Saturday, October 18, 2008
The biggest surprise of Oliver Stone's W. and one of its greatest strengths is that it isn't just a predictable leftist hatchet job on an already unpopular and widely ridiculed president. It surely would've been tempting, not to mention easy, for Stone to have simply indulged in beating a dead horse (or at least a horse with a 23% approval rating). Instead, W. is empathetic towards its central figure, who comes across primarily as a man of good intentions surrounded by people with agendas he doesn't see or doesn't understand, who has sometimes staggering ambitions but lacks the intelligence or ability to follow through on them. The film doesn't exactly overflow with new ideas or new perspectives on the current US president, and anyone who has followed American politics over the past eight years is unlikely to learn anything or encounter any truly startling thoughts about the second Bush to inhabit the White House.
What Stone is doing here is distilling the endless media chatter, speculation, and punditry of Bush's two terms into a coherent narrative, condensing Bush's life into a compact timeline, all of it leading to his time as Commander in Chief. Everything here, including the central conceit of Bush as a befuddled frat boy in over his head, is familiar. Stone's job is essentially one of editing, contextualizing, assembling a story from the sound bites of the news. Familiar quotes are shuffled around, moved to convenient places in the narrative, serving as markers of the historical reality behind this tale. Catchphrases like "misunderestimating" and "is our children learning?" show up here and there, reminders of Bush's gaffe-filled public speaking career. Stone de-emphasizes these lines, throwing them out there without comment, letting them slip into the fabric of Dubya's life without putting them into the media spotlight that surrounded the real president's every public slip-up. Even the famous pretzel incident makes an appearance, reimagined as a private moment, a simultaneously poignant and ridiculous close encounter with death, far from the embarrassing glare of the TV cameras that captured the real event. Stone's film invites an American audience to reconsider the things it has seen over the last 8 years, to think of them not as part of the nation's political history, but as incidents in a life, with all the attendant emotional undercurrents and personal dramas.
This narrativizing drive requires a tough balancing act, and Stone occasionally slips into hamfisted foreshadowing, hitting the notes too hard in establishing pivotal moments for Dubya. When he loses a congressional race to a Texan Democrat who plays up his small-town connections and Christian faith, Bush vows to never again be "out-Texaned or out-Christianed," and indeed he wouldn't be. Later, when he sees his father miss out on a second term after failing to go all the way to Baghdad in confronting Saddam Hussein, the son vows not to let the same thing happen to him. This narrative of political learning is sloppily done, reinforced too heavily by the over-obvious dialogue. This Bush is sometimes too self-aware, too conscious of learning lessons and molding himself into political material. Stone underlines his points too emphatically, not trusting the audience to get the idea without at least a few lines of soul-searching dialogue to make things clearer. At other times, though, Stone is able to mold an excess of material stretching from Bush's frat boy days to the occupation of Iraq into a coherent, propulsive narrative, even as he jumps in time between the Bush presidency and the earlier eras that led up to it.
By far, the film's greatest asset is its cast, who for the most part truly embody the political celebrities they're playing. Stone is smart not to get too tangled up in overbearing makeup effects, instead casting actors who can bring out the essence of the people they're playing in voice, demeanor, and a vague hint of appearance. Josh Brolin, for instance, looks little Dubya except in fleeting shots from a distance. Mostly, he suggests Bush through the trademark voice, that Texan drawl that Brolin absolutely nails, and in the way he moves his face and his body: the swaggering posture, the furrowed brow, the eyes that shift between squinting pensiveness and wide-eyed confusion. Brolin completely sells his Bush, as convincing as a boozing party animal, a fervent born-again trying to turn his life around, or an earnest, ambitious political figure. The rest of the cast is mostly just as compelling, with some achieving more of a resemblance to their counterparts than others.
Richard Dreyfuss, Thandie Newton, and Jeffrey Wright are especially effective, as Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell, respectively. Dreyfuss plays an only slightly caricatured Darth Cheney, because really there's not much you can do to exaggerate the vice president's naturally sinister smirk and leering, halting speech. He's perpetually hunched over here, his head bowed like a vampire about to feast on its next victim, and he has his one joyful moment in an extraordinary scene where Stone imagines him waxing ecstatic about the possibilities for American empire in the Middle East, gleefully conjuring little American flags to spread across a computerized map of the region. Newton's Rice is more of a caricature, as she plays the National Security Advisor like a hyperactive lap dog, darting around Bush's orbit and parroting everything her boss says. In a hilarious meeting with Tony Blair (Ioan Gruffudd), she flutters over the British PM's shoulder, randomly chirping stray words repeated from whatever Bush is saying at the moment. Wright's Powell is perhaps the most understated representation here, nailing both Powell's appearance and his quiet dignity. Stone gives Powell a moving, intelligent speech in trying to convince the other members of the Cabinet to abandon their plans for war in Iraq, but once the war is decided on, Stone also portrays how Powell used his intellect and eloquence to sell the case in the UN despite his deep reservations. Toby Jones' Karl Rove is also worthy of special mention. Rove is mostly a cipher here, a fiendishly clever political architect whose machinations sometimes seem to dictate Bush policy to a frightening degree. In the midst of the War Room debate over the Iraq war, Rove offers the idea that without the war, Bush will not be re-elected in 2004, a moment of naked realpolitik slipping out unexpectedly, providing a stark contrast to the other, more idealistic justifications offered for the war. Rove's outburst silences the room and prompts Powell to wonder aloud why a political staffer is even in on this discussion at all.
It is perhaps these War Room encounters that provide the film's most fascinating moments. These are Stone's plausible but largely imagined visions of what might've happened behind closed doors in the lead-up to the Iraq war. The overwhelming impression here is of a roomful of people attempting to convince each other of the rightness of the war, each providing their impassioned justifications and rationalizations. Only Powell offers a word of dissent. The rest of the Cabinet seems to be engaging in a trial run for selling the war to the public, practicing the kinds of arguments that might be used to win over a gullible populace to the cause. These scenes, and others like them, provide the film with its raison d'etre, really. While it's nice to see the documentary facts of Bush's life arranged into a tidy narrative leading to the Oval Office, the real appeal of the film lies in the ways it goes beyond facts, beyond the known into the imagined. The film justifies its status as fiction, rather than documentary, by delving into the psychological underpinnings of Bush the president: his stubbornness, his mistrust of thought and tendency to equate it with indecisiveness, and most importantly the lingering inferiority complex bred in him by a perpetually disappointed father (James Cromwell) who clearly invests more affection, respect, and hope in brother Jeb (Jason Ritter). Stone finds the roots of a presidency, and a war, in family dramas and emotional wounds, and the result is a film as messy and strange as the last eight years have been.