Monday, October 26, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: W. (2008)

W. (2008)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Stanley Weiser.
Starring: Josh Brolin (George W. Bush), Elizabeth Banks (Laura Bush), James Cromwell (George H.W. Bush), Ellen Burstyn (Barbara Bush), Richard Dreyfuss (Dick Cheney), Jeffrey Wright (Colin Powell), Scott Glenn (Donald Rumsfeld), Thandie Newton (Condoleezza Rice), Toby Jones (Karl Rove), Bruce McGill (George Tenet), Ioan Gruffudd (Prime Minister Tony Blair), Noah Wyle (Don Evans), Rob Corddry (Ari Fleischer), Dennis Boutsikaris (Paul Wolfowitz), Randall Newsome (Paul Bremer), Jason Ritter (Jeb Bush), Michael Gaston (General Tommy Franks), Stacy Keach (Rev. Earle Hudd).

Oliver Stone’s W. was greeted with a collective shrug, by both audiences and critics, when it was released back in 2008 – and not enough time has passed for it to get any sort of real re-evaluation. You can understand why people didn’t much want to see the film then – it was released a month before the election that would bring Barack Obama to the White House, and even Bush’s hardcore supporters were getting tired of him, and wished he would pretty much go away. The Conservative minded either ignored the film or attacked it as a hatchet job – a lot on the Liberal side didn’t see it as hard enough on George W. Bush, and many film critics who loved Stone’s Nixon the decade prior was disappointed that Stone’s new film was simplistic by comparison. To me, that’s always been one of the point of W., the film – that it is a far more simple film for a far more simple man. No matter what one thinks of Richard Nixon, he was a fascinating person, in many ways a brilliant one, who brought himself up from nothing to become President, only to have it come crashing down around him because of his own paranoia. That’s the narrative of a Shakespearean King. In Stone’s view, Bush was nothing more than a spoiled rich kid, with daddy issues – an average man who had the misfortune of being born into a great family, and who was just smart enough to make himself into a great politician, but not smart enough to realize that is the last thing he should have been. Basically, Stone paints him as a man in way over his head, who has no idea what the hell he’s doing. He takes a few cheap shots perhaps – but not many. The fact checking brigade that has greeted other Stone films didn’t find much here – he stays pretty close to the established record on this one. That makes the film all the sadder. It is true that the film is flawed – that it rushes through Bush’s life far too quickly, and has a supporting cast that are basically doing little more than impressions of the famous people they’re playing (my favorite is probably Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld – he may not be in the film very much, but the way he eats pie will haunt me forever). Anchored by a great, Oscar caliber performance by Josh Brolin though, and W. really is quite a good film – one of the best “late phase” Stone films.

The film basically moves back and forth in time, from Bush’s past, starting with his drunken frat days, to his Presidency and back again. Yes, it is kind of silly to see the middle aged Brolin playing a frat boy, but it’s only for a scene (and at this point, because of Walk Hard, these types of scenes always make me smile, so let’s role with it). It doesn’t take long to establish who W. is – and what the relationship is like with his father (James Cromwell). His father is stern, and lets his son know at every opportunity just how disappointed he is in him, and how he wishes he could be more like Jeb – yet he’s also always there to bail his son out of trouble (or jail). Their interaction always reduce the usual over-confident machismo of W. into a little boy who has just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. The movie moves quickly through W.’s “jobs” – none of which he lasts long in, as he always gets tired of being bossed around and simply does not have the work effort to stick with it. When he runs for Congress in the late 1970s – with little on his resume – he loses, and vows right then and there that he will never be “Out Christianed or Out Texased” every again – and he never is.

Brolin nails Bush’s voice and mannerisms – and not in a jokey, Saturday Night Live way, but in a much deeper one. He isn’t doing a jokey impression of Bush – which would be easy – but getting the man beneath that surface – at once brash and insecure. He is smart enough to know that those around do not think he is smart enough – and he doesn’t hesitate to put those around him down, albeit in a nice way, if he feels like they are stepping on his toes. He does the seemingly impossible with Bush – especially in 2008 – and makes him into a human being. A sad one to be sure, and one that he makes abundantly clear never should have been President (or really, in any kind of position of power) but a human just the same. The final shot of the movie – of Bush once again dreaming of being a baseball player in the outfield, only this time losing sight of the ball that never comes down is an apt metaphor for his life.

Stone is on solid footing with Brolin as Bush, but he cannot help himself at other times as he goes too far over the top. Richard Dreyfus, as Dick Cheney, has a fairly silly scene in the Situation Room, where he goes on a long, drawn out diatribe about all the things America needs to do become an Evil Empire (without using that term obviously) borders on a scene more appropriate to a film like Dr. Strangelove, except that it is played straight. In fact, none of the rest of the supporting cast really comes into focus in any real way – except Colin Powell should have probably sent Stone a fruit basket or something as he comes across far and away the best of anybody in the film.

At the time the film was made, many thought Stone had jumped the gun – that making the film while Bush was still in office was a mistake, as it didn’t really allow history to judge how he had done, and what the long term consequences of what he did were. This had helped Stone in the past – who made films about Vietnam more than a decade after the war ended, JFK’s assassination nearly three decades after the event, and about Richard Nixon two decades after he resigned. There is some truth to that complaint – and already, in just 7 years, as the President after Bush is getting ready to leave office next year, the film may have dated a little bit. And yet, in the larger scope, I’m not sure that the film would be much different if it were made today – with some hindsight – as it was back in 2008. If W. the film hasn’t really gotten a critical re-evaluation yet, than neither has George W. Bush, the President. He’s still someone Democrats hate, and Republicans distant themselves from – and the historical record hasn’t really helped Bush out – nor has it hurt him more than it already had back in 2008 (his screw-ups were already widely known). The complaint about the film that is true is that it is nowhere near the complex portrait of a President as Stone’s Nixon was. But Bush wasn’t nearly as complicated as Nixon – which is a fact that Stone makes stunning clear. W. is an odd film in many ways – but it remains a fascinating one for me – and one that hopefully, some more people will give a second look to.

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