Josh Brolin did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying George W. Bush in W.
W. is Oliver Stone's third film to directly reference a U.S. president by name however it is only his second direct biography of one along with his Nixon. The two films are rather extreme in their differing tones with Nixon being a rather stark portrait of the man as well as American in general whereas W. is more of a comedic satire. Both though feature what is really Stone's way as a director, which I've mentioned before, which is there is a particular challenge it seems when an actor performs in a Stone film. In that he seems to allow, if not encourage, heavily caricatured performances, which was seen in the usually reliable Anthony Hopkins's portrayal of Nixon as this sweaty beetle humanoid. That seemed a potential idea here with Josh Brolin in the title role that could have easily been an SNL impression, the material certainly pushes towards that way at times, and a few of his fellow performers fall into this particularly Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice. Now Josh Brolin does do an impression however he carefully maneuvers it to grant some honesty to his portrayal rather than to simply make a cartoon. Brolin does go to embody the man and effectively so. He captures that right Texan twang, without overdoing it, he also captures even the same sort of rhythm in his speech patterns and even portrays very specific physical mannerisms of the man from the way he walks to even certain mouth gestures featured in his press conferences. Brolin effectively interweaves these within his performance in a natural way though so they just seem part of who the character is rather than creating this hollow front as a representation of the man.
The film jumps back and forth between Bush's early life and rise to power along with the development of the plan for the Iraq war. The actual history of Bush is not made particularly interesting by the film particularly due to the repetitive portrayal of his relationship with his father which is scene after scene of a longing Bush waiting for approval only to be denied it again and again. Brolin though to his credit makes the most of what is there. He manages to actually find the right sort of tone within his own work to grant some honesty to the character while still hitting the more comedic elements needed for the tone of the film. Brolin is terrific in the way he takes the right approach to portray the Bush of the film in as earnest of way as a possible. Brolin's take is to make him comical in an indirect fashion towards his realization of him as this man with very specific values, and a very specific head space. This is a particularly wise approach as it is another factor in his work that keeps him from falling into caricature, but also he is able to move the idea of the character to an endearing fool rather than a malevolent figure. Brolin does that by keeping a fundamental truth within his portrayal which is the man is trying to do what he thinks is the right thing, even if it is far from it. He presents this both in terms of that longing to find approval with his father, but also in his very attitude we see as the president who believes he has some personal mission to save America.
Brolin's work keeps Bush a far more compelling figure than he likely would have been with more of say a Stone caricature had been centered instead. Brolin thankfully tries to explore the idea of the character beyond the main path of the story whenever there is possible. Now some of this is just in some entertaining moments in which he delivers such a hapless attitude so well in every moment we see in his early days filled with drinking and failure. Brolin's especially good in these scenes though is because he always brings this little twinkle in his eye of a man who is just very sloppily making it through life but creates the sense in the early scenes that he's just more confused than anything by the very prospect of success. Brolin manages to make this stumbling around properly entertaining again by creating the right sort of simplicity in his every moment of this as even in the way he delivers his few moments of direct outrage against his father Brolin infuses it with the simple need for approval. The need not being conveyed as this egotistical desire, but rather just a son seeking affection through Brolin's quietly somber approach to the idea. In the same period we also see perhaps Bush's best moment, within the film, where he briefly courts his eventual wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks). Brolin and Banks are great together, even though there is not a great deal of time spent on it. Brolin though brings such an infectious charm in these moments, and along with Banks create a real chemistry that creates the love between the two as a given.
Brolin is very good in the rise to power of Bush scenes as he once again finds an honesty within the simplicity of the character. In that he makes the simplicity almost a virtue in a sense as every action Brolin in a way effectively sugar coats by showing it coming from a place of such a genuine, if at times misplaced, concern. Brolin keeps the earnest nature of the character as a constant and in turn is able to find a certain charisma even the appeal of Bush as a politician. Brolin's very good in creating the "growth" of the character's success very much intertwined with in terms of his balance of the comedic and technically straight forward moments of his performance. Brolin is able to naturally find both within the same work and without unneeded tonal shifts within his own performance. Brolin captures the right balance by keeping the state of Bush so consistent no matter the situation making it so when he's just trying to bring across a down home, have a beer with the guy, type style he is charming, however when he tries to speak about policy in this context it becomes rather funny by how ill-fitting it all is. Brolin never tries to reinforce the comedy but rather makes it work in a far better fashion by leaving it as this effortless quality interwoven into his portrayal. This comes as particularly needed in the presidential scenes which are more Dr. Strangelove than say Lincoln. Brolin's performance is the best in terms of deriving the humor from the situation by acting as this standing ground, of almost a comical man that the other strong personalities bounce off of.
Brolin is very interesting in that he acts as the straight man in a way but only in that his straight is curved into comedy the whole time. The straightness being the consistency of character which is found in Brolin's passionate delivery of every single one of Bush's platitudes regarding America or his own duties. Brolin makes this a constant fierce belief that ends up being funny though by how blind Brolin portrays this conviction to be against everyone else who is either conning in some way, or more down to earth. Brolin reveals almost a danger in the purity of the state which is effective in showing how the man could blindly into the act of war because Brolin shows only the utmost support of the man's own mind behind every step. When things start to go poorly associated with it, especially when the intelligence comes short surrounding it, Brolin again does so well by remaining consistent to his choice of the character. In that he depicts frustrations not of a shrewd politician whose mechanizations are falling apart, but the sadness of crusader for justice whose crusade has turned out to be faulty. One of Brolin's best scenes comes near the end of the film where he stumbles around a press conference attempting to describe mistakes of his administration. Brolin is great in the scene in his delivery that is this messy tapestry of a man trying to remain with this certain confidence while at the same not exuding a single bit of it. Brolin in the moment is terrific in finding this hollowness and confusion of the statements of a man broken by his conception of himself leaving him only this generalized husk of the passionate fighter of before. Now this exact journey in this film is in no way a truly compelling one, as this is not a great film. Brolin though amplifies or rises above the material through his portrait of Bush which is entertaining while finding enough substance within the little bit of complexity offered to the role. It's a strong performance as it stands and likely would have been a truly great one with material that wholly matched the quality of his own work.