Early on in Oliver Stone’s curious 2008 biopic W., a young George Bush, Jr. (played at all ages by Josh Brolin) insists to a cheering crowd of Yale fraternity brothers that he has no interest in following in his father’s political footsteps. Moments later, he chugs a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Intercut with a by-the-numbers recitation of his years in office pointing to the contrary, much of the film repeats this particular kind of passage, to increasingly confusing results.

Released before the much-reviled man was even out of office, Stone, a filmmaker one might expect to cinematically eviscerate such an inept leader, spent a strange amount of screen time letting George W. Bush off the hook. W. is far from an empathetic film, as Stone clearly lacks a regular human’s definition of compassion for the divisive figure. But rather than taking Bush and his entire administration behind the woodshed, he splits his time aiming for easy laughs at their expense while dispensing pity at the paternal relationship that got him in the White House in the first place.

From a storytelling perspective, W. is one of the worst-written prestige dramas of the last couple decades, ticking off biographical plot points like a Wikipedia entry and having no real thematic cohesion to its non-linear structure. Its script, penned by Wall Street scribe Stanley Weiser, cannot decide if it wants to be satire or Greek tragedy, at once taking potshots at how dumb W. remains throughout his life while also trying to position him as a man cursed by being born to an ambitious family.

Stone and Weiser seem to think if only he were born to a simpler-minded patriarch, he would be coaching baseball somewhere, living in peace, not responsible for this nation’s criminal descent into forever war.

It’s an odd film to revisit in 2020, as the sheer scale of Donald J. Trump’s callousness and incompetence have allowed W. to rehabilitate his image by doing nothing at all, a villain out-heeled by a cartoonish supervillain. Much of why the populace seems eager to forgive 43 in light of 45’s ills comes down to the fact that, on a surface level reading, W. just seems more likable. The movie doesn’t have to twist itself into a pretzel to take Brolin’s roguish charm and weaponize it.

It’s Hollywood. Getting people to cheer a guy who likes to fuck and drink beer and watch sports is not difficult, regardless how much of a spoiled, Ivy League brat he truly was. But if the film were leaner, more experimental and perhaps more singularly focused on its title character, it would be a sleeper within Stone’s filmography, a strange B-side portrait at odds with towering works like JFK and Nixon. Only Stone tries to have it both ways, jerking off through a middling biopic so he can get his licks in on the war in Iraq.

It’s not the worst strategy, particularly in some of the stunt casting for the rest of the cabinet. But for every Jeffrey Wright grandstanding as Colin Powell, Richard Dreyfuss mincing as Dick Cheney or Toby Jones portraying Karl Rove as the sniveling henchman we all know him to be, there’re some real clunkers in the ensemble. Thandie Newton’s turn as Condoleezza Rice, though impressive for an impression, feels as wooden and flat as a typical “SNL” cold open. Stone’s oddball attempts at comedy stab in the direction of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s parody work, but it’s strange to see that the latter outfoxed him at his own game with Vice, a movie willing to slide a knife in the ribs of the Bush administration where Stone seems content to watch in awe from afar, getting in petty digs but unable to deny his own inexplicable empathy for a man who apparently believed in nothing but proving his father wrong.

To take the time to highlight W’s status as a born-again Christian while largely ignoring his position as someone who enabled the right’s faith-based snowball into fascism feels downright criminal, even if it does surmise the man only feels such a kinship to Sky Daddy because his biological father sees him as a mistake. Maybe, all things considered, this is why even an artist like Stone ought to take the luxury of some distance, some passage of time, before embarking on such a project.

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