Lost in the Movies: W.


(W.) -Click here for the full review.

In the last scene of W., our hero imagines himself in a baseball park at night. He's on the field, alone, the stands empty. Yet he hears the roar of the crowd and the crack of the bat and runs back to catch the fly ball. He grins, puts his glove in the air and waits...and waits...and waits. He furrows his brow and peers up into the inky black sky. Nothing. No ball. He keeps waiting, and the movie ends. Like "Bushie," "Geo," or "W" as he's variously called throughout Oliver Stone's election-eve biopic, we in the audience keep waiting for that revelation, that home run or final out that clears everything up. We never get it.

By the end of the movie, we still don't quite understand what's going on in that head, why things came to this point - but the man at the center doesn't really seem to understand either, and we're brothers in confusion. In JFK and many of his other breathless, frenetic opuses, Oliver Stone tried to shine a bright light on all the chaos, illuminating some sort of Truth (perhaps a "counter-myth" as he calls it in reference to JFK). In W., Stone takes his time, doesn't rush, avoids stylistic fireworks, and delivers the movie with a great deal of clarity. Yet he doesn't illuminate any transcendent Truth, any "ah ha! so that's what it's all about!" comeuppance to the past 8 years of obfuscation. Instead he seems to suggest that even our president didn't understand what was going on, and has passed his perplexity on to us.

A few months ago, when I first heard news of W., I was delighted. I didn't expect it to be any good, but the novelty of the idea appealed to me: a biopic of a president still in power, a movie that didn't hem and haw about the times we live in but tackled them head-on, an opportunity for the shamelessly over-the-top (but always entertaining) Stone to go for broke. Say what you will about Stone (and many people despise both him and his work); I've always had a soft spot for his brand of histrionic grandeur. Yes, he generally knows no bounds and subtlety is not his forte, but he delivers. What's most appealing about him is that he "gets" history. Not history as in the past but history as in shared mass experience, continually unfolding, taking part in a continuum. Many filmmakers prove inept when dealing with the political process and/or recent history; either they make it too much about individuals, losing the scale of history, or they try to make it about impersonal forces, and the people who shaped events get lost in the shuffle. Stone gets the proportions right and the sense of individuals and larger-than-life forces tangling with and resisting one another produces a tension that's thrilling.

So, with that in mind, I awaited W. with a grin. But W. , as I'd been clued in to expect little by little (the initial, not entirely derogatory, web trailer; the Parallax View-influenced theatrical trailer; the 4 stars Ebert apparently gave the film) actually is a good movie. It may even be a great one, though further visits to the theater will have to confirm or disconfirm that notion. Above all, despite the rush to complete this film before a new president was elected, the film feels calm, clear, sure of itself. Christopher Orr, in the New Republic, in another review I couldn't avoid glimpsing while perusing the Internet, refers to W. as "inch-deep." In a way, he's right: at least on its surface, W. doesn't clue is in to too much. But in doing so, and helped by little touches throughout, W. mirrors what it perceives to be the dimness of its protagonist.

The Bush of the film, played by Josh Brolin, isn't stupid, exactly. He isn't very curious, true, but most of all he just isn't very deep. There's not much there there. Appropriately then, the movie gives us a pretty head-on view of his life, in two parallel lines: his path from frat boy alcoholic to born-again political candidate, cross-cut with the decision to go to war with Iraq. Once that decision's made, we stick with the present, watching the war unfold and then go completely haywire, while the president stands at the center of the mess, blinking in disbelief. The film is most certainly a criticism of his ineptitude, but it attacks from a sly, obtuse angle. Indeed, were a Bush supporter (one of that, what is it now, 20%?) to see this movie without knowing much about Stone or having seen the generic ads (which lamely try to market the movie as a "Daily Show"-style skewering), it's conceivable that they might see it as sympathetic. Because in a way it is.

Stone mostly avoids his standard themes. Let me put it to you this way - never once does Oliver Stone mention these three words: Skull and Bones. The Stone of 1991 would have made the whole damn movie about that Yale secret society, hinting at deep dark conspiracies that stretch through the ages. But George W. Bush is instead presented as a relatively simple guy who, by some weird confluence of fate and privilege, ends up way, way over his head. Power and privilege became little more than backdrops for a family drama which is, to the extent that anything is, at the center of W. James Cromwell, without imitating H.W.'s prickly voice, manages to sum up the exact sense of the man: the whiff of patriarchal solidity with the uncomfortable feeling of mushy softness he exudes. The son is trapped between a fear of the man's power and accomplishment and a disrespect for his weakness: in the first, he feels perpetually inadequate and hopeless, in the second he sees an opportunity for his own renewal.

Surrounding Bush is the usual cast we've come to know since 2000 (has there ever been an administration filled with personalities this distinctive and, unfortunately, eccentric?). On first appearance, their likeness - not exact but suggestive - is almost comical. It feels like we're watching "Muppet Babies." But most of the cast members manage to channel the spirit of their characters, if not the exact physical appearance or vocal nuance. Scott Glenn is appropriately cheery and cavalier as Rumsfeld (though even he can't summon the staggeringly smug vapidity of the real article). One of the film's comical moments arises when W. and Cheney ask each other what planet Rummy's on; it's like those times in "The Office" where Dwight and/or Michael make fun of a co-worker without realizing they're in the same category.

Toby Jones, while curiously diminutive, feels right as Karl Rove, who cheerfully cares only about polls and elections (does anyone else feel like Rove is probably the only person portrayed here who will see the movie in real life - and like it?). Jeffrey Wright does not at all convey the power and presence of Colin Powell, and his grumpiness is a bit of a shock given the public stoicism of the general, but we come to accept him as Powell the character if not Powell the real-life Secretary of State. The most sour note is struck by Thandie Newton as Condoleeza Rice, who plays the national security advisor as a simpering, obnoxious toadie; her characterization feels like an SNL impersonation, and one quite a bit off the mark. One gets the sense that while Stone has a certain mano a mano respect, or at least an angry awe, for the deviousness of Cheney and Rove, he has nothing but scorn for Rice. Newton's performance is poor and the characterization feels off.

Likewise, to sidestep into other matters, with Stone's brief and inept take on the media: on a program called "Spin-Ball," pundits rave about Bush in his flightsuit, under the "Mission: Accomplished" banner. "Women like him, and they like this war!" blathers a host. The visual presentation of the show is too slick - a filmmaker's idea of what cable TV looks like, and the portrayal of the punditry too broad - Chris Matthews (the obvious target) has a penchant for hyperbole, but he was also critical of the war from the beginning and is capable of nuance. Anyway, if the media's role in all this was so absurd (and it was, though not exactly in the way it's presented in W.), why not use an actual clip from an actual show? (Probably for the same reason he can't use clips from "Sports Center.") That brings up another problem, which is that this is a very direct film. By making up a fictional show that feels fictional to its core, Stone creates a moment of cognitive dissonance: are we watching W., a movie President Bush and the lead-up to the Iraq war, or M., a movie about President Shrub and the lead-up to war with a fictional Middle Eastern country? In other words, stick to the facts, Stone.

And for the most part he does. The speeches and press conferences are often reproduced verbatim from the historical transcript and much of the person-to-person dialogue is also taken from speeches and press conferences. Indeed, I can foresee criticism that W. adds little new to the story of President Bush, merely recreating staff meetings and incidents in his life. But here and there, Stone sneaks in a dig: most notably, as Bush & entourage walk through his ranch talking excitedly about freeing Iraq and spreading democracy. The old "Robin Hood" song begins to play on the soundtrack and, meanwhile, Bush stands in the middle of the field, realizing he's lost and he doesn't know what path they're walking down.

But mostly, W. keeps us inside Bush's head, so to speak. Everything is presented as straightforwardly as Stone believes the president would see it (the only times he leaves W.'s side is to visit his father, who watches the rise of his son and the lead-up to war with growing, wordless horror). And when information arrives from other directions - when the war doesn't go well, when the public seems hostile, when wounded vets don't seem thrilled to see him - Bush is confused and, in a way, so are we, because within the world of the movie we haven't really been given any tremendous reason to doubt Bush's success. Throughout the film, we watch as people see something in Bush that can help them: Laura (Elizabeth Banks), who comes off better than anyone else in the whole movie, finds a man who is strangely charming and at heart a good guy, and will make a good husband, even if she doesn't quite understand him (or his political views); Rove sees someone with an odd political gift whom he can attach himself to in his rise to power; Cheney sees a sap who he can use as a puppet for his own naked power grabs and ideological adventurism. They "get" Bush though they don't quite get him.

Most often, these people can't quite figure Bush out and from time to time they exchange glances, recognition between people who have a firm hold on their own lives and on reality, which Bush himself doesn't appear to have. One example is the pastor, who facilitates Bush's spiritual rebirth. He tries to have a talk about the religious life with Bush, explaining that it's not a constant high and that it's a struggle, but he doesn't really seem to be connecting with the recovering alcoholic, who wanders off into beatific visions of Christ. Stone uses the sense of religious certainty as a foil for Bush's incompetence throughout (at the end of the movie a cross even morphs into a W.) but mostly he treats the president's faith with a kind of removed respect. It's sincere, but Stone views its certainty with, at bare minimum, a sense of trepidation. And he's not the only one. When now-Texas Governor Bush invites his pastor into his office and tells him firmly that he's heard the "calling" and God wants him to run for president, the man of the cloth looks momentarily horrified and casts a sidelong glance at Rove, who calmly conveys an inner shrug: I'm not saying no to my meal ticket!

The only person who doesn't "get" Bush and try to use him for something else is Bush Sr., who plainly doesn't understand the boy (Jeb is his pride and joy). In this sense, he's the best person for his son to listen to, the one with the most perspective and the least to gain by artificially building up the ambitions of "the boy." Indeed, at one point he tells his son, "sometimes it's better not to get in the barrel." He knows his own limits, and his son does not; later the younger Bush will repeat this advice and admit that maybe his dad was onto something after all, though he doesn't seem quite sure what it all means. The W. of this movie drifts through life without a rudder, finding flimsy paddles along the way, but ultimately discovering that he does not have the control or direction he thought he did. For all the talk of faith, and stubbornness, and confidence paving one's way in life, real success derives from a sense of one's self, an understanding of one's innermost places. As portrayed in this movie, George W. Bush lacks any real sense of identity, and unfortunately for the rest of us, this identity crisis has facilitated our own senseless, directionless era.

In the previews for W., but not in the movie, Stone plays a Talking Heads song, the great "Once in a Lifetime," in which David Byrne sings/speaks directly to the listener, intoning, "you may find yourself..." with a beautiful wife, a large house, a new automobile, concluding, "You may ask yourself...how did I get here?" At the end of the song, he concludes, somewhat more dramatically,

"And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? ...am I wrong?
And you may tell yourself
My god!...what have I done?"
At the end of W., Bush can't quite ask himself that question, because the answer would be too horrifying (indeed, a reporter asks him at a press conference, "what was your greatest mistake?", and he stumbles and stutters for several painful minutes before storming off in frustration). But his dad, imprisoned in the family compound at Kennebunkport, can ask himself - in lieu of his son - that same question over and over again. He may, ultimately, be the tragic hero of this whole sorry tale.


Anonymous 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

Joel Bocko said...

I though Brolin was quite good, without the performance lapsing over into impersonation (as Thandie Newton's did - and it wasn't even very good impersonation). As for Stone's desired effect, what do you think it was? I think he was fascinated as well as frustrated by George W. as a person & president and what made him tick. If he intended to effect the outcome of the election, he's largely deluding himself, and anyway this is about the 1,000,000th hit Bush has taken, so it's just another drop in the bucket. If he meant to humanize the president, yes it does do that certainly and I agree people are picking up in it.

By the way, movie_fan, you should check out some of the other posts and leave a comment - I'd like to see some political discussions get going on this election series, but so far no one's really biting.

Thanks for jumping in.

Daniel said...

Wow, finally got a chance to read this. Really fine writing here, probably the best review I've read. It helps that I agree, of course (save for Newton), but either way I'll make sure to check out your reviews (especially Anaconda - holy crap we're the only two people in America who liked that movie!).

I'm not sure what Stone's motive was here, either. He was kind of stuck, though, timing-wise. Make it now (like RIGHT NOW), or make it in 20 years. There's not really a middle ground. Come to think of it, even H.W. seemed a lot too recent to be portrayed here. What are the rules for presidential biopics? Seems like it's a minimum 25 year lead time (I'm only thinking of JFK and Nixon - is it coincidence they're Stone's as well?).

Joel Bocko said...

Glad you enjoyed the review - on the same note, I thought The Queen was pretty disorienting too - the events of '97 portrayed as history. Of course, that movie had nothing on this.

And for Anaconda: "holy crap we're the only two people in America who liked that movie!)."

Don't forget Jon Voight himself... (you can see the review for more on that).

"Make it now (like RIGHT NOW), or make it in 20 years. There's not really a middle ground."

-Totally agree.

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