Friday, October 17, 2008

414 - W. review

Oliver Stone’s “W.” begins with the assumption that George W. Bush is a cancer on the American political landscape and goes from there. This portrayal of the 43rd president has three settings: mildly empathetic, scornful, and brutally insulting, the last of which it overwhelmingly prefers. It gives us a quick snapshot of Bush’s life, attributing his entire presidency and everything that has come with it to a serious oedipal complex. If this sounds plausible to you, then the film is off to a good start, and if not, lower your expectations as much as possible. Pic is one-tenth the fantasy of Stone’s 1991 hyper-paranoid thriller “JFK,” one fifth the entertainment, and exactly the same amount of serious insight.

Stone’s Bush is played by Josh Brolin, who, despite doing decently at times, generally seems to approach the task with the view that he’s playing a blithering idiot and has to make sure the audience never forgets it. The film’s shifting chronology covers Bush from his frat days at Yale to early 2004. This Bush is a drunken buffoon whose father, George H.W. Bush, is quick to express disappointment in his eldest son. Bush 41 is played by James Cromwell in a performance that treats the elder as a character rather than a figure to imitate, a risky move that pays off as the old man becomes the film’s sole sympathetic character. The film devotes a fair amount of time to Bush’s relationship with wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) before running out of things to do with her and relegating her to the background.

The film doesn’t express much interest in Bush 43’s administration outside of the Iraq War, which is inarguably the defining action of his presidency. The crafting of the war is handled through scenes which feature major players from Bush’s first term: Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Karl Rove (Toby Jones), Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), and Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton, stunningly accurate mimicry). “W.” dumbs down the Iraq talk yet packs in too many details for those who ignore the news, ensuring some heated watch-checking during the number of war meetings that populate the film’s second half. Stone now officially has a vested interest in seeing the Iraq War end in absolute disaster, because if it doesn’t, this film will be regarded as a moronic curiosity.

Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser insisted that the film’s events are based on fact, and that they’ve read stacks of books that document the events within. But what to make of a mid-film scene that’s almost cartoonish in its insistence on the inept left-wing delusion that Colin Powell was the noble voice of dissent in the Bush circle? How about when Cheney eagerly declares the need for a new American empire? Does it seem likely that Cheney ever used the word “empire?” It closes in early 2004 with Bush a defeated man, I mindset I suppose didn’t last very long since he won reelection later in the year.

“W.” is vicious when it indulges in speculation and character details, making Bush out to be an insufferable twerp with a disgusting lack of manners and a 7th grade intellect. There’s a scene devoted to the time Bush choked on a pretzel that has nothing to do with the narrative other than to injure. Those looking for a serious examination of the president’s psyche will be disappointed to see that Stone’s assessment of the man relies entirely on examining the relationship between 41 and 43. Perhaps Bush did/does have a chip on his shoulder from his upbringing, but is that it, case closed? Few will think so.

But the film occasionally tempers itself in unexpected ways, such as treating his Christian awakening with a quasi-reverence that would be at home in a pro-Bush work, or treating the Iraq War as an inept mistake instead of calculated slaughter for profit.

I think that if “W.” spectacularly fails in any way, it’s this: misunderestimation. One need only think back to the 2000 presidential election to recall that Bush’s foes have been slandering his intelligence and capabilities as woefully inadequate for the duration of his presence in the national spotlight. The infantile character assaults aside, the man and his family have been a serious force in the world, their presence affecting history on a scale that few can ever so much as aspire to.

Perhaps they’re the embodiment of all that is wrong with America, or maybe they’ve been a blessing. Whatever the case might be, Stone has a difficult time reconciling the conflicting views of Bush as both demonic and comically tragic. It’s an absurd mangling of history to envision the Bush family as a gang of silver spoon-fed nitwits, idly coasting in and out of the Oval Office at their leisure. If Stone couldn’t bring himself to respect the man, then at least he could have respected the scope.

Expect debates from moviegoers with differing ideologies about whether Stone cruelly eviscerated W. or inexplicably granted him a pass. For once during these divided times, right and left can agree on something: misdissatisfaction.


William said...

The problem I have always had with an Oliver Stone biopic is that it is almost always more likely to be steeped in fiction rather than fact. 'W' does not change this opinion either, I believe Oliver Stone put this out right now, much like Michael Moore, to sway political opinion and show our President (and the republican party) in a bad light.

Ramin said...

As much of a left-winger as I am, I am fairly certain I wouldn't have been able to stomach this film. But then, I can't stomach Michale Moore either, maybe I just have a weak stomach partisan extremists.

If you've ever wondered why I like mathematics so much is because, with math, opinion is nearly never the arbiter of what is right and wrong, which is the exact opposite of politics.

Toto said...


Suddenly, I wanna start studying math again.

Glad to hear even some liberals are fed up with Moore. While I'm grateful for how he's given new life to the documentary format, he's done so as the cost of the genre's reputation.

movie fan said...

Josh Brolin did a convincing Dubya, though he reminded me a lot of his cowboy character from No Country for Old Men... over all, i don't doubt that 'W.' will have the effect Oliver Stone desired