Monday, October 20, 2008

W. (2008, Oliver Stone)

Not the disaster many were apparently expecting, but in a strange way that makes it less interesting. If this had been one of Stone’s balls-to-the-wall fiascos, this might have had an insane train-wreck energy to it. Instead, it’s a solid biopic, with all the limitations that label implies. Most damaging is Stone’s tendency to apply reductive psychoanalysis to his antihero (Josh Brolin), especially regarding his strained relationship with "Poppy" George, played here by James Cromwell. Granted, I have little doubt that growing up in the shadow of such a high-profile figure as George Bush can be a decidedly mixed blessing. Yet to ascribe nearly all of W.’s actions to an inferiority complex- which even manifests itself in a handful of misguided fantasy sequences- is, to quote Orson Welles, "dollar-book Freud" (though to be fair to Welles, he took Rosebud much less seriously than Stone takes the father-son relationship here).

That said, the movie still mostly works, at least enough to make it Stone’s most watchable movie in more than a decade, which I’ll grant you isn’t saying much. I liked the bifurcated structure of the story, which allows Stone to juxtapose the almost inspiring story of Bush’s rise from alcoholic rich kid to national politician, with the more sobering behind-the-scenes re-creation of the planning of the Iraq War. Truth be told, I could have gone for at least another hour worth of the latter, especially the dialogue-heavy intrigue of the various Cabinet meetings. For me, there was a voyeuristic kick to seeing the ways in which W. was manipulated by some ("Vice" Cheney, "Rummy" Rumsfeld, "Genius" Rove) and enabled by others ("Guru" Rice), while others still (particularly Colin Powell) got more or less left out in the cold. Part of me wishes that Stone could’ve gotten the financial backing to make this Che-style, perhaps with the early years called "Junior", the later called "W.: The President” or something along those lines.

If nothing else, this structure would strengthen Stone’s central thesis, which states that George W. Bush might have been an archetypal American success story, had he never been elected President. In the film’s view, Bush was a spoiled rich ne’er-do-well who spent much of his younger years rebelling against his family’s legacy, only to give up alcohol and find religion, and eventually becoming successful in his own right. Compared to most men, he achieved success in life. Unfortunately for him, history will compare him not to the balance of Americans, but to American Presidents, who by and large are considerably tougher competition. In the film’s view, it was his bad luck that he had to rely on an inner circle of advisors more than most men in his position, thereby making it easier for the aforementioned manipulators and enablers to spin reality for their own political gain.

But really, if the film works at all, it’s because of Josh Brolin, who plays the title character from his drunken Yale years through the Presidency. Naturally, Stone gives Brolin the W. "highlight reel" moments- was there any doubt he’d say "misunderestimate" or "won’t get fooled again"?- and Brolin handles them nicely. Yet this isn’t simple mimickry- he’s made to look and sound the part, yes, but he also does a startling job of getting to the heart of a man who some might consider to be history’s greatest monster (excepting Jimmy Carter, of course). In many people’s eyes, Bush was a dope and a dupe, a son of privilege who coasted on his family connections and good ol’boy charm. Yet damn if Brolin doesn’t almost make him sympathetic in a way even Stone’s tired Freudianism can’t manage. If last year’s trio of breakout performances weren’t enough of an indication, W. should remove all doubt- Brolin is the real deal, folks. Time to recognize.

Rating: 6 out of 10.


James said...

Excellent review, Paul. LOVE The Simpsons reference.

I was 50/50 on Brolin. I should probably blame this on Stone, but I thought far too much energy was dedicated to telegraphing Bush's shortcomings to the audience. Bush may be famous for bungling words, but someone totally unfamiliar with the man might walk away thinking the man never put together a coherent sentence in his life. The insistence on shoehorning so many Bushisms in felt infantile to me.

I was most entertained by the flashbacks. Whereas the policy parts dived too far into fantasy for me (empire my ass), the earlier episodes in Bush's life produced pathos for me. This might not have been the intended effect: whereas the moral seemed to be "look at this fucking dunce," I couldn't help but cherish the idea of a president who hasn't been obsessed with becoming CiC since kindergarten. I have a much harder time relating to stuffed shirt overachievers than I do drunkards with enormous inner turmoil.

What'd you think of Thandie Newton? I thought she was fantastic, but I keep reading evisceations of her performance.

Paul C. said...

I thought Brolin did an excellent job with what he was given, even if it didn't adhere strictly to the man as we know him. For better or worse, he was Oliver Stone's George W. Bush.

As for Newton, I didn't think she was awful, but her outright attempt at impersonation felt out of place among the other cabinet members. Perhaps that's what the critics are responding to- the mishmash casting of these key supporting roles.