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Opens: Oct. 17 (Lionsgate)

Oliver Stone's "W." -- his take on the life and legacy of George W. Bush -- might be the first movie ever to come with footnotes.

To counter those who are going to characterize his film as propaganda by a latte-drinking Hollywood liberal, Stone aims to have a Web site up for the film's release that will detail all sources for the anecdotes in his film and the rationale about why, when and how they were used. But the real question is not whether W. got a girl in trouble during his wild youth or whether he really eats food, picks his teeth and talks at the same time. What matters is what led our 43rd president to need a war to prove himself.

Here Stone and writer Stanley Weiser stick to the father-son dynamic that many other biographers and political commentators have championed. It presents its anecdotes so as to psychoanalyze a sitting president and to underscore the strengths and weaknesses of W.'s character, which are reflected in his behavior and eventual policies in the Oval Office.

It's a gutsy movie but not necessarily a good one. Its greatest strength is that it wants to talk about what's on our minds right now and not wait for historians. In an election season, people will have opinions -- or not -- about "W." before even seeing it, so boxoffice might be erratic. It deserves a fair hearing by U.S. audiences, though, for Stone goes out of his way to give Bush a fair hearing.

"W." is not really a political movie per se; rather, it's a movie about a man who went into politics but probably shouldn't have. It's about how a father can misread a son, how a son can suffer in the shadow of a famous dad and how temperament gets molded by events both internal and external.

The film gets off to an awkward start with a presidential bull session with speechwriters and top advisers that produced W.'s "Axis of Evil" speech about Iran, Iraq and North Korea. It borders perilously close to a "Saturday Night Live" sketch.

We are introduced to Josh Brolin's impersonation of W., Richard Dreyfuss' uncanny Dick Cheney, Thandie Newton's Condoleezza Rice, Scott Glenn's Donald Rumsfeld and Jeffrey Wright's Colin Powell. And everyone is right on target: They act, bluster and argue just like we thought they would -- only they seem like figures in a wax museum.

The movie soon overcomes an audience's natural preoccupation with how actors play people still in the national spotlight to draw us into the story of George W. Bush, the black sheep of a dignified Yankee family of politicians and public servants. His dad, George Sr. (James Cromwell), is too busy climbing the power ladder to do more than shake his head at his son's indiscretions at Yale and then in a succession of failed business ventures in Texas and elsewhere.

W. resorts to the bottle and to rebellion against family propriety. He woos his wife, Laura (Elizabeth Banks), by crashing a car into the garage door when she criticizes a speech. He loses an election, discovers God and gives up booze, but his thin skin and to-the-manor-born arrogance never desert him.

The film's hopscotch over high (and low) lights is too brief and shallow to do more than register as Key Moments in the formation of character. The movie is framed by a weird device that finds W. in an empty baseball stadium -- he once owned the Texas Rangers -- playing an imaginary and presumably metaphorical game by himself. A brief dream sequence about a combative confrontation with his father in the Oval Office is the film's other excursion into nonsourced anecdotes.

The only seeming commentary by Stone comes in the music selections -- "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "The Yellow Rose of Texas," the theme from "Robin Hood" and even "The Whiffenpoof Song." Otherwise, Stone refuses to show his hand as a political provocateur or a satirist. He wants to let the facts speak for themselves.

But do they? It's all too easy, too pat. Can George W. Bush really be solved in two-plus hours?

Brolin is pitch-perfect, and though he doesn't look that much like W., he creates a memorable character that might not be W. but has vitality in his certitude and confusion. The same goes for Cromwell, who isn't so insistent at mimicking the 41st president as catching his patient, patrician nature.

Dreyfuss is scary good as a Machiavellian Cheney. Wright's Powell and Toby Jones' Karl Rove are dead-on. Yet Glenn doesn't quite get the smugness of the former secretary of defense.

The women are less successful. Newton is stiff and unconvincing as Rice, while Banks and Ellen Burstyn don't seem to know what to do with Laura and Barbara Bush.

All tech credits are solid as Stone tones down the visual razzle-dazzle to zero in on character. What he seems to want is Greek tragedy. But what he gets is Texas melodrama.


Production companies: QED International, Omnilab Media, Lionsgate.
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Burstyn, James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss, Thandie Newton, Toby Jones, Stacy Keach, Scott Glenn.
Director: Oliver Stone.
Screenwriter: Stanley Weiser.
Producers: Bill Block, Moritz Borman, Eric Kopeloff, Paul Hanson.
Executive producers: Albert Young, Thomas Sterchi, Elliot Ferwerda, Johnny Hon, Teresa Cheung, Tom Ortenberg, Christopher Mapp, David Whealy, Matthew Street, Peter Graves.
Director of photography: Phedon Papamichael.
Production designer: Derek Hill.
Music: Paul Cantelon.
Costume designer: Michael Dennison.
Editor: Julie Monroe.
Sales: QED International
Rated PG-13, 129 minutes.


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