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Photograph by Sidney Ray Baldwin
What the hell? : A younger George W. Bush wears the expression of belligerent perplexity so familiar to us all.

The Bushmaster

'W' charts POTUS' life, from hollaback boy to the White House in three decades.

By Richard von Busack

As they used to say about Nixon: at least he kept our boys out of Northern Ireland. Going from Alexander the Great to George W. Bush is a diminuendo for any tale teller. W. is an oddly cautious movie after Oliver Stone's last psychedelic farrago. (The least he could have done was hire Angelina Jolie as Laura Bush.) The central point of W. comes in a bunker scene where the Project for the New American Century is unfolded to our president by the various schemers, with Richard Dreyfuss' mottled Cheney first among them. Tense as this moment is, it could be done onstage. The mad opera of these past eight years, stuff fit for Suetonius, doesn't materialize.

This biopic is calm and caring, with a few moments of turmoil, like the incident of the pretzel that sneaked up on W.'s trachea. A delicious dream sequence has the elder Bush getting ready to punch his slow-learner son right in the Oval Office.

Josh Brolin is a first-rate actor, and the voice is just right, but he has to do 30 years in an epic life. He is a little old to play the young wastrel in scenes that move along with a lot of brio, beer and Texas swing, like Hud Part II. Stanley Weiser's script begins W.'s life at a Yale pledge-hazing. His early failures and his courtship with Laura (Elizabeth Banks, never better) flash forward to the flush of victory and the long agony of insurgency in Iraq. W's failed congressional candidacy ("No one is ever going to out-Christian me and out-Texas me again") draws the help of a magic dwarf (Toby Jones as Karl Rove, a weirdly benign portrayal).

Finally comes the gathering of the wonks we've all come to know and love. Jeffrey Wright's downtrodden Colin Powell battles with Scott Glenn's daydreaming Rummy. The savagely underrated actress Thandie Newton is a hoot as Condoleezza; hers is the single most deliciously vengeful piece of acting in the movie. We see Rice mostly in the background, nose raised, perceiving a bad odor. When on the attack, Newton has that irritated quack that shrewd black comedians use when they want to imitate a white person (Pryor did it best). When dithering or fretting, because of the brocade-stiff hair and the bleats of worry, it's Popeye's girlfriend, Olive Oyl.

John Cromwell's Poppy is also fine--I loved the way he flinched every time W patted him on the back. The film's premise is that W acts out to get paternal attention and then expects the world as the price of his reform. But Dad wasn't raised to express his love. This is, in Stone's view, the key to W's life, the rationale of a person born to underachieve who tries desperately to overachieve. The film suggests Jeb was the favorite (a la Walk Hard, maybe Poppy should have been humming "wrong son lost ...").

Stone uses occasionally wacky music to bring out the comedy of press conferences. Is it a laughing matter? W. purports to be a media scalping even though Stone and Brolin both insist on W's humanity.

Maybe this is a story told too soon. The comedic malapropisms aren't the real cause for the scorn: it's the things W meant to say, and did say, and the scornful laughter and the tin-plated solemnity. As Auden wrote: "When he cried, the little children died in the streets."

Movie Times W. (PG-13; 131 min.), directed by Oliver Stone, written by Stanley Weiser, photographed by Phedon Papamichael and starring Josh Brolin and Richard Dreyfuss, plays countywide.

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