't particularly engage. Finally there is a DVD-Rom link section containing Stone's personal annotations and research notes. It's not the strongest set in the world, and I can only assume that there is a special edition waiting in the wings.
While I expected something far more savage from Oliver Stone, I suppose he should be commended for giving a far more rational and balanced portrayal of the Bush Sr. era. While those who want the no holds barred Stone approach may bemoan the lack of bite shown from his earlier works, there are some absolutely cracking performances that genuinely raise the film's kudos. W. is a flawed but solid film buoyed by one serious acting master class that nudges the film up to recommended viewing.
Review by Leigh Riding
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 16th March 2009
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: English HoH
Extras: Audio Commentary with Director Oliver Stone, Dangerous Dynasty: The Bush Presidency, No Stranger to Controversy: Oliver Stone's George W. Bush, Deleted Scenes with Commentary by Director Oliver Stone
Easter Egg: No
Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss, Toby Jones
Length: 124 minutes
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