VARIETY: Oliver Stone’s unusual and inescapably interesting “W.” feels like a rough draft of a film it might behoove him to remake in 10 or 15 years. The director’s third feature to hinge on a modern-era presidency, after “JFK” and “Nixon,” offers a clear and plausible take on the current chief executive’s psychological makeup and, considering Stone’s reputation and Bush’s vast unpopularity, a relatively even-handed, restrained treatment of recent politics. For a film that could have been either a scorching satire or an outright tragedy, “W.” is, if anything, overly conventional, especially stylistically. The picture possesses dramatic and entertainment value, but beyond serious filmgoers curious about how Stone deals with all this president’s men and women, it’s questionable how wide a public will pony up to immerse itself in a story that still lacks an ending.
Opening with a post-9/11 cabinet meeting in the Oval Office in which the phrase “axis of evil” was concocted, then jumping back in time to begin a procession of key events in the life of a privileged party boy with something to prove, Stone and his “Wall Street” scenarist Stanley Weiser position the film, above all, as a father-son story. Long uncertain what his role in life is meant to be, the young George W. is severely chastised by his patrician father for his wayward behavior — “What do you think you are, a Kennedy?,” blares George Sr. (James Cromwell) after one of his son’s drunken escapades — but is nonetheless always let off the hook and given another chance by his father, who lacks the cojones to truly leave W. to his own devices and, later, to pursue Saddam Hussein to Baghdad in the 1991 Gulf War.
As the film continues to bounce back and forth between the Iraq-dominated presidency and George W.’s unlikely transformation from a life as a ne’er-do-well rich kid to one of born-again Christianity, sobriety, ambition and resolve, it occasionally delivers intimations of looming tragedy, or at least of history that didn’t have to unfold as it did. But the film is unable to achieve more than a sort of engaging pop-history pageant and amateur, if not inapt, psychological evaluation, due to the unavoidable lack of perspective and a final act that has yet to be written. When the Texas flashbacks finally catch up with the Washington, D.C., framing device, the film suddenly becomes a half-documentary about the Iraq war, changing the tone as well as the up-close-and-personal feel. MORE