Rushed into production last spring in order to make an October release date right in the heart of a presidential election director Oliver Stone’s W hits the bullseye with this fairly well-balanced portrait of George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) a man who grows up in the shadow of a larger-than-life father and goes on to serve in the White House four years longer than his “Poppy” did. Stone’s biographical study of the brash cowboy from Texas chronicles his early years as an oilman and baseball team owner through his run for Congress his work on his father’s presidential campaign his election as Governor of Texas and finally his ascent into the White House where he still sits today. We also see his courtship of Laura (Elizabeth Banks) and particularly his awkward dealings with his dad (James Cromwell) a complex relationship that ultimately forces W to rise up and compete with the legacy of his father and mentor. It’s that difficult dynamic between Bush Sr. and Jr. that forms the heart of the film and reveals the enigma that remains George W. Much of the story centers on the buildup to the decision to go into Iraq. Those sequences set in the White House situation room are at times hilarious in a Dr. Strangelove way and also a somewhat sobering if speculative window into how the Bush Administration does things. This film could not succeed if it was played as simply a Saturday Night Live sketch favoring impersonation over interpretation. Stone asked his actors to get the “spirit” of their respective characters and the results are impressive indeed. Brolin hits a career high and leaps into the Oscar race with his portrayal of George W. Bush. He’s close enough physically although more movie star in looks but he neatly captures the bravado and masked insecurities at the heart of the 43rd President particularly when dealing with his father brilliantly played by Cromwell. Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time but certainly captures what we think we know about the former First Lady. Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush is charming and winning. As for the Bush Administration figures who play a pivotal part in the proceedings Richard Dreyfuss stands out playing VP Dick Cheney as a Machiavellian figure out to create an empire in the Middle East. He loses himself in the skin of Cheney with almost effortless ease. Equally impressive is Toby Young who not only resembles political mastermind and Bush operative Karl Rove but turns this polarizing figure into a three-dimensional human being. Stacy Keach as a religious influence and Scott Glenn as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also shine in their few scenes. Less successful are Jeffrey Wright lacking authority as the imposing Colin Powell and Thandie Newton trying too hard to become Condoleeza Rice. There is no question Oliver Stone knows his way around this kind of controversial subject matter but what may shock many is the measured and thoughtful way he approaches the material. Screenwriter Stanley Weiser’s take on Bush is to present a man haunted by the legacy of his father with a need to prove he is tougher and stronger. Stone approaches it as straight biography while also treating it as part comedy. Despite its dramatic structure W. is often subtly played for laughs. Clearly the cast of characters in this almost Shakespearean tragedy gives the filmmaker lots of fodder but they are presented in a surprisingly respectful manner. Even W comes off as an empathetic and sometimes likeable figure a cowboy in the White House. As always Stone’s command of the medium is impressive and this is one of his finest films in many years. There’s something about a president that sparks him creatively whether it’s J.F.K. Nixon and now W.. Ultimately he holds back his own views and presents the man warts and all; he lets the viewer decide what place in history there will be for George W. Bush and by extension the film Stone has made about him.
From the creators of the TNT miniseries Gettysburg including executive producer Ted Turner and writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell Gods chronicles the Civil War from its beginnings when the South rises up. Confederate General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) a distinguished military man but also a loyal native Virginian chooses to fight for his home rather than his country while Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang) a devoutly religious man becomes Lee's most trusted lieutenant. On the other side we have Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) a professor from Maine who ends up one of the Union's finest military leaders. In between there are glimpses of the wives and families left behind. Stories of this magnitude with their dramatic bloody battles and tragic endings usually leave you numb or crying for those lives lost and destroyed. Instead Gods and Generals holds no resonance whatsoever meticulously plotting out the details and making this decisive moment in American history interminable at three and a half hours. It's like wading through a textbook--or worse watching Civil War fanatics carefully reenact the famous battle scenes on the very ground they were fought over and over again--while the players stand around quoting long-winded verse from the Bible or Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Blech.
The actors in Gods and Generals must have honestly thought they were making something important when they signed up. Main players Lang (who played Major Gen. George Pickett in Gettysburg) and Daniels (who reprises his Gettysburg role as Chamberlain) have their moments but after hearing them recite one speech after another especially Lang's Jackson who says more prayers to God than anything else you start to wonder if they ever realized they made a mistake. (Or have we for sitting through it?) One of the more superfluous scenes is when Jackson and his black cook Jim played by Frankie Faison are standing outside in the freezing cold night for about 15 minutes both looking up at the stars and praying to God. It seems like the actors are trying to make such sermonizing poignant meaningful but all this pontification simply drags the movie further down. These speeches aren't just Lang's and Daniels' territory--Mira Sorvino as Chamberlain's wife and Kali Rocha as Jackson's wife get their own personal moments in the sun too. If you count the cast of thousands each with their own things to say well you get the point. Thankfully Duvall who is the only good thing about the movie gets to keep the talking to a minimum.
If you want to see a Civil War melodrama at its best where watching the heroes race through a sacked city makes you hold your breath and witnessing horrific hospital scenes makes you squirm then watch Gone With the Wind. If you want gut-wrenching Civil War battles or more understanding of how slaves truly felt then watch Glory. If you want a heartening history lesson about the Civil War that not only teaches you about the era's political machinations but also shares the insights and thoughts of the men and women who experienced it then watch Ken Burns' documentary series The Civil War. Gods and Generals offers none of that in its dry textbook version of the Civil War which uses the same shots are used over and over again (how many times does the camera pan up to the night sky or show the panoramic view of Fredericksburg Virginia? I lost count) features more actors waxing prophetic than real drama and actually makes you yawn during what should be intense battle scenes.