Monday, October 27, 2008

Movie Review: W

Grade: C

It's certainly strange to make a film about a man's presidency before he has even left office. But Oliver Stone's W is not really about Bush's presidency. Instead, Stone has made two fairly incongruous films that occupy the same theater. One of them is the story of a man whose efforts to impress his father lead him to the White House. The other movie could best be called The Iraq War Is Really Bad, as Stone foregoes his title character to show five years too late why we shouldn't have gone to Iraq.

The bulk of the film is in the flashbacks to Bush's life, showing such milestones as a young George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) pledging his Yale frat, and a slightly older one creating the infamous Willie Horton ad for his father (James Cromwell)'s presidential campaign (I'd love a fact check on that). It's not the most flowing narrative, and certainly Stone places too much importance on Jr.'s relationship with Sr. Yet something about these sections works. Most of the credit should go to Brolin. His imitation is hardly the best Bush I've seen, but in going beyond the mannerisms to try to understand Bush's character he succeeds. He makes the much-maligned president sympathetic and likeable. Elizabeth Banks as Laura similarly goes beyond the imitation to create a supportive character. The movie is strongest when it's about them.

Everything done right by Brolin and Banks is done wrong in the Cabinet meetings that make up the other half of the film. Most of them feel like SNL sketches without any jokes, largely thanks to some rather cartoonish imitations. As much as I like Jeffrey Wright and Thandie Newton, they try so hard to imitate the voices of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, respectively, that they lose any semblance of their characters. Ditto Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, except while he looks eerily like the real VP the voice is all Dreyfuss.

Worse than the overdone imitations in these scenes are what is actually said. The conversations range from sleepifying to horribly absurd, with little in between. The scenes are essentially just discussions of policy, which is about as dramatic as CSPAN. You only wake up when they say something absolutely outrageous, like when Cheney talks about conquering Iraq and Iran for oil to build an American Empire. Or when super dramatic music plays as Colin Powell gives a heroic speech about why we shouldn't invade Iraq. That's but one of the many egregious uses of music, such as playing the Robin Hood theme whenever the Cabinet meets. The lack of nuance in these scenes is exactly the liberal hack job people feared Stone would use with the whole movie.

Dramatically though, the meetings fail because of how little presence Bush has in them. They are a series of battles between Powell and Cheney, or good and evil as Stone would have you believe. Bush merely acts as a sort of referee. I think Stone thinks he is being generous in absolving Bush of some responsibility for the Iraq War. But he is also undermining his own movie. If Bush went into Iraq out of naively believing Cheney, then what does Iraq have to do with the story of his life? Stone wants Bush's story to be a tragedy, as his desire to finish his father's war led to his own downfall. But the story of Bush's presidency is solely about Iraq, and Bush seems to have little part in that story either personally or politically as shown here.

It seems that Stone thinks he has earned the right to slam the war because he generally attempts to treat Bush fairly. Bush seems relatively on top of everything as president, and he always remains sympathetic. But Stone still can't help but take some cheap shots at him. A scene of Bush choking on a pretzel is in the film for no other reason than that it makes him look bad. Bushisms made to the press are inserted in regular conversation in a painfully obvious way. And in scenes of Bush's youth, close-ups of Jack Daniels are so frequent that JD may be the real romantic lead.

Ultimately, though, W just feels like a wasted opportunity. Towards the end, Bush is asked at a press conference what his legacy will be. Like Bush in the movie, Stone makes no attempt to answer that question. Perhaps that's because he ends the movie in 2004, or perhaps it's because Stone did not wait to gain some perspective. But it seems like the main reason is because Stone was so focused on lashing out against the lead-up to the Iraq War that everything else was secondary. He didn't complete the personal story of Bush that he started or add any new insight to his presidency. By making the movie a referendum on Iraq instead of on Bush, Stone let his politics get in the way of his own movie.

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