The director of the films JFK and Nixon has now fixed his viewfinder on another American president — a sitting president this time.
In the movie W., Oliver Stone offers a fictionalized portrait of George W. Bush. And if you've seen the trailers — with the elder George Bush chastising a rowdy frat-boy Dubya for conduct unbecoming — you might well be expecting a take-no-prisoners comedy.
"Partying, chasing tail, driving drunk," says Bush senior. "Who do you think you are, a Kennedy? You're a Bush. Act like one."
That's a nice line — worthy of a Saturday Night Live sketch — but it's not really in keeping with the rest of what turns out to be a surprisingly unsurprising film. Oliver Stone isn't being evenhanded exactly, but this isn't the hatchet job some may have expected.
In fact, if you know a little something about George W.'s back story — about the baseball team he once owned, the state he once governed, the schools he once didn't apply himself at, and the religion he found on his way to sobriety — Stone's not really telling you anything new.
There are details that surprise — Josh Brolin's broadly boorish Dubya does a lot of talking with food in his mouth, for instance.
But then broadness serves as a kind of shorthand here, especially with subordinate characters. Condoleezza Rice is a cartoon, Barbara Bush a hairstyle.
And when actors manage to go deeper, they're still dealing largely in caricature — Richard Dreyfuss having a high old time making Dick Cheney a flat-out Machiavelli, for instance, especially when dealing with subordinates.
In one scene, at least, Dubya is having none of it when Dreyfuss' Cheney tries to bully his way past an embarrassment: photographic proof that what his people had told him were caves suitable for hiding weapons of mass destruction were actually trenches for feeding cattle.
"You grew up in Wyoming; you should damn well know cattle," explodes the president. "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, and and and ... you can't get fooled again."
That often-mocked line, you'll note, has been repurposed — moved from the public setting that got it on YouTube into a behind-closed-doors setting in the movie. It's a bit of revisionism that will cause fits among viewers looking for historical accuracy.
But Stone is no more interested in historical accuracy here than he was in Alexander, when he had Angelina Jolie wearing live snakes.
As with that ancient-epic portrait of a powerful leader whose insecurities loomed large, Stone sees W. as a man compromised by familial expectations — a son who ran for the presidency to prove something to his father, who took his country to war to avenge his father, and who remains, after all of that, a man still looking for fatherly affirmation.
And that is a perfectly reasonable premise on which to base a character portrait, even of a president. Something similar worked for a king in Oedipus Rex, after all.
As Stone fills the Oval Office with the equivalent of bickering noblemen and court jesters, and even has his troubled prince visited by a ghostly apparition of his father in a dream sequence, he makes a case for the approach.
If we, as an audience, had more distance — if, say, the director were dealing with President John Adams and his presidential son John Quincy Adams (call the movie Q.) — the approach might work more persuasively.
But we're awfully close to the real events in W., still feeling the effects of this presidency, still seeing these people on the news each night. So the director's concentration on personality flaws feels a little off-point somehow — insufficient, almost frivolous.
That's particularly true after a sequence in which Stone shows us the real carnage in Iraq, the shots of the dead and the wounded a terrible reminder of the real-world consequences of the story we've been watching. Could a wounded ego really be the explanation for so much savagery?
And if so, is the right response a movie as breezy as W.?