Multiple Oscar-winner Oliver Stone may be adapting new tones as a filmmaker, but he has certainly not lost his ability to surprise those who claim to understand his style and artistic motivations. After the director adapted a shockingly apolitical approach to the events of September 11th and instead turned them into a small-scale tale of survival in World Trade Center, some expected his biopic of George W. Bush to signal a return to the fearless societal criticism that made Stone famous.
Instead, as both the filmmaker’s own comments and today’s reviews suggest, W. continues on a gentler, subtler path. The toned-down satire has impressed some and bored others, but the film’s intentional lack of outward aggression towards the outgoing president has been the primary focus of almost every review of the film.
“Oliver Stone isn’t being evenhanded exactly, but this isn’t the hatchet job some may have expected,” wrote Bob Mondello of NPR, calling W “a surprisingly unsurprising film.”
“[This] unexpected take on the life and times of our 43rd president will surprise a lot of people, especially those not used to seeing the words “Oliver Stone” and “carefully modulated” in the same sentence,” wrote the L.A Times resident movie critic Kenneth Turan. “Those yearning for a red meat entree, a kind of “Natural Born Killers” meets “JFK,” will be disappointed,” he continued, going on to praise Stone for taking an empathetic approach to the coming-of age tale of a tragically flawed character.
“Considering Stone’s reputation and Bush’s vast unpopularity, [W. is] a relatively even-handed, restrained treatment of recent politics,” Todd McCarthy of Variety wrote.
Critics may have expected a more unapologetic tone from the filmmaker, but Stone’s own promotional efforts of the film should certainly have prepared viewers for an experience much different from JFK or Nixon.
“I tried to be fair and balanced and compassionate,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times last week. “I don’t take sides. I don’t take political sides. I’m a dramatist, and this is the movie I’ve made.”
“In many ways, this is a classic father-son tale,” he went on to say. “For W it’s about saying, ‘I’m stronger than Dad.’ “
The film’s release date, two and a half weeks before the Presidential Election, certainly implies that Stone is looking to send a political message to voters. But more importantly, the film–if successful–could provide context to these absurd times. Despite our freedom to choose our rulers, the fate of the world can still be decided by characters whose powerful narcissism is simply a cover for deep-seeded, personal insecurities. We haven’t come so far from Ancient Rome after all.