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.

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