Sunday, October 19, 2008

The forest for the trees: Oliver Stone's W.

Oliver Stone’s W. is like a big, delicious cake, ruined by the baker’s haste: the door to the oven has been opened too soon, and the air has rushed out of the middle, and while the ingredients are excellent and it smells good and looks good and even might still taste good, it’s flat.

I went to this film with some reservations. I have utter disdain for George W. Bush but also utter disdain for Oliver Stone. So, in a sense, I was at cross-purposes with myself: My dislike for Bush made me want to like the film, but my dislike for Stone made me convinced that I probably wouldn’t. I haven’t liked a single Stone film in the past 22 years. Platoon is not the greatest Vietnam War film ever made—Apocalypse Now is, with Full Metal Jacket a close second; Wall Street, with its “greed is good” ethos might merit a second look at this particular moment in history, when everything is crumbing around us; Born on the Fourth of July features a fine performance by Tom Cruise, and little else; Natural Born Killers was loathsome on just about every level; Alexander—unwatchable. I don’t mind being tapped on the shoulder; I do mind being bludgeoned with a sledgehammer, and I emerge from every Stone film feeling assaulted and battered. Many would say that there’s something to be said for this, that Stone is utilizing cinema to its fullest, but I’ve long been an admirer of subtlety over force. Stone’s work has always felt bombastic. But I confess that it was exactly this that intrigued me about W. I was working off the assumption that Stone and I would be on the same page this time—in the past, even when I’ve agreed with Stone’s politics, I found the films tiresome—and thus, I thought that this might be the first Stone film where his histrionics would, for once, fit the subject matter. I was mistaken.

W. roughly covers the years 1966 to 2004, and follows George W. Bush—brilliantly played by an unrecognizable Josh Brolin—from his booze-soaked frat-boy days at Yale, through a series of failed business ventures on Poppy’s dime to an eventual bid for the governorship of Texas, a bid—if the film is to be believed—that is strongly opposed by Bush the First (James Cromwell) and Barbara (an incredibly bitchy and bitter Ellen Burstyn), who complain that the simultaneous bid of brother Jeb in Florida would mean exhausting cross-country campaigning. Both W. and the audience know that Poppy and Barbara both feel that W. would never win, and would fail in this, as he’d failed in everything else. This is the center of W.: what you would think would be predominantly a political drama becomes, instead, the story of a son trying to escape his father’s shadow and to live up to the glorious family name. Had this been only one strand of the film’s plot, the movie might have worked. But James Cromwell, an actor I normally admire, makes an unconvincing George H. W. Bush. Not only does he look nothing like the former president, but he makes no attempt to duplicate the voice, the accent, the mannerisms. The real Bush was known to smile on occasion; Cromwell spends the film glowering and shaking his head in disapproval at his son’s antics. When W. supposedly impregnates a girl named Susie and tells his father, “I used a condom. I’m not dumb,” the look of disdain on Cromwell’s face is harsh—I almost felt sorry for W. Almost.

Brolin, on the other hand, turns in a superb performance. It’s an utter transformation. I kept looking for Brolin the actor, and found him nowhere. He nails Bush’s swagger, his voice, and especially his laugh. The aging process, however, is odd: in a scene depicting W.’s 40th birthday, one character comments that Bush doesn’t look a day over 30, when in fact he looks craggy and middle-aged, despite his still-dark hair; in contrast, Bush-in-office, silvery-gray, looks positively spritely. Brolin is at his best when playing Bush in his presidency, particularly in scenes which duplicate public speeches—one assumes this is because the actual footage existed for Brolin to study. Brolin is in nearly every scene in the film, and its success or failure rests on his beefy shoulders. To his credit, he carries the weight admirably—the film has many flaws, but they are not Brolin’s, they are Stone’s.

The other cast members fare differently. The excellent Jeffrey Wright plays Colin Powell, and he does so much good acting, invests the very staid Powell with so much life that the performance actually rang false for this reason. Richard Dreyfuss is unnerving as Dick Cheney, and plays the film’s single most effective moment: in a briefing, Bush and his cronies discuss the proposed invasion of Iraq, and when asked about an exit strategy, Cheney intones, “There is no exit.” It’s at this moment, and for this moment only, that the film comes completely alive, and you see what the movie might have been, had Stone decided to focus on politics instead of the Freudian-lite analysis of the Bush family behind-the-curtain. Scott Glenn looks nothing like Donald Rumsfeld, and is something of a non-presence in the film; Toby Jones, lately of Infamous, where he played Truman Capote, is excellent as Karl Rove, always in the shadows, working his plots; Elizabeth Banks makes a convincing Laura Bush, proving far more interesting than her boring real-life counterpart. Only the normally-good Thandie Newton devolves into pure cartoon: while she looks a great deal like Condoleezza Rice, her performance consists solely of a few grating lines delivered in a voice more nasal and irritating that Rice’s own; there’s even a weird moment where she and W. brush hands briefly while exchanging some papers—a nod to the backstage rumors, perhaps?

What bothers me most about W. is not that it doesn’t bash Bush. That would be far too easy in this current political climate, and much as I’ve deplored his presidency I don’t think I would have been satisfied with a film that merely made him look stupid. (And don’t be deceived by the ads running on television for the film at the moment, which make it look like a comedy, complete with the Talking Heads singing “Once in a Lifetime”—the film is nothing like that.) I understand that the film is an attempt to understand this much-maligned figure, but the film’s interpretation of Bush’s character seems simplistic in the extreme: the man’s an incompetent buffoon who’s only trying to please his daddy. What’s most striking is that Stone can’t seem to make up his mind as to what the film’s intent is. Is Bush a fool or really a good president who has been misunderstood, and who has had the cards stacked against him? It seems clear that if you think Bush is an idiot, the film will reinforce that; but it’s also clear that if you think he’s a good and decent man, the film will reinforce that too. Stone was on Larry King a week or so ago, and was talking about whether or not the film might affect the current presidential race between McCain and Obama. Now having seen the film, I’m bewildered by Stone’s remark—how could this film do anything but reinforce what you already think about Bush? Given the film’s release date, mere weeks before the election, I would assume that someone—Stone or the producers or the production company or the studio—felt that not only would it make more bucks at the moment, but that it might effect some change. I’d be interested to hear whether or not this film changed anyone’s mind about anything—it plays it safe, and I actually found myself yearning for Stone the bulldog, taking everyone and everything to task.

Stone’s other two films about American presidents, Nixon and JFK, had the advantage of being made long after the events in question. I might be wrong about this, but W. would seem to be the only film about a president to be released during its subject’s term in office. Manohla Dargis, in the New York Times, believes that perhaps we’re just still too close to this subject matter at the moment—a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Stone would have done better, perhaps, to have made this film ten years from now, where we might have had a bit of perspective, and W. himself would have long since lapsed into old age in Crawford, and we might have been better able to reassess these odd, tumultuous, damaging, turbulent eight years. Whatever the case, W. finds Oliver Stone in a restrained mode—and I, for one, never once thought I’d be able to write “restrained” and “Oliver Stone” in the same sentence.


Paul Arrand Rodgers said...

I actually liked the use of "Once in a Lifetime" in the trailers. I think it hinted at the true movie better than the clips did. A man with no direction makes it to the White House. He may ask himself how he got there.

Agreed on H.W. Bush - sadly miscast.

I'm still trying to figure out what I thought of it. I'm wondering what the DVD will bring.

Noah Soudrette said...

This is exactly how I thought it would be. I blame all this on "Alexander". He made the film he wanted... It bombed. Maybe it's too gay? Take out the gay. Nobody Cares? The fans of the first cut are unhappy? Well... lets just do a super long cut, and 12 DVD releases, etc. Any vision Stone has ever had, he lost with his balls long ago.

On a different note, I'm glad to see you back and posting. Hope you'll visit my blog and check out my review of the new graphic novel by Joe Hill.

Chris Reeves said...

Your sentiments about Stone and Bush are exactly mine: ready for disappointment. I've been pontificated over this all weekend with people who saw it and my real qualm is what did it DO? I liked it, but I can't quite figure out why. I agree with you that I'm glad it didn't vilify Bush, since that would've been too easy, and also I don't necessarily think Bush is a villain, just an idiot who should've known better, backed by a team of Machiavellian monsters. So in that respect, if the aim of the film was to humanize Bush, the big question I suppose that could be asked as we close in on almost a decade of pure nonsense purported by him, is why?

On the supporting cast, with the exception of making Colin Powell some kind of outspoken voice of reason (hard to swallow since he apparently didn't have enough gall to use this audacity to not sell a disastrous war) I liked the complete lack of humanity in the character portrayals (particularly Thandie Newton as Condi). Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld, and Rice, to me, deserve the Dr. Strangelove treatment in their character portrayals. By cartooning them into these sort of demonic lap dog caricatures (their losing their way as a group on path brought Wizard of Oz connotations to me) added a nice comic reinforcement to the ridiculous spectacles that they really are. BUT that only helped, I suppose, to make the movie more uneven, as having a modernist character study of a man alongside a postmodern character study of the people who lead the man into trouble, seems a tough feat to pull off (like seeing a Pynchon character alongside a Thomas Mann character).

So maybe you're right, maybe time will tell, but for now, I guess I can keep mulling the old "what's it all about?".

Jeff McCoy said...

Sadly, you forgot to mention the brilliant performance of Josh Brolin in GOONIES! How could you fail to mention it?

Anonymous said...

Ok, I don't give two shits about Oliver Stone or George W., so I'll probably never watch this movie. So I'm only leaving a comment to say: Full Metal Jacket IS the best Vietnam War Movie. Period.
Glad to see that you're back, more posts, PLEASE!
Chuck Wilson

The People Vanaski said...

I imagine I would see the movie if only for Brolin and Wright. I'm sure that comment seems shortsighted but I just finished watching M.Night Shyamalan's The Happening (of course I knew better yet I did it anyway) and I have lost my faith in most script writers for the time being. I don't think I could watch an Oliver Stone piece written as an apology on the most heinous president of our time. Films such as these find their key audience a generation on from today: the wildly imaginative history students without the bitter distain that those who've lived through it retain.I'm glad for your review- your mind is always a joy to read.