Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Is W. pro-Bush?

Throughout my viewing of Oliver Stone’s W. I kept wondering the same thing, ‘What is the point of making this film now? What is gained by its immediacy?’ I came up with two answers. The first is cynical and a fleeting thought I had prior to viewing the film: to cash in on a contemporary topic by being the first out of the gates (a la such recent dismal-looking spoofs Disaster Movie and Superhero Movie). But I think such a conclusion is less ascertainable based on the film itself. Yes, its production was expeditious but the final product is not sloppy and if nothing else, John Brolin’s performance as W is completely committed.

The conclusion I’ve come to, based on my personal response to the film, is that the film is Stone’s attempt to – surprisingly enough – humanize George Bush. The film does remain critical of the Bush Administration and of Bush’s actions but avoids appearing downright derisive – of course there are images of Bush drunk driving, exercising a limited work ethic and garbling his words in public but none of this seems risqué by this point. David Edelstein describes W. as Stone’s “most tepid film.” That’s certainly one way to look at it but it seems to me that the film’s major agenda is not to rile up liberals by underlining what a disastrous job Bush has done in office but rather to pacify the situation by presenting Bush not as a demon but as fallible human being. Such a message jars considerably with Stone’s public persona (NYTimes’ Manhola Dargis cites a recent interview with Larry King where he referred to Bush as a “bum”) but I find it hard to see the film any other way.

There are three characteristics – the structure, the music score and Brolin’s performance – that convince me that for whatever reason, Stone decided to make this film as a retirement compensation of sorts to George Bush. The film jumps around in time so that it chronicles Bush’s rise from Ivy League frat boy to fledgling politico to President of the United States in a manner that favors character over plot. Stone and his screenwriter Stanley Weiser trace Bush’s ascendency not through conspiracy and political intrigue but rather through family-focused dynamics of privilege and inadequacy; making it more closely resemble Wall Street than Nixon (perhaps not surprising considering Weiser co-wrote Wall Street).

The first three scenes are skillfully arranged to execute a sleight of hand that is almost unnoticeable. The first opens with a disarming fantasy of Bush standing in an empty baseball field and listening to an imaginary crowd cheer for him before cutting to an oval office meeting with his advisors where they decide to execute their ‘Axis of Evil’ campaign. With this scene Stone immediately appeals to Bush’s detractors’ most common complaint – an unnecessary war that’s gone on too long – by depicting the foolhardy and hurried approach that went into its conception. But before the viewer can get nestled into a private hate-fest the film cuts to Bush pledging his fraternity at Yale. In the blink of an eye Stone has taken Bush in a position of power and juxtaposed it with a position of servitude by inserting him into a nightmarish scenario of antagonism and degradation. Before I knew it, I was rooting for Bush’s perseverance in the situation. And thus in the first ten minutes, Stone manages to make Bush an identifiable – if not a downright sympathetic – character.

The second major way the film achieves this is through Paul Cantelon’s score that is elegant, respectful and even empathetic. A key scene in which it is employed is the meeting between W and Laura Bush (Elizabeth Banks) where the score works to temper W’s grotesque eating habits and sleazy charm and convey a hint of what would have fueled their attraction – a relationship that the film presents as nothing but supportive and functional throughout it all.

Third is Brolin’s performance. Sasha Stone at AwardsDaily writes that “Josh Brolin is so charismatic it wouldn’t matter who was playing; he would still be interesting to watch. And he is likable and charming as Bush.” Her description reminds me of my feelings about Michael Sheen’s performance in The Queen, a particularly comparable role to W. Brolin could have easily gone the Will Ferrell route with exaggerated vocal mimicry and reliance on facial tics but instead he injects a few of the trademark mannerisms we expect to see into a fully developed character. He never lets his performance drift too far into one direction. At times he’s moronic, at others he’s repulsive and then when you least expect it, he’s even sweet; there’s a beautiful scene toward the end when Laura tells W that his favorite play, Cats, is coming to D.C. and he replies quietly “Now that’s something that’d be worth staying up late for.”

So by the penultimate scene, as I watched Bush squirming in a situation he’s not equipped to handle I didn’t feel rage at the injustice of his Presidency but rather felt sympathy for a man completely in over his head and unable to acknowledge it. Roger Ebert doesn’t seem to have been quite as swayed: “One might feel sorry for George W. at the end of this film, were it not for his legacy of a fraudulent war and a collapsed economy. The film portrays him as incompetent to be president, and shaped by the puppet masters Cheney and Rove to their own ends.” How do you feel about Bush’s portrayal in W.?

1 comment:

Nick Jones said...

Is W. pro-Bush? The gut feeling would be 'no', as indeed my cinema companion thought, describing the film as "stabbing the knife in, then turning on a drill". The film seems 'reactionary' in a way that isn't conjured up by the use of that word - it's an attempt to ascertain this man, this Presidency. Not deconstruct it, just observe it in some new light. But not a completely new light. Perhaps Oliver Stone has been consulting his Aristotle, and has constructed the perfect tragedy: we pity this man who is in over his head, but fear the system that allows such a thing to occur.