The weblog of Joshua Drescher

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October 18th, 2008 · No Comments · Movies, Politics, Rants

Annoyed to find out that Choke isn’t playing anywhere nearby, we settled for seeing Oliver Stone’s latest presidential film - W. Overall, I was generally unimpressed. It’s not a clever film. It’s not illuminating in any real way (or even in a “crazy Oliver Stone conspiracy theory” way). It’s not so much funny as it is ham-fisted and mean.

I will say this - Josh Brolin is excellent in the titular role of George W. Bush and Richard Dreyfus makes a damn fine Dick Cheney. After that point, the quality and believability of the performances declines rapidly (I love Rob Corddry, but he looks and acts less like Ari Fleischer than I do).

The film is intended to fill in the “gaps” in the story of George W. Bush’s life and rise to power. Oddly, Stone’s trademark use of alternate history and conspiracy mongering is utterly absent, leaving behind an extremely thin and largely underwhelming portrait of Bush 43’s hypothetical motives and behavior. Whereas Stone’s previous presidential films have been profoundly weakened by his affection for fringe paranoia, W. would have been well-served by a decent injection of creative tin-foil hattery.

The audience we watched the movie with was made up - almost exclusively - of middle-aged people who - due to the demographic make-up of the area - were almost certainly devout Democrats. Unsurprisingly, murmurs rose from the crowd repeatedly along the lines of “he’s so STUPID” or “that’s SO true!”

They also seemed confused about what, exactly, the film was trying to do. The ads for the film make it seem like a satirical skewering of George W. Bush and it might have been more interesting had that been the case. Instead, it’s a weird mix of dark tragedy, melodramatic hypothesis and hackneyed slapstick. The crowd continually laughed at times that - to me - seemed profoundly dark and unsettling and I got the distinct sense that they were desperately trying to WILL the picture into becoming a 2-hour-long Daily Show sketch.

Let me be clear - this is not a comedy and I don’t believe Stone intended it to be one.

(spoilers happen from this point on)

The film hops back and forth through the adult life of George W. Bush. We’re shown his wash-out performances in various early jobs (working an oil rig, references to failures in finance, Bud Selig “stealing” the position of Major League Baseball Commissioner from him), each punctuated by a judgmental and critical run-in with his father. Bush 43 is driven by a need to please his father, despite repeated scenes where he displays a profound hatred of the man.

Eventually, he decides to enter politics - the specifics of which Stone utterly ignores, except in the case of his first (and failed) attempt to win a seat in the House of Representatives. We see no details of his campaigns for Governor or President, although we DO get a scene where Stone credits George W. Bush with creating the infamous “Willie Horton” ad that many believe helped Bush 41 trounce Michael Dukakis in 1988. The latter represents one of the few moments where the film makes a pointed and enticing accusation.

A large chunk of the film revolves around the run-up to the Iraq War, including the film’s sole impressive scene. In that scene, behind closed doors, we see a deeply skeptical Colin Powell argue against the war, only to be shot down by a truly nerve-rattling performance by Dick Cheney, who lays out the most sinister possible version of Neo-Con oil-mongering imperialist scheming. Like the Horton theory, this scene stands out - if only because it is devoid of slaptick nonsense and takes a hard, definitive stand about the character of the supporting cast of Bush cronies.

Speaking of which, the film takes a fairly firm stand on a few players, primarily Laura Bush, George H. W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Colin Powell.

Laura is actually quite compelling, if poorly excavated. When we meet her at a barbecue, she quickly announces to a swaggering George W. Bush that she is a literate, education-focused supporter of Eugene McCarthy. Stone chooses not to dig into what became of her left-leaning sensibilities, instead opting to present her as a text-book enabler of her husband’s manic behavior and recklessness. She’s repeatedly shown diffusing George W’s quite reasonable doubts about himself with things like offering to get him tickets to Cats. She is, in many ways, the quiet villain of the film.

George H. W. Bush is presented as a cold, calculating aristocrat with a decent political mind and seemingly infinite patience for his son’s stupidity. He’s generally presented in a sympathetic fashion. Stone’s primary accusation seems to be that Bush 41 failed to do more to stifle Bush 43’s political aspirations.

The film’s Dick Cheney is essentially a Daily Show caricature. He’s grumpy, belligerent, tends to sit in dark corners of any room he’s in. No attempt is made to do anything even marginally interesting with him outside of the aforementioned scene where he lays out the Neo-Con plan for dominating the Middle East for oil.

Karl Rove is handled with nothing short of cruelty in the film. He’s played by Toby Jones who is made up in such a trollish fashion that he makes the ACTUAL Rove seem quite handsome by comparison. Throughout the film, he’s presented as a weak-willed lackey who is routinely bullied by George W. Bush (who tends to refer to him as “Turd Blossom” or “Boy Genius”). Oddly, he’s rarely shown concocting any truly devious plans and instead comes across as an awkward, but studious expert on the dull mechanics of politics.

Colin Powell is treated with perverse kindness - routinely being shown making deeply prescient and wise statements about things like the Iraq War and standing-off against Dick Cheney (whom he tosses an angry “fuck you” to late in the film). Stone seems to be trying to portray him as an honorable, enlightened warrior who tries his best to get Bush 43 to do the right thing, but is overwhelmed by Evil Men, incompetence and Christianity. To me, he comes across as a craven opportunist who fails to stand up for what he believes is right, choosing instead to back policies he disagrees with as they led the US into war.

In the end, it’s a long movie that repeats a lot of things that most of us already know and that only takes a couple of stabs at rabble-rousing or creative conjecture. Some day, someone will make a truly black comedy out of Bush 43 and someone else will make a definitive and exhaustive biography that seeks to explain the man in depth. Hopefully, those films will be better than this one. In the meantime, just stick to the Daily Show - you’ll learn more and the jokes are funnier.

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