Sunday, October 26, 2008

W.

Anybody paying attention to domestic politics and world affairs over the past eight years will bring a lot of mind-baggage into a screening of Oliver Stone's W. It's a bit unsettling at first. Every real-life character - from President Bush to Ari Fleischer to George Tenet - have body doubles up on screen, so fighting off the urge to giggle at impersonations may take some discipline. (This fades quickly. However, Thandie Newton's Condoleezza Rice remains painfully cartoonish throughout.) The film rolls on as a series of dramatic highs (80% approval rating after 9/11... how bizarre is that!), and lows, back-and-forth between well-known signposts of George W. Bush the President and his life prior to that.

It's uncommon to have a biopic hit theaters when the subject is a figure still so prominent in our daily lives. Yet as biopics go, W. is, itself, fairly uncommon. Equal parts historical fiction and father/son melodrama, W. sufficiently sells itself to a freshly ideologically divided America in the midst of a Sarah Palin obsessed media culture. Like Tina Fey's nonpartisan spoofing of that Republican Vice Presidential nominee, Stone gives the audience plenty of the Bush knocking they crave without spinning off into that unbearable red-fanged lunatic fringe territory.

With age, Oliver Stone has become humble. His fervor to cram info-messages down our throats has softened with his maturity and a calmer, more artistic approach to his subjects has emerged. (Phedon Papamichael's emotionally tuned-in cinematography is some of 2008's best.) Because of this, W. feels like Oliver Stone's most personal film in years. And while it's clear that Stone is anti-Bush, the director has little interest in playing puppeteer for an audience of Bush-haters simply wanting more of the "alright already" that they can get daily from their favorite cable shows and internet hangouts.

Indeed, the parts of W. which drag deepest are moments we've already been through ad infinitum: the pre-Iraq war room discussions, Karl Rove's string pulling, Bushisms, Dick Cheney domination, etc. Some of these scenes linger, grow tedious, and slow the film down, yet at film's end - W. is bookended by scenes of Bush at his favorite place, center field at Arlington Stadium - the significance of them is clear. It is Stone's intention to challenge viewers opinions of President Bush by running those common knowledge bumps up against a more human story of an ugly duckling "Jr." growing up in the shadow of George Bush Sr. and his more accomplished brother, Jeb.

In fact, Stone is most generous to George W. Bush when it comes to the origins of his born-again Christianity. Framed in between the lines of Bush's well-known battle with alcoholism, Stone portrays our president's return to god as a form of faith-through-therapy. Not just from alcohol but via the ego bruising inter-familial Bush clashes, Stone expresses sympathy for Bush when he bucks expectations and includes a scene of touching vulnerability between Bush and his preacher. Equally, Stone shows how Bush's overzealous evangelicalism bled over into his life decisions and political electioneering. (This running motif in W. bests the entirety of Bill Maher's worthless Religulous.)

It's that interpersonal battle, within Oliver Stone, of trying to understand George W. Bush that makes W. much more across-the-board approachable than one may have previously thought. The film isn't great, but it's a fascinating result from an extremely ambitious undertaking. Loathe it or love it (or neither), W. is a film that will work with whatever experiences you've had with this 43rd Presidency.

Part of the W. experience is seeing it in a full theater. Because there is plenty of red meat, certain scenes will set off the pack, howling as they congratulate themselves on their shared opinions. When a youthful, Lyndon Johnson lovin' Laura Bush (the great Elizabeth Banks) says to a pre-gubernatorial, Goldwater readin' George W. (Josh Brolin, also great), "You're a devil... a devil in a white hat!", the guy next to me snipped "yes, he sure is!" as if hoping to receive an "attaboy!" from the people around him when we all just wanted him to stop talking. (Are these the same people that clap on the treadmills at the gym when Jon Stewart gets out a good one-liner???... what is that?!?!?). Catharsis through cinema? It just very well may be. As we hit ad nauseam on electoral politics approaching November 4th, W. oddly makes for some appropriate and entertaining escapism.

11 comments:

Duc de Richleau Lapper said...

I actually really want to see this if only because I love seeing how historical figures are portrayed onscreen. Not because I think Stone will do a good job, because I don't like him as a director much at all and I thought Nixon was a cinematic mess, but because I want to see Brolin as W. Yeah, that's about it. I don't expect to get much out of it. I just like seeing celebrity impersonations of real people and taking note of how slanted a movie is one way or another based on the actual history.

Fox said...

Jona... er ... I mean, Duc Re Richleau-

I think it's worth it to see Brolin. If anything, I walked out thinking how difficult it must be to not only portray a sitting president, but a world figure that has been parodied and mocked to death.

On those terms, Brolin does a great job of etching out his own creation of Bush.

I haven't seen Nixon, but I want to. It's 3 hour plus running time has made me put it off, as well me having very love/hate reactions to Stone's previous work. Though, to be fair, I need to revisit some of it. Like Natural Born Killers, for instance.

debbie said...

I liked Nixon.

OMG. Thandie Newton's performance was SOOOOOOO painful.

Fox said...

Debbie-

Whew... I know! I mean, what the hell??? She was like an alien. Her perfomance was really uncomfortable. It was like her research into the performance was based on other people's parodies of Condoleezza Rice.

Pat said...

I totally agree about Thandie Newton's peformance, and "cartoonish" was exactly the adjective I'd use to describe her performance. Where did that voice come from?

But otherwise, "W" is a damn entertaining movie. I've hated just about every Oliver Stone film that I've ever seen - especially Nixon and JFK - and I went into this one anticpating on a over-the-top, two-hour "Bush bash." Happily, it was not. (Not that I don't love a good "Bush bash" as much as the next registered Democrat.)

Fox said...

Pat-

I noticed that the phrase "Bush bash" was used in the film, unrelated to the trashing of the president, but it made me wonder if Stone put it in there as a wink. It was at some point during a party the family was throwing and one of them called it a "Bush bash".

I need to see Nixon, especially with the variety of opinions on it already expressed here in the comments.

Yesterday I was thinking, "OK, so Stone has done three president biopics" but then I caught myself on JFK cuz it's not a biopic at all.

I wonder who will do the first biopic on Obama? Please don't make it be Spike Lee, cuz that would be really annoying.

EVIL CLOWN said...

It's still hard to believe that this kind of restraint came from a guy who made a movie with character names like Bud Fox and Gordon Gecko. I am a great lover of Wall Street by the way.

I thought Brolin did a great job. I thought Banks gets hotter and hotter every time I see her. And I thought this movie was kind of boring. Maybe I was thinking there would be some more meat here. I thought Cheney and Karl Rove were kind of non-events.

The one scene I enjoyed tremendously was where Cheney compares Antrhax to the lettuce on Bush's sandwich. At the end Bush reminds "Vice" who the President is and tells him to keep a lid on it. I didn't see that as Bush-bashing, but just a man struggling for power and I found it both interesting story-wise and cinematically. I just wish there was more of it.

Fox said...

Evil Clown-

I have a cousing named Bud Fox, and he told me he had quite a difficult time making reservations and restaurants etc. around the time of 87-88.

During that lunch scene you mention, I've always wanted to be served a sandwich on a platter like that. Seriously. I love the idea of having people bring me food that way. Maybe I should run for President in '12 or '16. I mean, I would totally stay out of y'alls lives cuz I would just order food all day long. Of course, I would fly down to Venezuela ever once and awhile to punch Hugo Chavez in the face, but for the most part you guys wouldn't know I was even around.

Oh... and why did Bush's lettuce remind Cheney of the greatest thrash metal band of all time??? That one went over my head, I guess.

nick plowman said...

Might see this this weekend, not quite sure if I am excited/curious.

Terrance said...

It will not succeed in actual fact, that is what I think.
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