Sunday, October 19, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - W.

I have to say that, between this film and the Oliver Stone films of the last two days, this is probably my favorite. It's probably not as great an achievement as a piece of film, but as a character study and a compelling narrative, it has a lot to offer. And since the events depicted are mostly things I lived through and watched on the news, I felt like I had a much better hold on the story.


W. is essentially the story of a life unexamined. It cuts back and forth between President Bush's first term and a series of flashbacks, starting with his fraternity initiation at Yale. We see something there that sets up a big part of why he was such a successful political figure. Capable Commander-in-Chief he may not have been, but he knew about people. He was good with people, with networking. He could make people feel like he knew them, and that's very important to a lot of people. I heard a story a few months ago (from Chris Matthews, I believe) about when FDR died and his body was being carried on the train from Washington to New York so that he could be buried at Springwood. People lined up alongside the train tracks and as the train passed, a man started to cry. The guy next to him asked "Did you know him?" His response - "No, but he knew me." That is something that even his own family "misunderestimated" about the eldest Bush son. He wasn't the smartest or the most capable (that, bizarrely enough, seemed to be Jeb), but he had a real instinct for people skills.

We see a few of "Junior"s failed attempts at business and even an averted shotgun marriage. And this is where I say my piece about Oliver Stone's reputation for extrapolating stories from history. W. is, in my judgment, far less inventive that either JFK or Nixon, but it has been my observation that Stone doesn't "make up" stories about the historical figures he depicts. Conversations, yes, which is understandable because the kinds of private conversations that occur in his films are not the kind that are recorded for posterity. But something like the young George Bush getting a girl pregnant and having to "take care of it" is the kind of thing the Stone doesn't put in his movies unless he can back it up. Sometimes the source is questionable - I believe Larry Flynt was the one to break this particular story - but he's not just pulling it out of his rectum.

Another key characteristic we see in Stone's portrayal of Bush is his competitiveness and hatred of losing. Unlike Stone's Nixon, who would pout after a loss, Bush's losses make him more resolute to never let it happen again. He runs for the House of Representatives and gets beaten, and it makes him steaming mad, swearing that he will never be "out-Texan"ed and "out-Christian"ed again. This bleeds over into his relationship with his father as well, his frustration that "Poppy" didn't go after Saddam Hussein when he had the chance, and his anger at the 1992 defeat by Clinton.

This is an unusual Oliver Stone film to me, because for once the most interesting and compelling parts of the story are not the things we know. For example, if I have one complaint about the movie, it's the use of "Bush-isms." None of them are used in the contexts in which we saw them. They're just random bits of dialogue in private scenes. For the most part, Stone stays away from some of the juicier stuff that we know about the current president. We see Bush's alcohol abuse, but not cocaine use. We see the influence of Karl Rove (played by Toby Jones) and Bush putting together the infamous Willie Horton ad for his father's 1988 campaign (there is nothing concrete on this, but it it quite probable, given his job in the campaign - the ad was, of course released by a group outside the campaign). But we get no hint of the smear tactics he used against John McCain in the 2000 primaries. The movie is rather surprisingly fair, and seeks not to beat up the current president but to understand him and understand how we could have elected him.

It's always a fun game to see what kind of impressions Stone's actors do of the real-life people they are playing. The performances this time do seem much more like impressions, for the most part, though many of them have great character moments. Thandie Newton is probably the most scarily accurate, in voice and mannerisms, but she's not given a lot of good character stuff. Richard Dreyfuss doesn't look a lot like Dick Cheney ... until he does that weird side smirk that Cheney does. But that doesn't matter that much, because he gets some great stuff to do. Lots of people will probably point to his monologue in the situation room, where he lays the case for going into Iran. But for my money, it's the scene where he's having lunch with the President, and as he leaves, President Bush says "But don't forget, I'm the decider," marking his tree with urine and declaring who's boss. Dreyfuss gives a little half bow and says "Yes, Mr. President." Darth Vader indeed.

Jeffrey Wright is amazing in everything he does, but his Colin Powell is really the conscience of this movie. He's always the one in the room who wants to think before acting, to ask questions and then (if necessary) shoot. Watching Colin Powell on Meet the Press this morning, I was struck with how well Wright captured Powell's steadiness and intellectualism about the issues, even though he didn't really look or sound like the person he was impersonating. Elisabeth Banks also does quite a good character study (rather than impersonation) of Laura Bush. The impression I get from her is of a woman who loves her husband very much, and who is going to be happy when all this is over in January and they can go back to Texas and have a life.

But the real star here, of course, is Josh Brolin as Bush 43. I read that he was nervous about taking on this role, because there were other actors who did a better job, he thought, of impersonating the president (he notes Will Ferrell). But of course these actors would have done impressions of Bush, which would have been okay if he were an ancillary character, but not when the movie is about him. George Bush, as Oliver Stone said the other day, is not a complex or complicated man at all - his favorite "play" is Cats for crying out loud. However, those kinds of people tend to be the hardest to play well, I think. And yet, despite his fears that he wouldn't do a good impression of Bush, I'll be darned if he hasn't done the best job of any actor I've ever seen at getting the mannerisms and speech and (my goodness) the facial expressions. There are seriously moments in the film where he looks EXACTLY like George W. Bush. And on top of that, he gives a genuine, emotional performance.

I'm not sure what the historical significance of this film will be, nor am I sure exactly who it's trying to reach. Stone claims that he wants this film to make people think about who they're voting for for President, not just this November, but in the elections to come. I get that, but I'm not sure this film accomplishes that. It is, however, a very interesting study of our current political culture and the context in which we elected a "lemon," so to speak.

An observation about Oliver Stone, before we leave him. Looking at his films, you can see how the events of his time shaped his views and the things he wanted to make movies about. He was 17 when Kennedy was shot and in his mid-to-late twenties during Nixon's presidency. Think about that for a second. What an impressionable age range to have experienced those seminal moments in American history. No wonder he was so consumed by the conspiracy theories and the Nixon scandals. Looking at W. - here is a film about things that happened when Stone was in his fifties. He saw those events through the eyes of a more mature human being, and I think that shows in his most recent film.

Fun stuff: Marley Shelton plays the girl Bush dates early in the film. This isn't her first time in an Oliver Stone film. She also appears in Nixon as the President's daughter, Tricia. But what kind of struck me funny is that this is also not the first time she's been romantically involved with Josh Brolin onscreen. In one of my favorite films of last year, Grindhouse, she played Josh Brolin's wife. Though that relationship didn't end too well either. I just kind of chuckled when I saw them together, thinking "I'm gonna eat your brains and gain your knowledge." :P

No comments: