In Stone's take on the beleaguered 43rd President, Bush is not portrayed as deliberately evil (that would be Dick Cheney, played satanically by Richard Dreyfuss). In this movie, Bush (played all too real by Josh Brolin) is evil by default. Oliver Stone's W. is a charismatic simpleton who eventually becomes president due to some big daddy issues and an unwavering desire to get out of his brother's shadow. Whether you find this portrayal sympathetic or antagonistic, Stone's movie isn't a warm "hug out" for the outgoing president. It's a swift kick in the ass, sorry to have met ya, now get the hell out of here, middle finger to the man's face.
The film starts off with Bush and his crew discussing the Axis of Evil. It then goes on a whirlwind tour of his life, from his fraternity hazing days, through his realization that Iraq had no real WMDs. The story is told in no particular order, but many of the scenarios are familiar to us, like Bush's infamous date with a pretzel in his throat, and his ill-advised "Mission Accomplished!" landing on an aircraft carrier.
Brolin's performance goes well beyond impersonation, capturing the charisma that brought Bush to the highest office in the world, along with the incompetence that has gotten him tagged as one of the worst presidents in history. Most brutal is Brolin's depiction of Bush in a painful press conference, getting blindsided by a reporter's question and struggling to articulate an answer. The scariest thing about the moment is just how close to reality it is.
Dreyfuss gets his first real meaty role in many a year with Cheney, capturing the man's physicality (including that crooked smile). There are great moments where Cheney pipes up in a cabinet meeting, and Bush basically bitch-slaps him, calling him "Vice" and reminding him who the decider is. Dreyfuss plays these moments with a vicious anger boiling beneath the surface, as if he's ready to whip out a switch and give the little whipper-snapper the what for.
James Cromwell does a nice job capturing the deceptive charms of the elder Bush daddy. Disgusted by his son's behavior in early adulthood, his confused and muddled look gives us an idea of where the younger Bush got his pained squint. Toby Jones captures the evil slickness of Karl Rove, and Scott Glenn has some good times as an oblivious Donald Rumsfeld. I especially liked a moment where he giddily ate pecan pie at a meeting discussing the early tribulations of the Iraq War.
Jeffrey Wright, although not at all like Colin Powell physically, is typically good as a lone voice of reason who eventually acquiesces because it's his job to do so. The film's worst performance belongs to Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice. She plays her as a mumbling, scared, shrewish woman, inaudible and afraid of eye contact. That's not the Condoleezza Rice I've been observing.
I suppose the film lacks the "depth" of other Stone movies about presidents, like JFK and Nixon. Because the movie does speed through Bush's life, it certainly skips over major events, such as the 2000 election. For the election, you can check out HBO's recent Recount for an interesting dramatic treatment of that calamity.
As for the somewhat shallow vibe of the film, I'm thinking it's a deliberate choice to depict how this man lacks a certain depth. I like the sometime vacuous feel of the movie; I think it is not only intentional, but also completely appropriate. To depict Bush with depth would be to reward him in a way, and Stone's film has no intentions of giving the man a gold star.