Saturday, November 1, 2008

Simple Minded: W.

In the run-up to the 2004 election, I remember watching a cable news show in which the Analyst of the Day pointed out how John Kerry’s campaign was going about things all wrong. In trying to unseat the incumbent, a challenger wins not by pointing out the incumbent’s mistakes, the analyst reasoned, but by selling a vision for the future. After four years under George W Bush, Kerry’s tactic of pinning blame had no greater effect than listing for a wife the shortfalls of her husband. Bush’s inadequacies were known. If the electorate hadn’t grown tired of them already, there was nothing Kerry could say to change that. For better or worse, the American people knew Bush – all his strengths and weaknesses – like they knew their own family.

Four years later, after Kerry’s defeat, we now know Bush even better. Arguably too well. And it’s into this landscape that Oliver Stone releases W., a limited-scope biopic that charts the unforeseeable transformation of an aimless, hard-partying goof into a devout, determined Presidential goof. (Hey, some things never change.) It’s ripe material, especially for Stone, who is at his best when gnawing with rat-like fervency at the mythical historical touchstones of the past 50 years: the Vietnam War (Platoon and Born On The Fourth Of July), the assassination of John F Kennedy (JFK) and the political career of Richard Nixon (Nixon). That’s why it’s a disappointment to discover that W. is toothless, not because it fails to flog a president whose record-low approval ratings reflect his almost endless collection of failures, deceptions, insensitivities and gaffes, but because it fails to illuminate Bush’s persona beyond the obvious.

In that way, W. was a tall order, because Bush is hardly a man of depth. At the end of his second term, Bush seems more transparent to the American people than to himself, which is to say that if our president isn’t as dimwitted and disconnected as he appears, he’s at least ignorant (perhaps actively so) of how truly foolish he comes across. In that respect, Bush is not unlike the loudmouth at the party who draws laughs upon arriving and keeps telling jokes into the night long after the response has turned to groans. To its credit, W. underlines Bush’s criminal lack of self-awareness on at least three occasions: first when a post-grad Bush fails to recognize that it was his father pulling strings, and not his academic record, that gets him into Harvard Law; second when as a candidate for governor of Texas he suggests that his strategist Karl Rove (Toby Jones) is merely the wordsmith and not the idea man of the campaign; and third when President Bush tells Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), “I’m the decider,” despite immediate evidence to the contrary. In these moments, we get a glimpse of how Bush sees himself. The trouble is, it’s a view with which we’ve long been familiar.

Watching W., I experienced for the first time the “fatigue” factor often cited as a contributor to the modest box office earnings of Iraq-themed films like In The Valley Of Elah and Rendition. W. is full of old legends, old blunders, old Bushisms. For someone born this year, it might someday serve as a satisfactory primer on this president and these times. Right now, however, it feels like a rerun of a TV show that’s long past its prime. Perhaps with the exception of the way Stone’s picture portrays Bush’s resentment of his father – after years of being overshadowed by his brother Jeb – as a significant motivating force, W. fails to gain any sharper insight of its subject than could be attained by reading eight years worth of headlines in The Washington Post. Even worse, W. sometimes loses track of its subject altogether, as during the situation room meeting in which Cheney, Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) and others sit arguing the merits of invading Iraq, while Bush sits by as a witness. True, Bush’s backseat approach during this crucial moment is a telling commentary on the man that’s both negative (not much of a decider) and backhandedly positive (demonstrating how a well-intending Bush was bamboozled by others who knew better; a conniver he wasn’t). But like Bush missing a turn on a walking tour of his Texas ranch, W. takes the long way around.

Bush is played by Josh Brolin, who delivers the goods in what is arguably the most challenging performance of his career, given the workload (he’s in almost every scene) and the oft-imitated mannerisms of the subject. Gracefully transitioning between youthful party animal and grizzled politician, Brolin weaves a common swaggering thread throughout in what is an astonishingly reserved portrayal. In fact, it’s too reserved. As soon as you credit Stone and Brolin for not drawing upon Bush’s blooper-reel moments to turn the man into a caricature, you must also wonder why they chose to play down-the-middle a man who couldn’t walk a straight line if his life depended on it. When Jon Stewart responded to footage of Bush ‘raising the roof’ during the Olympics by quipping that our president is “adorable” and should be the country’s “mascot,” he hit the nail on the head. In contrast, Brolin’s Bush, as accurate as it is scene to scene, feels less cartoonish than Bush himself. In hindsight, Stone would have been better off casting Will Ferrell in the lead and making W. an epic tragic-comedy capable of producing enough laughter to blow the doors off your local multiplex.

As it is, W. barely inspires chuckles. Or gasps. Or sighs. Or fits of rage. And that’s the biggest letdown of all, because W. is proof that Stone has lost his edge. Films like JFK and Nixon are rife with the imperfections of a brawler who swings nothing but haymakers and awkwardly misses at least a third of the time. Stone’s films have never been elegant, and that is their joy. At their most compelling, Stone’s great films resemble their director: bold, opinionated and wearing an untamable 5 o’clock shadow. Until now, the director’s political films have inspired and offended in equal measure. That is their charm. But with W., against all expectation, against all explanation, Stone plays it safe. Historical accuracy might have been improved in the process, but the emotional truth was lost. It’s telling that two print ads for the film showing Brolin’s Bush in the Oval Office – chin resting on his hands in childlike contemplation in one, boots on the desk in Texas arrogance in the other – are more biting than the movie itself. Stone’s film is almost painfully correct, but it marks the moment when one of cinema’s best provocateurs lost his voice. W. is nothing more than empty gesturing.


elgringo said...

My hat's off to Brolin for taking a role that's been done to death by numerous comedians and attempting to do something different with it. That being said, you bring up one hell of a point when you point out how cartoonish the actual Bush is. Just watch any random five minutes of Bush footage, on either liberal or conservative new channels, and you'll see a sillier performance than Brolin's.

Richard Bellamy said...

I really thought Brolin's portrayal of Bush was excellent and it carried the film. But I agree that the movie was lacking and that Stone has lost his edge. So many famous directors have lost their edge this year! What's going on?

Yes, "W." was missing a lot. For me, it was missing gripping drama and atmosphere. Stone chose an epic time period. He could have made a gripping, gut-wrenching American story covering 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, with W. lamely getting the country into a big mess, but all I remember from "W." is Brolin's performance. It was an excellent performance. He added some nice touches; I like it when he takes the lettuce out of the bologna sandwich he's eating.

It wouldn't have taken epic battle sequences to make this film more compelling. I'll connect this comment with the post on Stone's "Nixon." Look at the wonderful use of lighting; the use of the ghosts as metaphors. Sure, Oliver, go low budget, but a little lighting, atmosphere, and artistry go a long way to making a film memorable.