Thursday, October 23, 2008

W. for Wreckage

Oliver Stone’s W. arrives at a peculiar time in history. George W. Bush’s approval rating hovers at 25 percent, the lowest of any president since Gallup began polling. Most Americans, fixated on the tanking economy and a contentious presidential election, have to be reminded that Bush is still president. Really, it can’t be auspicious to release a movie whose subject is a person no one wants to see, hear, or think about.

Bush said recently that history will vindicate him. That’s unlikely. The majority of historians surveyed recently called him the “worst president ever.” Most Americans agree.

If W. were the raucous satire its preview trailer suggested (George Bush Sr. to the incorrigible Junior: “Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?”), it might be cathartic to watch. But Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (Wall Street) have taken Bush’s life — the stuff of low comedy — and painted it as a tragedy. The story of Nixon had a tragic-operatic quality, which Stone explored in the excellent Nixon. Even John McCain’s story has classically tragic elements. But Bush? The most fitting treatment may have been the short-lived TV satire That’s My Bush.

And yet however unwelcome its subject, W. is a worthwhile spectacle. Stone’s direction is powerful in places, and the performances, for the most part, are uncanny. Josh Brolin acts up a storm, splendidly animating Bush’s evolution from reckless fratboy to hapless Commander-in-Chief. Richard Dreyfuss slides into the skin of Dick Cheney and becomes the slithery, Machiavellian VP.
But Weiser’s conception of Bush relies heavily on caricature — Bush yellin’ and whoopin’ Texas-style, driving drunk, dancing atop a roadhouse bar. In reality, making fun of Bush’s cowboy style went out of fashion the minute he invaded Iraq. He became no longer a joke but a horror. Reproducing, as the movie does, his malapropisms (“Is our children learning?”) also doesn’t address the abiding mystery of whether Bush is more intelligent than his public persona suggests. If he really were the dumb lout portrayed in W., could he have graduated from Harvard business school or won the heart of smart, bookish Laura (Elizabeth Banks)? We may always wonder. Certainly his political skills are considerable, a quality all the more evident by comparison to the flailing candidate John McCain.

W. alternates scenes of Bush’s wasted youth with talky cabinet meetings before and after the Iraq invasion. As the two-hour movie wears on, the meetings, so dreary compared with the colorful personal segments, threaten to bore the audience to death (a woman was snoring loudly in a seat near mine.) Adding to the tedium is that we know where it is going — pretty much nowhere. Ho-hum, isn’t it November 4 yet?

It is fun, though, to see the Stone’s choices in casting the White House characters. Thandie Newton captures Condoleezza Rice’s pinched finishing-school smugness and adds a snotty contempt for Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), whom the movie makes the spokesman for all objections to the neocons’ imperialist designs. Unfortunately, Wright plays Powell with an accent that sounds more like Robert Downey’s blackface character in Tropic Thunder than the former Secretary of State. Diminutive Toby Jones is too innocuous as the sinister Karl Rove, who incidentally has criticized the movie for putting the F-word in Bush’s mouth — the same Bush who vowed, “Fuck Saddam, we’re taking him out!”

The movie’s narrative is a clichéd father-son conflict: a privileged wastrel’s lifelong struggle to earn the approval of his distant dad, George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell), who is portrayed as an exasperated patriarch and honorable statesman. Cromwell forgoes direct impersonation, playing Bush 41 straight rather than imitating his oft-lampooned patrician whine. The movie, unfortunately, accepts the Bushes’ all-American view of themselves. Why would the conspiracy-minded director of JFK overlook the nefarious Nazi-financing history of the Bush family? As for Bush mère, Ellen Burstyn is too sweet and lovely to be persuasive as the haughty Barbara Bush, who said Katrina victims were improving their lot by sleeping in the Astrodome.

The father-son narrative is biographically accurate, but should we be asked to care about the personal struggles of a man who wiped his feet on the Constitution, let a city drown and whose twisted messianic vision brought death and destruction to so many innocents? The movie recites the litany of sins, by now all too familiar to Americans: “enhanced interrogation techniques,” media blackouts on flag-draped coffins, Bush visiting horribly mangled soldiers and draping them with patriotic t-shirts. To be effective, though, W. needs to tie the personal and political into a strong, coherent statement. It doesn’t.

There are savory bits in W., but Stone for some reason passed on the opportunity to say something new and daring about the soon-to-be-ex POTUS. Its shallowness aside, the movie comes at exactly the wrong moment. The time is not yet ripe for a retrospective on the Bush administration, much less one sympathetic to “Junior.” Thankfully, though, in less than two weeks, the long national nightmare known as Bush will finally be over.

A shorter version of this appeared in the Cleveland Scene.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Duke of Churl

The Duchess

There are a lot of reasons to like this historical biography starring Keira Knightley as Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), an ancestor of Princess Diana. One of them has nothing to do with the movie itself: Knightley, whose modest bustline is highlighted by the movie’s tightly corseted costumes, protested the studio’s plan to digitally enlarge her breasts in the movie posters. Somehow we like her much better for that.

Further, the movie, based on a book by Amanda Foreman and directed by Saul Dibb, is a dishy pleasure, all ravishing dresses, outlandish wigs, ornate sets and unusual sex — especially sex. Although Georgiana was an active campaigner for the Whig party and organizer of political and literary salons, she was better known, like her descendant Diana, for her trendsetting fashion and unusual marriage. The movie gives only cursory attention to Georgiana’s political activities, preferring to focus on the sexier parts of her life.

We first meet Georgiana at 17, when she is selected as a bride by the older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), with the approval of her mother, Lady Spencer (the wonderful Charlotte Rampling).

The story is pure Jane Eyre gothic: Georgiana becomes a prisoner in her own home when she discovers, to her shock, that she has married the Duke of Churl. The Duke is cruelly distant, devoted only to his dogs, and prone to marital rape in his single-minded pursuit of a male heir when Georgiana stubbornly insists on producing only girls. Like Princess Di, she is beloved by the people but despised by her husband. Wearing a series of Bride of Frankenstein wigs (one of which catches on fire in a ballroom during a campy “mad scene”), Georgiana flourishes in style and bears many children without gaining an ounce, but remains deeply unhappy, pouting most petulantly. She seeks solace with a friend, Lady Bess (Hayley Atwell of Brideshead Revisited and Cassandra's Dream), who moves into their castle as part of a bizarre ménage a trios with the Duke. (The Duke and Duchess’ marriage was an inspiration for Sheridan’s School for Scandal.)

Desolate, Georgiana initiates a scandalous affair with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), a future Prime Minister, and all sorts of bad things happen.

It’s all a bit silly and of absolutely no significance, but it's quite pleasurable all the same.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

None So Blind


Portuguese author José Saramago was reluctant to grant film rights to his 1995 novel about an epidemic of “white blindness” that strikes citizens of an unnamed country. Saramago worried about how the novel’s violence, rape and degradation would be treated by the wrong filmmaker. The well-regarded Brazilian director Fernando Meiralles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) won the rights, on the condition that he set the film in an unrecognizable city (it was filmed primarily in São Paolo). Some of the author’s fears, alas, were justified: Meiralles’ film is a technically accomplished but empty and often excruciating experience.

Meiralles and screenwriter Don McKellar changed the setting from the 1930s or ’40s to a contemporary period but retained its cast of allegorically named characters: Doctor (Mark Ruffalo), Doctor’s Wife (Julianne Moore, who is excellent), Man with Black Eye Patch (Danny Glover), Bartender/King of Ward 3 (Gael García Bernal), Woman with Dark Glasses (Alice Braga).

The first section, in which the mysterious malady strikes First Blind Man (Yusuke Iseya) while he is driving, is the most compelling; we sympathize with the man’s panic and are shocked when he is robbed by Thief (screenwriter McKellar), who has offered to help him. Here Meiralles’ virtuosity is abundantly on display, with brilliant mirror-image compositions and other impressive stylistic touches.

First Blind Man seeks the help of Doctor, an ophthalmologist, who is stumped but soon succumbs to the blindness, a highly contagious condition. Doctor and other newly blind people are ordered into a quarantine camp; Doctor’s Wife, who still has her sight, accompanies her husband into the dismal facility, where concentration-camp cruelty, filth, chaos and moral degradation reign.

The setting resembles a Hieronymous Bosch painting of hell rendered photographically. Meiralles has taken a fantastical story and rendered it in a gritty, realistic style, and the result is often unbearable. A lengthy scene of sexual violence, trimmed by the director after test-audience members walked out, is still a torment. The movie’s final section shows the liberated victims making their way through the devastated city, but the movie (unlike the book, perhaps) never makes clear what the blindness is meant to symbolize or what the parable means, aside from the inhumanity of man toward his fellows. In the end, the characters’ suffering (and by extension the audience’s) feels unjustified and unredeemed by any larger meaning.