Tuesday, October 21, 2008

W. (2008)

Comparing Oliver Stone's W. to his Nixon is probably a fool's errand. Over twenty years transpired between Richard Nixon's resignation and Stone's epic treatment of the man's life and political travails. George W. Bush still has around ninety days in office. His presidency, though considered by a majority of Americans to have had a deleterious effect on his country, has not been given sufficient time to be viewed with the (often nonexistent) objectivity of an historical perspective. Whereas at least a significant portion of the most unforgiving loathers of Nixon will admit that he possessed a certain intelligence, and had concomitant features that today seem extinct, such as a foreign policy shaped around realpolitik and (comparatively) limited interests related to matters defined as strictly pragmatic purposes, exerting a kind of statesmanship in “opening China” that would, likely admitted by at least some W.-boosters, befuddle the forty-third president. Nixon naturally invites the kind of hypnotically tragic play about his life, his deeds, his soul; Bush, meanwhile, may be best approached in a Strangelovian, fun-house mirror way. Marx was more correct than he knew with his timelessly written opening sentences of his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in 1852: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

W. suffers from almost every apparent problem you would likely think nearly inevitable when undertaking a kind of part-biopic, part-framing of the back-story of the Iraq War and throwing it all into one narrative. Noticeably absent: every other major occurrence of W.'s presidency. Stone's voice can be heard through the vicariously created Colin Powell (Jeremy Wright) as the general warns the president in Crawford, Texas, months before the invasion of Iraq, “This will become your first term, sir.” Evidently, Stone believes Iraq is Bush's presidency, period. Abu Ghraib is never mentioned (Guantanamo Bay is once), though lightly hinted at as a future scandal as Dick Cheney (a creepily intense but sternly understated Richard Dreyfuss) tells Bush about the ramifications of some of the details in a certain bill, which Bush glances at between voracious bites into his lunch meat sandwich, happily noting the number of pages (three). The narrative stops before Katrina. Before the Afghan insurgency became overwhelming, to the point of being considered more effective than the Iraqi insurgency. Before “The Surge.” Before most Americans knew “Osama” could rhyme with the name of a presidential hopeful. Indeed, the narrative just stops, abruptly, clumsily, as if the film were reveling in the inconclusiveness of the denouement. Stone, doubtless aware of this issue, brazenly has his picture conclude with the words “The End,” paradoxically conveying the open-ended, humorously inadequate destination of his own seriocomic snapshot of George H.W. Bush's (James Cromwell) black sheep-turned-presidential successor progeny.

If the finale is lackluster, almost necessarily so (but not to the point it is in Stone's film), what about the twisting road to that place? Brolin is unquestionably exceptional in his role—he, under Stone's direction, makes W. as complicated as possible, while never straining to adorn the man with qualities or attributes he so transparently lacks. Spoiled rotten as a teenager and young man, a frat brat screw-up at Yale, never applying himself to anything, including several “summer jobs” his father, Poppy, as he is called, attempts to give his son, he finally decides to follow his congressman father down the political road in 1977, running for the congressional nineteenth district of Texas after the Democratic incumbent leaves office. However, W. is chewed up by his Democratic rival in their debate, being “out-Texas'd” and “out-Christian'd,” as W. will later call it, by the mud-slinging Democrat. W. loses his bid, freshly determined to never allow the stinging bite of loss to reenter his political life. “I'll never allow myself to be out-Texas'd and out-Christian'd again,” he angrily vows once the reality of his failed campaign hits him.

Possibly the most truly comparative auteurist note of technique with Nixon, and other Stone features, is the director's affinity for symbolism. As Bush #43 throws a ball for Barney the dog to fetch, the “Boy Genius” and “Architect,” Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove (Toby Jones) and White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer (Rob Corddry) metaphorically do the same with the president, throwing balls of sound-bites to the decider so he can win the American people over. As Bush, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (a cartoon-like, over-the-top and grating Thandie Newton), Donald Rumsfeld (a wisely reserved Scott Glenn, conveying the mannerisms of the Secretary of Defense without ever resorting to caricature), General Tommy Franks (Michael Gaston), Cheney and others—sans Powell, the one voice of moderation with a uniquely small-c conservative outlook on the role of the military—all speak with assured bellicosity and arrogant woolgathering that reduces American foreign policy to blustery cockiness, all certain in their deluded minds that the invasion and subsequent war will be a rapid, triumphal affair, only to find themselves lost, having somehow aimlessly, walked off of the road like a doomed herd of animals on Bush's ranch. Stone cuts back to a long shot, determined to drive the equally comedic and frightening point home: these people are deeply lost. When David Kay is served up as being responsible for no one finding any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq months after the Iraq War's commencement, Rumsfeld (who himself will later be terminated, hours after the 2006 midterm election resulted in disaster for the Republican Party, days after W. told everyone Rumsfeld and Cheney would be around for the entirety of W.'s second term) and several others like the slimy Paul Wolfowitz—whose statement that the war would be paid for by Iraqi oil was hilarious at the time, depressing now—consume their slices of pecan pie, watching Kay fall on his sword for the sake of the president and his myrmidons (in reality, he is truly their myrmidon, a point Stone consistently hits, but never overwhelmingly so). In a room filled with deipnosophists, W. simply throws out less articulate points, discrepantly more edible for many Americans' consumption.

Elizabeth Banks plays Laura Bush, and she displays the innately dulcet, ambrosial texture of W.'s sweetheart, but the role is curtailed by Stone's currently pertinacious conventionality that used to not be so evident in his handling of relationships such as this. What does continue from Stone's earlier work is the Oedipal complex, made more alarmingly shallow than ever before, with W. tenaciously attempting to outdo his father, make his father truly express his love for his son (an awkward scene the day of W.'s gubernatorial inauguration in Texas hits the point, but Stone mistakenly undercuts his own drama by having W. voice the dynamic to his wife) and, in some vindictive combating against the one-term presidential fate of his father, to win the presidency and take out the “asshole who tried to kill my dad,” as he terms it to Rove and Fleischer, Saddam Hussein. Cromwell does not try to especially look or sound like Bush, Sr. but with those famed glasses (this writer would at the age of four, wear his father's glasses at the time of Bush #41's presidency, which were much like Bush #41's, saying, “I'm the president”) and stolid, well-bred demeanor, he captures what makes Bush, Sr. somewhat intriguing as a case study of power in the hands of “a political aristocrat,” as one off-screen news anchor describes him. Cromwell, a significantly taller man than Brolin, is allowed to tower over him, illuminatingly limning the overarching dynamic of their interactions with one another, and the psychological impact of Bush, Sr.'s towering over the eponymous son. Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush is another role minimized in importance, merely vacillating between her husband and her son, sometimes struggling to keep the two on speaking terms.

Where W. most trenchantly fails, however, is in the big picture department, as its subject might say: the film is disjunctively, sporadically cut up, again, like Nixon but unlike that finely tuned, monumentally expansive orchestral performance, W. resembles a dissatisfying, only ephemerally interesting sinfonietta, cut short. The film is troubled by “the vision thing,” as critics of Bush #41 remarked. There is only one scene in the whole film that feels like a comprehensively kindred spirit to Stone's earlier, more vital, more simultaneously intensive and sweeping works, and that is when Cheney stands up and makes his case for a lasting, imperial presence of America's might and power in the region of the Middle East. That is where Stone finally stops reenacting numerous scenes people who have followed the news know occurred, and digs deeper. W. is in so many different ways a filmic lark, made by a man attentive to the political, “psycho-historical” vein that quickens and decreases in pulsation, increasingly clogged and threatened by those edible bits thrown by this and many other members of the “managerial elite,” pace James Burnham, and, in this election season, those desirous of the reins of untrammeled, unconstitutional executive power.

27 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

Alexander, I did not miss that "Oedipal complex" observation in reference to the illustrious GW. hehehe. Your Sophocles love continues unabated!

Well, unlike the previous Newman-directed film, I am happily back on the same page with you with this hopelessly "disjunctive" and I may add "unfocused film", that as you rightly deride for ending before the advent of the Katrina catastrophe and the Afghan insurgency. Earlier in the review you attributed the film's modest failings with the inability to consign the disperate strands--it tries to be a biopic and a narrative about GW's complicity in the Iraq War all at once. I completely agree that the failure of W was in large measure the unsuccessful point of view. Yet there's so much to condemn or dismiss here, as the film runs loose with teh facts surrounding the bumbling chief executive's upbringing and aspirations, all seemingly exaggerated to the point of ridicule.

But to be honest, the film is brutally hilarious in that very depiction of the man as one with limited brain power, and bankrupt sensibilities. Josh Brolin gives (if not anything else) one of the year's funniest and most entertaining performance. I agree that some of the other actors were consigned to the background with underwritten roles.

And it's indeed a fool's errand to compare NIXON with W, as the former was a complex, intimate (and intricate) examination, while the new film hardly scratches the surface in any department.

Excellent review, astute observations, well-deserved summary judgement.

Sam Juliano said...

I forgot to mention your most interesting posing of the "symbolism" use in both NIXON and W, and in fact in a number of other Stone films. The instances you use are indeed emblematic of such a thrust, but I'm not sure they are successful (as you also intimate). That said, there are three Stone films that I can rightly call masterworks:
SALVADOR
JFK
BORN ON THE 4TH OF JULY

Three others are very good:
NIXON
PLATOON
NATURAL BORN KILLERS

The rest evince varying levels of failure, W prominently placed in that rank.

Tony D'Ambra said...

As I have not seen the film Alexander, I can't comment directly other than say you have raised important historical issues, and raise a couple of my own:

. I doubt any 'fiction' film can ever be historically objective close or far from the event in time or proximity, or for that matter can the study of history itself be free from bias.

. There is case for contemporaneous accounts as primary sources for later historians who will not so much be less biased but have a wider perspective and the benefit of hindsight.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Sam, I'm especially glad to see you liked the noting of the "Oedipal complex," haha.

I think W. could have juggled a full biopic and the run-up to the ignoble machinations of this administration leading up to the Iraq War--Stone has proven in the past he is able to wrap his arms around mammoth subjects--but it just did not come off here.

I agree that the depiction of Bush himself, as played by Brolin, is the stand-out piece.

For a little while, I thought Stone was going to capitalize on the mercurial nature of this film, Sam and Tony. Yet it never left that impression, and the coda was quite dissatisfying, much like many other elements of the film.

I think you're right, Tony, and they were points I wanted to express dualistically in the review, as the distance between events and dramatic reenactments or examinations of the same usually does not provide the historical balance, "fairness" or objectivity that we usually hear it does. And I likewise agree that there is a place for contemporaneous studies and accounts, though, again, Stone allowed a potential weakness to become more than potential.

That--the historical issues discussion--is interesting unto itself, though, Tony, and thank you for further opening those up here.

Alexander Coleman said...

Replying belatedly to Sam's second post:

As people are, I'm sure, informed at this point, I think Nixon is Stone's finest hour, with JFK and Born on the Fourth of July the winners of the silver and bronze.

I've always believed Platoon to be very overrated, and Wall Street does not do much for me, either. Salvador is quite excellent, however, with some flaws. Natural Born Killers--I haven't seen it in a looong time, but I enjoyed it a great deal. It was Stone unplugged and the better for it.

Any Given Sunday and Alexander are both wildly uneven--they're both fundamentally "bad" but interestingly, engagingly so, though they do have long, intermittent stretches of talkathon tedium that test one's patience and conspire to make the already grievously flawed movies only worse in one's reflecting mind. I must admit, I do not even remember Talk Radio or U-Turn aside from thinking that they were both wastes of my time. As a fan of The Doors, I was saddened to finally see The Doors about five years ago, and finding it in all of its psychedelically limitless opulence tinted by Stone's own martyr streak (one of the less discussed aspects of his art) to be downright suffocating, not to mention awfully rendered and, honestly, boring.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Great to know you are also a fan of the Doors, Alexander! If you haven't already, get a hold of the Live In Boston set - it is brilliant.

Sam Juliano said...

Alexander, that's more than fair enough. We're on the same page there. Yeah you rate NIXON higher than I do, but your silver medal winner, JFK, is my choice as the gold, with BORN ON THE FOURTH as the bronze on both our lists. SALVADOR is my own silver.

I agree with what you say about WALL STREET, but not PLATOON, which for all its simplified thematics is still a film that exert overwhelming emotional power, which at the time of release was enough to win high praise from our best cudemudgeon and scholarly critics like Kauffmann and Kael.
But I admit that time has diminished it with a number of people.

My apologies for turning the discussion in this direction, even temporarily. Alexander's excellent review of W should be teh central focus. I went off on a tangent as I often do.....I am list crazy.

Sam Juliano said...

Oh, Tony I complete the concensus on THE DOORS. I especially love "Touch Me," and "The End," (used so effectively in a film we all know and love.LOL!) but there are so many more.

Are they the greatest American group of all time? Well, their only real challengers (excluding duos) would be THE BEACH BOYS, and CSNY, although a case could be made I suppose for THE SUPREMES and THE FOUR SEASONS. If duos count, of course SIMON AND GARFUNKLE and THE EVERLY BROTHERS count too. See, list again, and tangents.....I'm hopeless.

But at 23 years old, Alexander is truly amazing. We find out something new every day.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Well you can blame that second tangent on me Sam :)

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, I do love The Doors quite a bit. Their first album has to be considered to be a contender of the greatest albums of all time. It's simply a perfect album. Following that up would be like Orson Welles with Citizen Kane: a deck stacked against you by yourself. However, "Touch Me" is my favorite song among their later efforts.

Sadly, I do not have the Live in Boston set. Thank you for pointing me to it, Tony; I'm undeniably interested.

patrick said...

Josh Brolin did a convincing Dubya, though he reminded me a lot of his cowboy character from No Country for Old Men... over all, i don't doubt that 'W.' will have the effect Oliver Stone desired

Alexander Coleman said...

Hi, Patrick, and thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Funny what you say about the correlation between Brolin's W. and his cowboy in No Country, as evidently Stone believed, after seeing the Coen picture, that Brolin's projection of stubbornness as Moss made the fruitfulness of him playing the forty-third president more likely.

mr fuchs said...

the film could have been longer. i get the feeling that stone was desperate to release a film as soon as possible. i am kind of surprised as how the movie felt kind of silly and not very serious. maybe stone wanted bush to look like a clown. that might be bushs legacy if people look back on his presidency through the eyes of a motion picture.

Alexander Coleman said...

mr. fuchs, I agree that the film does feel "rushed," and there is little doubt Stone wanted to have the film released before the election.

MovieMan0283 said...

I liked the movie and found the occasional shallowness and definite simplicity of W. - as compared to Stone's other, often more histrionic films - to be intriguing. It mirrored the shallowness of its protagonist, but every now and then little hints would pop up that the old Stone was behind the camera. I think if he had tackled the subject with as much over-the-top gusto as he brought to JFK or Nixon, it wouldn't have been quite as compelling.

And I have to disagree with the idea that the movie should have included Katrina and all the other myriad crises of the Bush presidency. Stone had to chose a focus or else the movie would have been all over the place (which some may think it already is, but it would have been worse). Iraq is obviously the best prism through which to focus all of the movie's themes.

However, I'll concur with the consensus on the Doors. It's always bugged me how they get dismissed as "pretentious" and "juvenile." Yes, they are bombastic, but they're so damn good at being bombastic! Come to think of it, you could say the same of Oliver Stone.

By the way, you can read my review of W. here:

http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2008/10/w.html

It kicks off a political series in honor of the election which is just accelerating about now (expect 2-3 posts a day starting Tuesday or Wednesday). So far I've also tackled Mr. Smith, Bill Ayers & the Weather Underground, and Barry Goldwater - with Michael Moore and lots of political docs on pertinent issues on the way. Feel free to comment on older posts - I'm always looking to get discussions going.

Alexander Coleman said...

Hi, MovieMan and thanks for stopping by and commenting.

I do agree that Stone probably wanted the film to wallow in a kind of shallowness to reflect on its protagonist. It's one of the reasons why I believed it was a fool's errand to compare it to Stone's previous, "more histrionic" pictures, which took themselves much more seriously.

I am not critical of Stone's decision to omit Katrina and many other matters, per se, I just think that it's possible Stone could have built a stronger narrative backbone if he had included some other matters.

Interestingly, however, many will find Stone's more streamlined approach here more "historically accurate," and applaud that aspect of the film. I personally prefer the poetical flourishes of his "psycho-historical" efforts, however.

The Doors are great and bombastically so.

darkcitydame4e said...

Hi!A.C.,
I really wonder what category to place this film in? Is this film suppose to be a Comedy? or a
Drama? Ok! it is a given, I have not watched this movie yet, but I am so "confused" after reading other bloggers reviews of this films.
I'am not quite sure, but is it true that director Oliver Stone, wanted this film to be "taken seriously" in the same "vein" as his previous 2 President biopics...J.F.K.
and Nixon?

The comment below is my comment from Daniel's blog
over there at "Film Babble Blog"



Daniel said, "It is actually an empathetic study balancing swift satire with "earnest melodrama."
My response
But, I wonder if director Oliver Stone, should have just focused on "satire" "completely" and "omitted" the "earnest melodramatics." when he directed the movie "W" (Dubya) Because from the ad it seems as if the film is heading in the direction of "Satire."
(...more in the vein of 2 Comedy Central shows "Southpark" or "Lil bush" humour.)

waylon jennings said...

mommas don't let your babies grow up to ne cowboys

Alexander Coleman said...

I think your confusion is understandable, Dark City Dame... If you do see it, I think you'll find yourself being pulled in somewhat different directions by Stone: it's partly softly satirical in some ways, but it's largely a fairly "straight" biopic/expose on Bush #43.

I do think Stone believed that it would be next to impossible to build up an entirely "straight" look at W., however, because of the nature of the subject, so he went in a somewhat more goofy route, but not overtly so. Much of what W. does in the film is chronicled, though it's often in a different context than Stone dramatizes.

Daniel Getahun said...

Probably the most convincing critical assessment of W that I've read so far, Alexander. Though I liked it for entertainment purposes more than you, I appreciate that your faults with it weren't of the "it should have been crazier and sillier" variety. I feel like I've seen far too many people criticize it for being "tame" and in the same breath say Newton was too SNL-like in her caricature. You can't have both, people.

Anyway, that's not what you're saying.

Great work as usual. Your knowledge of both politics and film history is clearly on display in pieces like this.

Joel E said...

Thank you for this thoughtful review, Alexander.

You pointed out something that bothered me when I saw the film but I forgot to follow up on it: did #41 actually tower over his son, #43? My first thought is no, that this is an accident of casting that Stone took advantage of. And it's in this over-the-top symbolism that the film fails. Stone can't allow the drama of the moment to simply occur, he must undercut it by making everything melodramatic, from Powell's telling pronouncements to having the entourage lost in the wilds of W's ranch. It's all too obvious, because Stone has no real through-line for the picture. He's simply treading water, hoping that something of cinematic value will coalesce in the Avid editing bay.

It didn't.

The further I get from W., the more disappointed and annoyed I become with it. Stone could have made 4 different films from the rich tapestry of intersections that mark George W Bush's political career, were it Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Laura Bush, or Colin Powell, but instead Stone feels the need to throw the baby in with the bath water, the kitchen sink, and anything else tangibly implicated in the Iraq War II stratagem.

But by not offering anything more cohesive than his tired Oedipal conflicts, he loses touch with anything truly insightful or revelatory regarding George W. Instead we're left with a pastiche of moments and quotes that often veer more into the fictional than the rational, feeling once again like we're watching the history Stone envisions in his nightmares rather than the one we've all collectively survived.

Disappointing to say the least.

Alexander Coleman said...

Daniel, thank you very much for the kind words and understanding response, as I know you liked the film more than many.

Joel, thank you for the kind words and detailed response.

I concur that Stone apparently didn't have as much of a "story" to tell with this film as he probably thought he did (I remember him talking about the idea of making a movie about how we bungled our way into Iraq after 9/11 while World Trade Center was being released, so he must have thought about this movie for a while before making it), and that most of the picture is a rather prosaic retelling of moments we already know about (though frequently, as I've noted in previous comments here, Stone commits statements and deeds to entirely different contexts than the reality), and a blending of that with Stone's recurring Oedipal complex.

I'm glad you bring up the way you feel about W. the further away you get from it, Joel, as I similarly find myself largely allowing most of the picture to slip away in memory... The one moment my mind's eye recently keeps going back to is that of Bush struggling to come up with a single mistake he's made (which occurred in that April 2004 press conference, which I have always remembered as one of the more painful experiences I've ever had watching television), and the obvious sense of failure that is consuming him (which Stone nicely emphasizes, finally with some moderation, with Brolin's W. clearly infuriated with the press and himself).

You're right, though, many of Stone's more frenetic touchstones, which were much more aesthetically sensible and pleasing in his more purposefully outre films, do not mesh very well in the more sedated tone and texture Stone creates here. They stand out more, and not particularly well, as a result.

I agree, however, that Stone had several different avenues on which to build an engrossing take on Bush #43, through Rove, Cheney, etceteras... but it never quite congealed into anything resembling an overriding narrative chronicle.

Considering the height differential between Bushes: Bush #41 was, I believe, a little taller than 6 feet, 2 inches, while W. is, by most accounts, 5 feet, 11 inches and 3 quarters (nearly 6').

vanessa said...

"Probably the most convincing critical assessment of W that I've read so far, Alexander."

I totally agree with this-definitly a great review of a pretty mediocre and forgettable movie.

Stone lost something a while back as a director. I agree with Alexander Coleman that the sedated, honestly boring way Stone puts things together doesnt work for him and the moments of more zany qualities stand out poorly becuase of that.

The Marx quote is priceless.

Wish a director who still had his A game at the ready would take on this subject matter.

Brolin was good.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Vanessa, for stopping by and commenting, and for the kind words.

The film's tonal issues taken respectively are not overwhelming, fortunately, but when taken cumulatively, they do harm the general picture.

And I agree, Brolin was quite good. That one scene that lingers, which I just discussed in my last comment here, is a greater statement about Brolin's acting talent than anything else.

Sam Juliano said...

I completely agree with Vanessa on two points she makes:

1.) This is the definitive review of W we have seen on these blogs for certain.

and

2.) This is basically a mediocre and forgettable film.

tdambra@aadconsulting.com said...

Hey Alexander, W opened here last week. I walked out after 10 minutes...

Alexander Coleman said...

Haha, Tony, thank you for telling me that! I hope you didn't have to pay. :-)