October 17, 2008

W. (10/17/08)

Lettergrade: C- (it's bad, but intriguing)

The first scene in Oliver Stone's W. that really works happens about a third of the way into the picture. In it, George W. Bush and his cabinet sit around the White House war room going over how to sell their plans for the forth-coming Iraq war to the American people. Stone stages it masterfully, working in subtle looks between Bush's advisors - Don Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, and Secretary of State Colin Powell - all of which underline each guy's personal agenda and the chaffing that exists with the others around the table.

The star moment, however, goes to Vice-President Cheney, played with insidious relish by Richard Dreyfuss. When pressed by Powell on why it is a priority to invade Iraq in the first place, Cheney launches into a big Network style speech (complete with an elaborate PowerPoint presentation) about the world's energy resources versus the U.S.'s energy consumption. The master plan, Stone and his screenwriter suggest, is to establish dominance in the Persian Gulf, first by seizing Iraq and its vast oil resources and then by doing the same, more or less, in Iran.

It's one of the few moments in the film where it feels like the conspiracy-weildin', drug-abusin' Oliver Stone we know and love is behind the camera, but the momentum quickly grinds to a halt when Josh Brolin, as W., reenters the conversation and basically indicates through a clumsy aside that he doesn't really know or have much interest in whatever Cheney's talking about. Believe me, I'm no fan of the guy, but something about portraying him as that dim and clueless doesn't quite jibe with reality for me.

And that's the main problem with W. for me. As a whole, it is without question an interesting and well-made film, but as a portrayal of the actual man and his life, I am a little unsure if it's a terribly good one.

Like a lot of Americans, I feel that Bush's time in office has been highly disastrous. Nevertheless, I think the big mistakes his critics have consistently made center around the assumption that the guy is as much of a moron as his mangled rhetoric and the clumsy public appearances suggest. For better or worse, Bush - with a strong assist from his family name, of course - was able to use his folksy charm and personable nature to get elected Governor of Texas twice, and then President at least once. You can question the quality of how he has governed - and Stone certainly does - but to discount his intelligence completely is to gravely mis-underestimate a man who, if nothing else, is a skilled politician.

Whereas Stone's 1995 film Nixon was a nuanced, sympathetic look at a highly controversial figure who did great things along with terrible while in office, this picture implies that there isn't much more to its subject than meets the eye. That is to say, that he lived a highly irresponsible, carefree life until he was 40, when he found religion and decided to quit drinking.

W. recreates a number of these biographical moments and speculatively connects the dots in a way that attempts to explain his behavior. The movie postulates, as has much of the investigative reporting, that he largely sought office in 1994 in order to win the approval of his father and to avenge his re-election loss to Bill Clinton two years earlier. The indictment is personal and searing, repeatedly suggesting that he wanted to be President for the wrong reasons, and that he has largely slept-walked through the job, much like all the jobs he had prior. Or as my wife put it, the movie is sympathetic with a strong emphasis on "pathetic."

A technique Stone makes frequent use of is to pluck statements Bush made publicly and place them into private settings with aides and staffers. Something about this also lacks the the ring of truth. I always sort of felt that the President speaks to the public in a very deliberate "lowest common denominator" type way, and that he's probably not like that behind closed doors. George H.W. Bush, imbued with warmth and wisdom by James Cromwell, is given substantially more dignified treatment, as is Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), who's almost treated a like a holy profit. On the other end of the spectrum, Thandie Newton is nothing short of horrible as Condoleeza Rice. I noticed that she rarely gets a close-up in film, and the few fleeting times she does she's twitchy and nasally in a way that makes my skin crawl. Of course, the real Condoleeza is pretty horrifying to look at as well, but that's besides the point.

I remember watching Nixon in high school, and finding the picture to be virtually incomprehensible. Now that I know a great deal about the guy, the film makes a bit more sense (or at least as much sense as an Oliver Stone film can make). Similarly, W. isn't much of a survey course on the last eight years. Absent are references to the questionable legitimacy of the 2000 election, 9/11 (except in passing), the administration's scandalous retribution against Joe Wilson for questioning 2003's yellow cake uranium claim (including the indictments that followed), and the botched reaction to 2005's New Orleans disaster, arguably the key incident in Bush's Presidency from which his approval rating never recovered. I suspect Stone knows that these things will be fresh in the minds of anyone who buys a ticket, and as such he decided he didn't need to reference them too directly. That's fine for now, but I have a feeling that much will be lost on future generations who will understand little of what Stone was getting at.

I think there's a great movie or two that can be made about George W. Bush's life and time in office, but I really don't believe that now is the time to make it. Was Bush's Presidency a horrible, catastrophic failure internationally, domestically, and just in the last few weeks, on a global-financial level? Probably, but it's impossible at this point to gauge what ramifications his decisions and policies will have on world for the long term. History may not be much more kind to Bush than political analysts are being now, but at least they'll have some comprehensive perspective, which is something, strangely, that W., the film, does not.

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