MOVIE REVIEW: A pawn’s life

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Why would you make a movie about George W. Bush and exclude any serious discussion of Sept. 11?

By any reasonable measure, al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was an era-defining event and easily the single most important moment of the Bush presidency. In cliche-speak, it’s the day that changed everything.

So why would Oliver Stone ignore it in “W.”? Perhaps because he doesn’t think the attacks changed anything at all.

The conspiracy-minded director’s latest film is an extension of the principle argument put forth in Mr. Stone’s other presidential pictures, “JFK” and “Nixon,” namely that the military-industrial complex, and not the president, runs things.

In Oliver Stone’s world, the CIA, the military and the FBI conspired to kill President Kennedy for pulling out of the Bay of Pigs and trying to end the Vietnam War before it really got started. In Oliver Stone’s world, President Nixon has little to no control over ending the Vietnam War because the machinery of combat has become self-perpetuating — an idea he can’t comprehend until a college student spells it out for him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

In Oliver Stone’s “W.,” oilman Dick Cheney is committed to invading Iraq to steal its precious petroleum and to create an undefeatable military empire spanning the entirety of the Middle East and Central Asia. Sept. 11 didn’t prompt the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan: Sept. 11 was merely the excuse for the invasion.

• See related:With ‘W.’ Stone jumps gun on history

Leaving aside questions of Mr. Stone’s lack of fidelity to the historical record, “W.” is a muddled movie with myriad structural problems, the most profound of which seems to have been deciding where it should end. This is unsurprising, I suppose, since the Bush presidency — and the Iraq war with which it is so preoccupied — are both still unfolding.

Mr. Stone also tries to recycle a trick he utilized to great effect in “Nixon.” There are constant flashbacks to Mr. Bush’s formative years intended to examine his psychological hangups. The result in “W.” is confused, however; this is a movie that clearly could have used an extra month or two in the editing bay.

The performances resemble impersonations from mediocre “Saturday Night Live” skits. The likenesses are there, and some of the actors sound like their real-life counterparts (others don’t even try), but there’s little insight into their motivations. One notable exception is Jeffrey Wright, who does an excellent job of portraying Colin Powell’s inner conflict during the lead-up to the Iraq War: He played the good soldier in public despite his doubts about international support for a pre-emptive war and the lack of a clear exit strategy.

In the end, I’m unsure who “W.” will really appeal to: It’s a poor historical document; it’s not nasty enough for people who hate Bush and too nasty for the few still supporting him; and its visual blandness and structural problems preclude it from being considered a legitimate work of art.

**

TITLE: “W.”

RATING: PG-13 (language including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images)

CREDITS: Directed by Oliver Stone

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