Oliver Stone’s ‘W.’ Gives Empathy to an Unfortunate President of the United States

W movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

You really have to admire what Oliver Stone pulled off here as he himself has been a big critic of the Bush Administration (and who isn’t these days?). Like “Nixon,” Stone has given us an empathetic portrait of an infamous President and tears down the stereotypes we have about this particular person so we can see him up close for who he really is. It is not a Bush bashing piece, but that would have been pointless anyway because we bash George W. Bush on a regular basis. With “W.,” Stone has given us what is essentially a father-son story as George W. is a man who spent the majority of his life trying to get his father’s, President George H.W. Bush, respect. It is clear from the start Bush Sr. respects Jeb more than he who bears his first and last name, and this leads George W. to do things he would never have done otherwise, such as run for political office.

“W.” covers George W. Bush from his days at a Yale fraternity hazing to the end of his first term as President. His second term is not covered here which is just as well as we are deep in the muck when it comes to political and financial affairs. It flashes back and forth in time from when he is President to his days as a rootless young man who is unsure of what he wants to do with his life other than party and get drunk. The movie does have the feel of a comedy, but it gets more serious in other moments. The tone Stone sets here is not always clear, and it does take away from the movie a bit. Still. it kept me engrossed as it covered the life of a man I can’t wait to see leave the White House.

George W. Bush is played here by Josh Brolin, and he had a great streak last year with “Grindhouse,” “American Gangster” and of course “No Country for Old Men.” Christian Bale was originally cast in this role, but he dropped out at the last minute due to the makeup effects not working to his liking. It’s just as well because Brolin looks like a much better fit being from Texas and all. Playing Bush to a serious degree is a difficult challenge to say the least because we have long since gotten used to seeing him being lampooned on “Saturday Night Live,” and as a result, we cannot help but look at Brolin’s performance as a caricature of George W. But in the large scheme of things, Brolin manages to make the role his own, and it becomes more than a simple impersonation which was obviously not what he was going for in the first place.

In fact, Stone did a great job of casting as he got actors who don’t simply impersonate the people we know so well, but who instead embody and inhabit them. In the process, the actors force you to look at some of these personalities a bit differently than we have in the past. Getting past the preconceptions we have of people is always tough, but it is at times necessary in order for us to better understand how certain individuals, particularly those with the most power, tick.

One actor I was most impressed with here was Richard Dreyfuss who plays Vice President Dick Cheney. Dreyfuss has a great and frightening scene where, in a private conference with all the heads of state, he makes a case for attacking Iraq and Iran in order to get control over their vast oil supplies and keep dictators like Saddam Hussein from coming down on us ever again. The one moment which sent a chill down everyone’s spine is when someone asks Cheney what the exit strategy out of Iraq is, and he replies, “There is no exit strategy. We stay there forever.”

Everyone in the theater was frozen in silence as this is the one thing we keep begging future politicians to do, provide an exit strategy. Dreyfuss plays the scene not at all as a villain, but as a man who convinces the Commander in Chief of why he sees this path of action is the right one for the administration to take.

Another really good performance comes from Toby Jones (“The Mist”) who plays the master of smear campaigns, Karl Rove. Jones ends up making Rove seem both charismatic and likable, and he also subtly brings out the emotional manipulator in the man who succeeds in getting under George W.’s skin to make him the puppet he is today. I hate Rove for everything he has done, but Jones succeeds in making us admire him, begrudgingly so, for being so fiendishly clever. Rove’s powers of manipulation are ever so subtle to the point where we barely notice them, and Jones gets this across perfectly and with amazing subtlety.

As Bush Sr., James Cromwell makes us see that this particular U.S. President is fully aware of how his children are at a huge disadvantage. While he had to work hard to get to where he ended up at, his offspring had everything handed to them on a silver platter. Bush Sr. obviously wants the best for his children, but in seeing to his black sheep of a son’s needs and troubles, he comes to see he has done more harm than good.

As the movie goes on, Cromwell goes from presenting the elder Bush as being terribly disappointed in George W. to being deeply concerned over his son’s decisions about Iraq. We see Bush Sr. the end of the first Gulf War discussing his reasoning as to why they shouldn’t go after Saddam as it might make the dictator a hero in the eyes of many. Indeed, Stone makes us sympathize with the senior Bush in ways I never expected to. The moment where we see Bush lose the Presidential election to Bill Clinton, I actually found myself saddened as it comes across how there were many opportunities which would never be realized. This was shocking to me because I really wanted to see Clinton beat Bush, and I was thrilled he did.

In the end, however, the movie really belongs to Brolin who gives us a George W. Bush that is seemingly well intentioned and yet hopelessly naïve. You may not completely blame him for all the troubles going on in the world right now, but you can never excuse him for not taking more responsibility for his actions. We see Bush embrace God and become a born-again Christian, and while this helps him with his drinking problem, it also gives him blind faith which will prove to be his flaw as a person which will eventually undo him. Brolin makes Bush goofy yet well intentioned, and he makes clear the heartache he feels as he cannot escape the shadow of his famous father.

Stone’s “W.” is not the classic political movie “JFK” was, but it is effectively made and shows how we need to understand the human side of those we brand as criminals in order to get at what makes them act the way they do. This is an important lesson to remember as we go on in life.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ is Not the Droid You Are Looking For

Solo movie poster

Here we are again in a galaxy far, far away, and it is the third time we have ventured there in three years. We also head back to an even longer time ago when one of our favorite “Star Wars” characters, in this case Han Solo, was young, full of vigor and demographically desirable. But while the “Star Wars” movies have always been filled with tremendous imagination and unforgettable characters, I have to be honest and say that “Solo: A Star Wars Story” proved to be an underwhelming space adventure. While I am as big a Han Solo fan as the next person, seeing his early years portrayed here felt strangely ordinary to where this didn’t feel like a “Star Wars” movie, but instead an average science fiction movie yearning to be.

This movie begins with a routine chase sequence in which Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempt to escape a criminal gang, and from there I started to have a bad feeling about this. Usually these movies have me totally hooked in right from the start, but I did not feel the same kind of excitement I usually feel with the average Lucasfilm adventure. When Qi’ra and Han are suddenly separated at a transport station, Han tells her he will come back for her. Will he? Well, she is played by Emilia Clarke. Will Qi’ra and Han live happily ever after? Did Greedo really shoot first?

“Solo” reminded me of the problems I have with most prequels as they seem more concerned with connecting the dots between their story and the ones we have seen a thousand times. Like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “The Thing” prequel, the filmmakers are saddled with a cinematic history they are forced to adhere to, and it results in a lack of surprise and suspense as we know how things will turn out. And, like “Hannibal Rising,” it tells us more than we need to know about an iconic character to where I walked out feeling how certain things are best left to the imagination instead of being made into a movie.

Alden Ehrenreich has been an actor on the rise ever since his scene-stealing role in “Hail, Caesar,” and he certainly has a strong screen presence as Han Solo. At the same time, he ends up giving a one-note performance as the intergalactic smuggler which lacks the charisma Harrison Ford brought to the role. While he tries to play it cool throughout, Ehrenreich never quite comes to life here, and what results is a disappointing case of miscasting.

We do get introduced to some new characters, and among which is Tobias Beckett who is played by Woody Harrelson. As always, I am reminded of how Harrelson can play just about any character he takes on, and he provides us with the mentor Han Solo was always destined to have. Tobias, like Han, is a smuggler, but he also represents the darker road Han could find himself on if he is not careful.

Other actors are not as lucky. Thandie Newton shows up as Val Beckett, Tobias’ wife and partner in crime, but she is gone way too soon. Jon Favreau voices the alien character Rio Durant, but Rio merely functions as an easily disposable member of Tobias’ crew who we know will not last long. Paul Bettany makes Dryden Vos into a wonderfully ruthless crime lord, but his presence in “Solo” feels a bit uneven as if he is there to fill in the missing blanks. It should be noted how Bettany took over this role after the original actor cast, Michael K. Williams, was unable to return for reshoots. Things had to be changed to accommodate Bettany, and it shows.

Production problems kept plaguing “Solo” before its release, the biggest of which was the firing of the original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, both of whom still received an executive producer credit. It was one of several instances which showed how protective Lucasfilm was of this franchise. The word behind the scenes was that Lord and Miller were looking to mix things up and did not want to give audiences the same old thing, but Kathleen Kennedy was not about to let anyone change things up. While I commend Kennedy and Lawrence Kasdan for taking extra special care of this franchise, I came out of “Solo” thinking they should shake things up in the future if they want it to maintain the relevance it still has.

Replacing Lord and Miller is Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, and this had me excited as this is the same man who directed “Apollo 13.” That film was based on a real-life event everyone knew the outcome of, and yet he turned it into a riveting piece of entertainment. I figured he would bring this same energy to “Solo,” but even he is saddled with the characters’ history which he cannot easily maneuver around. Apparently, Howard reshot 70% of this movie, and I came out of it wondering how much of the finished product was his. As a result, the whole movie feels inescapably uneven.

For what it is worth, “Solo” does improve when Donald Glover, a man of many talents, arrives on the scene as Lando Calrissian. Glover brings the kind of charisma to this role I expected Ehrenreich to bring a wealth of to Han, and it makes me want to see Lando get a film of his own. From the first moment he appears onscreen, Glover makes this character the epitome of cool to where he does not need a can of Colt 45 to prove it, and he brings an infectious joy to a movie which needed it sooner.

We also get to meet another unforgettable droid here, L3-37. As voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, she is a sardonic delight as she shows more attitude and resilience than any other droid I have seen in any previous installment. It is also a kick to see L3-37 discuss the possibilities of sexual compatibility between her and Han with Qi’ra. After all these years, the “Star Wars” movies are proving to be more progressive than ever before! As for Lando, I think it is safe to say this is the droid he was looking for.

While certain moments like the first time Han meets Chewbacca (played here by Joonas Suotamo) and the initial appearance of the Millennium Falcon end up feeling uninspired and anticlimactic, the scene where Han makes the infamous Kessel Run in less than twenty parsecs is thrilling to watch, and it reminded of why I love the “Star Wars” movies so much. Yes, we know how things will turn out, but Howard keeps us on the edge of our seats as he subverts our expectations and plays with our emotions with glee.

Sure, “Solo” does have its moments, but they only served to remind of everything about it which does not work. The screenplay by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan features dialogue which feels lifeless even when spoken by talented actors. Granted, there is none of the god-awful dialogue Hayden Christensen was forced to utter in “Attack of the Clones,” but it still feels derivative of lesser sci-fi movies which cannot even compare to “Star Wars” in general. I was also surprised at how uninspired the film score by “Jason Bourne” composer John Powell ends up sounding, and it only comes to life when he utilizes the immortal themes of John Williams.

“Rogue One” was also a prequel, but it had a cast of characters you really cared about, and its story of sacrifice pushed all the right buttons as we came to deeply admire the heroic actions they took. Even though we know the secret plans of the Death Star would end up in the hands of the Rebels, getting there was more than half the fun. “Solo,” however, is nowhere as effective, and what results is a big disappointment and a missed opportunity. This marks the first time I have ever given a negative review for a “Star Wars” movie, and yes, I have seen “The Phantom Menace.”

Lucasfilm would be better off looking to the future instead of going back to the past. Enough backstory has been established for these iconic characters to where we don’t need any additional information. We will certainly be looking forward when “Episode IX” is released in December of 2019, but it appears other “Star Wars” origin movies are in the works such as one on Obi-Wan Kenobi. Seriously, I am with Ralph Garman when he said, wouldn’t a movie about Obi-Wan watching Luke Skywalker growing up from a distance be a little too creepy?

* * out of * * * *