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The Cowboy Who Would Be King

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Disgruntled voters hoping for a full-scale evisceration of the Bush administration might be disappointed by Oliver Stone’s W., which treats America’s 43rd president so evenhandedly it could easily be described as sympathetic. Stone, whose liberal reputation precedes him, is a natural instigator, and there will always be those who dismiss his historical dramatizations as fanciful or worse. But even his harshest critics would be hard-pressed to deny that W. is more fair and balanced than anyone had a right to expect.

Is that a good thing? I’d say it is. Rather than burying Bush for his mishandling of the war in Iraq -- a temptation that must have been difficult to resist -- Stone attempts to uncover the man’s motivations, to understand why he sent troops to the Middle East over the objections of the U.N. and his own Secretary of State. That Stone seems more curious than quick to condemn is one of W.’s great strengths.

While Stone extends Bush the benefit of the doubt, his portrait is less than flattering. He seems to view W. as a man whose black-and-white vision of the world is childishly simple in the best of times, and dangerously ignorant in the worst. Bush is the quintessential Texas cowboy, a self-styled Washington outsider who shoots first and asks questions later. Ironically, he is also a man of serious faith, a born-again Christian whose piety is sincere even when it seems at odds with his more aggressive urges.

Bush is hardly introspective enough to recognize such inconsistencies, and that, on some perverse level, is part of his charm. He is unwavering in his convictions and in his trust in men like Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss, in an appropriately chilly turn) and Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), even as they recklessly encourage his most half-baked plans. W. invades Iraq in part because he wants to establish a friendly democracy in one of the world’s most oil-rich nations, and because he wants to “kick Saddam’s ass.” But his intentions are basically noble.

He believes that deposing a genocidal dictator will make the world a safer place for Americans and Iraqis alike. He believes in good and evil, and in his mind, he’s the man in the white hat, his hand guided by a righteous, vengeful God. When Baghdad falls, he declares his mission accomplished, and though the timing of the announcement is woefully premature, Bush regards it as the proudest moment of his presidency. The war is won, or so he thinks.

Bush considers himself a man of destiny, and witnessing his transformation from a feckless frat boy to the leader of the free world, it’s easy to understand why. Yet even as he reaches the peak of the political mountain, W. is never at peace. He is driven by a need to please his perennially disapproving father (James Cromwell), who treats his elder son as the black sheep of a proud, privileged family. As Junior squanders his youth with booze and cheap women, George Senior’s contempt is almost palpable. “Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?” he snarls. “You’re a Bush. Act like one.”

Because W., in winning a second term as President, achieves a level of political success his father sought but didn’t attain, he feels responsible for the Bush legacy, a weight that rests uncomfortably on his shoulders throughout his adult life. He is most comfortable dreaming of a life in baseball, far removed from the pressures of the Oval Office, but his desire to compete with Dad drives him to heights he may never have wanted or deserved. And that, in the final estimation, is key to his downfall. In many ways, W. is like a character in a Greek tragedy, a flawed hero undone by a fatal mix of ego and raging insecurities.

If Stone’s portrayal of Bush is more respectful than one might expect, Josh Brolin’s performance is brilliantly nuanced, a far cry from the coarse impersonations of “Saturday Night Live". He invests in the role a basic dignity that overshadows W.’s casually inelegant and sometimes downright boorish behavior. Brolin carries the film capably -- a necessity, given that Stone trains his camera on him and rarely strays -- but he’s not alone. Thandie Newton’s Condoleezza Rice is uncanny, from her comically lazy drawl to the gap between her teeth. But it is Dreyfuss, as the Machiavellian vice president openly campaigning for a military blitz of the entire Middle East, who leaves the most lasting and disquieting impression.

Some have questioned the timing of W., which follows Bush through the conclusion of his turbulent first term, but Stone’s story doesn’t suffer for lack of a definitive final chapter. It is a bold, thought-provoking and utterly fascinating character study that reveals the kinder, gentler side of a man previously defined by his disastrous policies and bumbling malapropisms. Stone acknowledges that W. is unfit to lead, given his rash temperament and misplaced faith in warmongering strategists, but he is no villain. He is well meaning, sincere and hopelessly unequal to the task at hand.