An odd and largely unsatisfying mix of parody and trite psychodrama, Oliver Stone's W. can't decide if its central figure is a shrewd calculator eager to play up his religious conviction for votes, an earnest sap who really believes he's doing what's best for the country or a figure of outright ridicule who can barely form a coherent sentence let alone run the most powerful nation in the world. But one thing's for sure, in the simplistic view of Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser, just about every action taken by President Bush (played here by Josh Brolin) is done with one eye toward his father, a man whose desperately sought admiration always seems to elude him. Shuffling back and forth in time between the eve of the Iraq War and the embryonic stages in their subject's personal development - from his rabble-rousing frat boy days at Yale to his first aborted run at local politics to his eventual rise to the Presidency - the filmmakers attribute the hubris of the current administration to a desire on the chief executive's part to not only earn the senior Bush's respect but to outdo him at his own game. George W. may be speaking in earnest when he tells his cabinet that invading Iraq will help protect the United States (the motivations of Cheney and Rumsfeld on the other hand are predictably more sinister), but the film has grounded the President's psychology so firmly in filial neurosis that we have difficulty accepting any other motive but the desire to impress his implacable Poppy.
If that sounds reductive, it is. The film works better when taken as something approaching parody, allowing us to savor the unsettling sensation of seeing the near likenesses of contemporary public figures repeating their now signature lines (Bush worrying about Saddam's "misunderestimating" him, the bit about trading Sammy Sosa) for our amusement, but without the explicit just-for-laughs intent of a late-night comedy sketch. In those sequences where elementary "psychobabble" (the term itself figures in the script) is set comfortably aside, Stone offers us the chance to see the most powerful people in the world rendered as puffed-up grotesques, an impression heightened by Stone's frequent use of the wide angle lens, as the various stupidities, hypocrisies, and power plays of Bush and his cabinet members are injected with a frightening measure of exaggeration. Stone systematically deflates the image of these men (and one woman - Condoleezza Rice played by Thandie Newton as an unbearably high-pitched squeaker), while at the same time bringing to their presentation a sort of hyperreality - rendering Bush and his cohorts as at once larger-than-life and pitifully, despicably human. As Stone zips us through a narrative that we've already learned by heart (no surprises figure in the film's catalog of events), the portrait of its central figure becomes, finally, incoherent, as the director's desire to play fair with his subject is undercut by his obvious disdain for the administration's policies. But Stone's Bush registers, too, as oddly endearing, an impression heightened by the director's establishment of an unsettling proximity - always tempered by a certain quasi-mythical distance - between audience and principal character. In the end, this push-pull relationship between viewer and subject ensures that Bush remains as before, a man at once overly familiar and hopelessly remote from an America that likes to pretend it knows its public figures far better than could conceivably be possible.