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HTF Blu-ray Review: W.



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#1 of 10 Michael Reuben

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Posted February 08 2009 - 11:29 AM

Note: This review has been written to conform with HTF Rule 4. All posts in this thread
should similarly conform to the Rule. Technical questions or questions about features are
welcome from anyone. Discussion of the film's content requires that you have seen it (see
Rule 4).


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W. (Blu-ray)



Studio: Lionsgate
Rated: PG-13
Film Length: 129 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS HD-MA 7.1; French DD 5.1 (640 kbps); English DTS 2.0
Subtitles: English; English SDH; Spanish
MSRP: $39.99
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Package: Keepcase
Theatrical Release Date: Oct. 17, 2008
Blu-ray Release Date: Feb. 10, 2009


Introduction:


W. isn't what critics and viewers expected from Oliver Stone, and the misleading marketing
campaign from Lionsgate didn't help. Instead of a satire or an exposé, the film presents the story
of a tragic hero, in the classical sense: one who achieves greatness through his inherent abilities,
and then is knocked from the heights by the same qualities that boosted him there in the first
place. Of the relatively few people willing to see a film about the 43rd President on the eve of the
2008 election, many were looking for payback and didn't find it. Some reviews complained
about a "pulled punch".

The best way to approach W. is to treat it as a "what if the life of George W. Bush. Even Stone admits, in his commentary to this disc, that "who knows
what the real George Bush is like?" Still, there's an extensive public record from which Stone,
his screenwriter and his remarkable cast have managed to fashion a story that is both a terrific
entertainment and a provocative morality tale.

The Feature:

We open with an image that will recur at several points in the film: that of GWB (as I shall call
the film's protagonist for purposes of this review) alone on the field in a baseball stadium
listening to the roar of an unseen crowd. For GWB, baseball was the true aspiration; his happiest
time was as co-owner of the Texas Rangers, and his dream job would have been Commissioner
of Baseball.

The scene fades to the Oval Office in 2002. President GWB is presiding over a meeting of
advisers and officials that settles on the term "axis of evil" to describe the nations that sponsor
terrorism. In short order, we get impressions of each of the participants and their operating style:
GWB (Josh Brolin), the presiding chairman; Dep. Chief of Staff Karl Rove (Toby Jones), quick
with poll numbers; Sec. of State Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), the skeptic taking the long
historical view; Dep. Sec. of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris), the disciplined
academic; Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton), the unstinting supporter; Sec. of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), uninterested in anything that doesn't directly involve the Pentagon; CIA
Director George Tenet (Bruce McGill), the irascible career spy; and Vice President Dick Cheney
(Richard Dreyfuss), watching everything and waiting for just the right moment to intervene.

The meeting concludes with a prayer, and we fade to 1966, when GWB is being hazed as a
fraternity pledge at Yale. Despite being immersed in ice water, force-fed massive amounts of
alcohol and intimidated by a vicious pledgemaster, GWB can still summon enough presence of
mind to identify every member in the room by name and nickname: a feat of attention and memory
that silences all of them and prompts a senior member to tell them, "Do you know who this is?"

The film's narrative structure is now set, as it shifts between events during GWB's first term as
President and key events during GWB's earlier life. The young GWB struggled to find his way in
life, trying and abandoning a succession of careers, always laboring in the shadow of his
eminent father (played by James Cromwell) and his younger brother, Jeb (seen only briefly), who
seemed to be following the family playbook to perfection. Meanwhile, GWB's greatest talent
was for partying with his friends, a quality that leads his father to exclaim, with palpable disgust:
"Who do you think you are, a Kennedy? You're a Bush!"

At one of his friend's barbecues, GWB meets Laura Welch (a marvelous Elizabeth Banks), and
the two share an instant attraction. Laura sees him through his first political campaign, an
unsuccessful bid for the House of Representatives. GWB's drinking continues to be problem,
though, and one morning while trying to run off a hangover, he collapses in a field. This proves
to be his moment of clarity. Six months later, we find GWB deeply engaged in religious study
with Rev. Earle Hudd (a composite character played, with gravity and dignity, by the great Stacy
Keach). In a powerful scene, GWB asks Rev. Earle for help, and Rev. Earle responds with a
tough-love explanation of the responsibilities of accepting Christ into one's life. They pray
together.

A sign of GWB's increasing maturation is the call from his father to move to Washington and
help run his 1988 campaign for President. The film takes dramatic license by crediting GWB
(and Karl Rove) with some of the rougher campaign tactics (notably, the famous Willie Horton
ad) that were, in reality, the brainchild of Lee Atwater. But the campaign is successful, and Bush
Sr. becomes the 41st President, while GWB returns to Texas to co-own and manage a baseball
team.

Then comes the Gulf War of 1991. Cheney is Sec. of Defense, Powell is Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs, and together with Bush Sr., they make the decision not to invade Iraq and remove
Saddam Hussein from power. Cheney will come to regard this as a mistake, as will GWB. And
despite what Bush Sr. considers the finest achievement of his presidency, he is defeated in the
1992 election. The scene in which the family watches the election results together is devastating
on a human level regardless of one's personal sentiments about the election's outcome.

GWB returns to Texas and decides to run for governor, even though no one believes he can
win - no one, that is, except Rove. The scene between Toby Jones and Josh Brolin in which
Rove coaches GWB shows what a quick study GWB was - the native intelligence never fails
him - but, at the same time, how little interest he appears to have in the positions he's espousing.
It's all about what works, and when we next see him, he's in the governor's office and has
summoned Rev. Earle to meet with him. There he tells the startled preacher that he has felt the
call to run for President. Through sheer determination and faith in Christ, GWB has completed
his journey from privileged loser to disciplined achiever. He is ready for his moment in history.

All of these scenes from GWB's life before the Presidency are intercut with scenes from the lead-up
to the invasion of Iraq (at both the White House and the Crawford ranch) and the immediate
aftermath, including the "mission accomplished" speech, the failure to find any weapons of mass
destruction and the birth of the insurgency. The final scene from GWB's Presidency is a
somewhat surreal press conference that is a composite of quotations from the real George W.
Bush. The confidence and the swagger that were clearly on display up until now are gone, as is the
unquestioning devotion of the press. Although we know that GWB will go on to win a second
term, the moment when he could control his and America's destiny is over. The long, slow
decline has begun.

In the film's final image, GWB has returned to his happy reverie of a baseball field. There's the
crack of a bat connecting to a ball, and GWB falls back into the perfect position for a catch in
center field (his favorite position). But he never makes the play. The ball has mysteriously
vanished.

W. would not work without the extraordinary performance of Josh Brolin in the title
role. Though reluctant to take the part, Brolin gives a portrayal of uncommon depth and
nuance, infusing the character of GWB with a full measure of humanity at every moment. He has
all of the mannerisms and inflections familiar to anyone within sight of a TV for the past eight
years, but they never seem like a parody or a caricature - no mean feat when portraying someone
who has been a favorite target for the likes of Will Farrell and Will Forte. You genuinely feel the
deep suffering of GWB as he struggles with the frustration of disappointing both himself and his
famous father, and you also feel the exhilaration once he conquers his demons through his
acceptance of Christ and feels that he can now accomplish something. It should also be noted that
there is not a hint of condescension in the film's treatment of the experience of being born again,
and that Stacy Keach portrays Rev. Earle as an authentic man of God.

The rest of the family member cast is equally powerful. Laura Banks glows with quiet intensity
as Laura Bush. She has less to work with, because the woman she is portraying is notoriously
private, but she manages to project the same enigmatic charisma that made Mrs. Bush a popular
First Lady. James Cromwell does not look or sound like Bush Sr., but he bears an air of patrician
authority that conveys the stalwart Yankee essence of the 41st President and draws a clear line of
temperamental contrast between himself and his eldest son. As Barbara Bush, Ellen Burstyn
shows why she's had such a long and successful career; she takes a few minutes of screen time
and burns them into your memory.

The cast playing GWB's administration is also excellent, but their job is more difficult. The
family scenes can be written with some degree of freedom, but the scenes involving Iraq have to
convey both substantial information and various conflicting positions in relatively little screen
time. The scenes are well-written, but one is often aware that no real policy discussion would
proceed in this fashion. (For example, I doubt Colin Powell ever addressed the Vice President of
the United States as "Mr. Five Deferments", though having him do so in the film is an
economical way to make a point.) As a result, the dialogue often sounds like dueling talking
points, and the actors have to work overtime to make it play like genuine discussion.

Within these constraints, they do exceptionally well. Toby Jones captures Karl Rove's cheerful
utilitarianism, while Dennis Boutsikaris gives Wolfowitz a policy wonk's intensity. The reliable
Bruce McGill huffs and puffs with frustration at what he clearly perceives as the administration's
lack of professionalism, but then delivers his famous "slam dunk" line almost casually. Scott Glenn
has been criticized for the clownish way he portrays Rumsfeld, but Rumsfeld often clowned
around as a technique for deflecting inquiries he didn't want to answer, and we see him do it
during the very first scene in the Oval Office.

Thandie Newton's portrayal of Condoleeza Rice has drawn much criticism as an "SNL parody",
and I must admit that, on a first viewing, I couldn't recognize the sober academic I'd seen in
public appearances. Only on second viewing did I realize that Newton was playing a different
side of Rice, a non-public side that I've never seen but that there must be records of somewhere.
(In Stuff Happens, a play by the English writer David Hare, Gloria Reuben played Rice with
much the same demeanor as Newton; she must have had access to some of the same materials.)
What's notable about Rice as she's portrayed in W. is that she never says anything of substance.
She nods a lot, supports whatever GWB says, but offers no opinions of her own. She's an advisor
who gives no advice - a caricature, if you will, of what a national security advisor should be.

Jeffrey Wright plays Colin Powell as the true skeptic in the group. The extent to which the real
Powell challenged prevailing sentiments on Iraq remains a subject of debate, but for purposes of
the film, a strong representative of contrary views was needed, and Powell was the only logical
candidate. So Wright plays him as the tough critic, challenging everyone in the room, especially
Cheney, with whom he'd overseen the Gulf War but from which the two of them emerged with
opposite views. At the same time, Wright never loses touch with the side of Powell that remained
a loyal soldier, and when we last see him, he is addressing the United Nations, gamely making
the official case that Iraq has WMDs.

But the performance that towers over the 21st century scenes is that of Richard Dreyfuss as Vice
President Cheney. As with Brolin, Dreyfuss succeeds by playing a human being, even though
Cheney is the closest thing the film has to offer as a villain. Dreyfuss' Dick Cheney is a man
who, through long experience in government, has reached strongly held conclusions about what
needs to be done to ensure America's future, and who is determined to see those policies
implemented in any way he can. Since he knows he can never be the leader ("You have the
touch, sir, not I", he tells GWB), he knows who he has to persuade, and we watch as he initially
hangs back, letting the other advisors squabble, and then gradually moves in closer to make his
case. It's a masterful portrayal of a masterful operator.


Video:

Lionsgate presents W. in a superb 2.35:1 transfer that perfectly reproduces the film's distinctive
palette and texture. Particularly in the scenes during the Presidency, the film is harshly lit with
saturated colors and visible grain, and that look is accurately reproduced here. A number of the
scenes set in the past are darker and less saturated, and those too are accurately reproduced. I did
not detect any instances of noise reduction or edge enhancement, and I can't find anything to
criticize. If your equipment is properly adjusted, you should be able to see W. just as it looked
theatrically.

Audio:

The DTS HD-MA 7.1 mix does a nice job with voices and the musical score, which mixes both
original compositions and popular tunes, but the rest of the mix is not especially noteworthy. The
surrounds are used for crowds and other ambient noises, but the sound design of the film is not
elaborate.

Special Features:

The video for all special features is in HD.

Commentary by Oliver Stone. Stone's commentary gives relatively little information about the
making of the film or the casting process (although he does give an interesting description of
how Elizabeth Banks was cast as Laura Bush). His focus is primarily on the story and the way in
which he and screenwriter Stanley Weiser shaped numerous factual sources into a filmable
screenplay. He notes numerous instances of dramatic compression, dramatic license and
composite characters, and is refreshingly candid about the need for simplifying inherently
complex material for the sake of telling a compelling story in a dramatic form. Stone's
fascination with the protagonist of his film is evident throughout, although he acknowledges at
several points that it may not be the real man.

Deleted scenes (w/optional commentary) (app. 17:00). These include a much extended scene
with British Prime Minister Tony Blair that, as Stone notes in his commentary, is full of
interesting detail but would have slowed down the movie at a late point in its running time. There
are also several short scenes deemed unnecessary to the narrative and an alternate version of the
infamous "pretzel choking" scene.

Perhaps of greatest interest is a scene deleted after previews featuring Michael Shannon (now
Oscar-nominated for Revolutionary Road) as Arthur Blessit, a born-again preacher whose
meeting with GWB starts him on the path to salvation. Shannon gives a compelling performance
in this scene, but Stone explains in his commentary that audiences found it confusing that in
subsequent scenes GWB was still drinking and confessing doubts to Rev. Earle. Although this
was a more realistic depiction - salvation does not come overnight - the filmmakers realized that
this was an instance requiring dramatic compression, and Shannon's scene had to be cut.

Dangerous Dynasty: The Bush Presidency featurette (17:48). Despite the title, this featurette is
less about any connection between the administrations of the two President Bushes than it is
about the growth in the power of the executive branch since the administration of Richard Nixon.
It's essentially a series of talking heads, but they're well-spoken. With the possible exception of
Robert Novak, the speakers disapprove of the extent to which executive power has increased.
Given the nature of the film for which the featurette was made, and the identity of its director
(the featurette was produced and directed by Stone's son, Sean), one has to wonder whether
proponents of a contrary view would have even agreed to be interviewed.

No Stranger to Controversy: Oliver Stone's George W. Bush featurette (16:34).This is a
better-than-average making-of featurette in which Stone talks about his inspirations for the film
and Brolin talks about how Stone pursued him for the part. (Brolin resisted for a long time.)
Stone notes at the outset that he and the 43rd President were in the same class at Yale (though
Stone dropped out), and refers to him as an "enormously powerful, magnetic compelling figure"
whose fall from immense popularity to enormous disapproval struck Stone as being a tragedy of
"King Lear" proportions. Like the "Dangerous Dynasty" featurette, this one was produced and
directed by Stone's son, Sean.

"W." - Filmmakers' Research and Annotations Guide. An informative bibliography of
sources for material used in the film, including both facts and lines of dialogue. It's a useful read
not only for distinguishing what's real from what's invented, but also because it shows how
statements from different occasions have been composited for dramatic purposes. I found this
particularly useful in understanding the final press conference presented in the film, which
sounded so odd that at first I thought it was a dream sequence. It turns out that the oddity is
attributable to the combination of elements (one of them an obvious instance of misspeaking)
from several public appearances by GWB. The surrealism is obviously intended to provide a kind
of transition into the final dream sequence. Whether or not it's effective I leave up to the
individual viewer.

Trailers. In addition to the film's trailer in HD (available under special features), the film is
preceded by trailers in HD for The Haunting in Connecticut, New in Town, The Bank Job, The
Doors, Rambo
and Lord of War.


Final Thoughts:

In an interview shortly after the film's release, Richard Dreyfuss complained that it was missing a
character: namely, "us". I don't agree, because "we" are the viewers of the film. We are the ones
who have to decide the significance of the events depicted in the film, and that decision will be
different one, five and ten years from now as those events play out on the world-historical stage.
(My reaction to the film changed just in the three months between the theatrical viewing and this
viewing on disc.) In the meantime, we have a compelling tale of a man whose simple faith in the
enduring value of right and freedom allowed him to turn his life around and achieve the highest
office in the land, only to find that, while his faith could move some of the world's levers, it
couldn't control them all. This may not be the real George W. Bush, but it's a great story.


Equipment used for this review:

Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
Velodyne HGS-10 sub



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#2 of 10 Richard Gallagher

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Posted February 09 2009 - 05:22 AM

Michael,

That is one superbly-written review. I was on the fence about this one, but now I am convinced that it is a must-see.

One question which hadn't occurred to me before -- does the film suggest that GWB and Cheney believe that the decision not to invade Iraq in 1991 was a factor in the 1992 election?
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#3 of 10 Michael Reuben

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Posted February 09 2009 - 06:31 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Richard Gallagher
does the film suggest that GWB and Cheney believe that the decision not to invade Iraq in 1991 was a factor in the 1992 election?
There's some suggestion that GWB may think so, but it's not a big element. The appeal for him is that it's a strong, forward move -- the same kind that brought him to his current position -- and he has a bunch of advisers telling him, each for their own reasons, what a great idea it is (with Powell as the lone voice of dissent).

Cheney, as played by Dreyfess, has moved far beyond electoral concerns. He presents his rationale with chilling clarity and persuasiveness during a conference room scene about halfway through the film. I don't want to spoil it, but it's pretty stunning.

And thanks for the kind words!
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#4 of 10 Richard Gallagher

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Posted February 10 2009 - 02:42 PM

Michael,

Thanks. I ordered it yesterday and will pop it in as soon as it arrives. In the meantime, I have the new Blu-ray double feature of In Cold Blood and Capote to check out.
Rich Gallagher

#5 of 10 Josh Dial

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Posted February 10 2009 - 04:19 PM

Just popped in to say I bought the BD of "W" based solely on Michael's review, which was well-written and detailed where it needed to be.

#6 of 10 Michael Elliott

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Posted February 10 2009 - 05:47 PM

Great review, bland movie. I was going to watch this movie at some point but ran out to get the disc today based on this review and I must say that Stone would have been wise to allowed Michael to write the screenplay. I found this review to be the best thing about the movie, which comes as a major disappointment to me considering how much I love Stone's work.

I'm really not sure where to start but perhaps I'm just tired of all the Bush talk and this had me wishing the movie would end sooner rather than later. The thing just left me flat because I didn't sense any real energy or life to it.

I respect Stone for being down the middle considering the subject and not just throwing punches but the film didn't do much for me.

#7 of 10 Southpaw

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Posted February 12 2009 - 01:23 AM

I actually liked and really got into the early years and pre-presidency scenes in the movie but whenever there were scenes portraying the presidency years, the SNL characters of Rice, Powell and Rumsfeld were totally distracting and took me out of the movie. I think it would have been better if they didn't try so hard to get the look and all the mannerisms down. It would have seemed less "parody-ish".
And Stone's commentary was a hoot. Man, that guy is bitter. He admits fabricating most of the scenes and dialogue in the movie which gave me a totally different perspective of the film. I thought much less of it after listening to him, which is unusual for me because I usually love his commentaries.

#8 of 10 Sam Davatchi

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Posted February 13 2009 - 06:13 AM

I got this BD 2 weeks ago. I was surprised how straightforward this movie was. First indeed it’s not a satire. Second, don’t expect JFK or Nixon. The style is different. However it seems he tried, you can see some evidence in the deleted scenes. There are some abandoned fantasy scenes that I think they wouldn't have worked ultimately.

#9 of 10 Richard Gallagher

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Posted March 03 2009 - 02:04 AM

I watched this over the weekend. My initial impression of the characterization of Rice was that it was a caricature, but upon reflection I agree that what Stone was striving for was to portray her personal relationship with Bush rather than show her public persona. This may stem, at least in part, from her 2004 Freudian slip when she began to refer to Bush as her husband. In any event, I thought that the sharpest criticism of Rice came from Powell, during a meeting when he referred to her as a National Security Advisor who "doesn't advise."

In any event, this certainly is no George Bush hatchet job, as Stone gives him the benefit of the doubt on the WMD issue. Brolin is terrific -- he managed to capture the essence of Bush without doing an impersonation. Will Ferrell is doing his Bush thing on HBO in a couple of weeks, which should make for an interesting comparison.
Rich Gallagher

#10 of 10 Neil Middlemiss

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Posted March 16 2009 - 03:53 AM

Superb review and a very, very good film. I watched this over the weekend and appreciated Stone's take on the man and his presidency. I could have enjoyed a harder, less forgiving look at GWB but was pleased that this was the approach taken. Odd, balanced, sympathetic and nuanced - W. is well worth watching, for people on either side of the aisle.
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