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Non-Review Review: W.

Oliver Stone famously rushed just about every aspect of this production in order to get it into cinemas before last year’s November election. Does that affect the movie? It does and it doesn’t. It doesn’t in that Stone seems to have a clear image of the President in his head and it’s perfectly captured on screen. It does affect the movie in that Stone has to choose an arbitrary cutoff point for his movie, since he can’t end it with the end of Bush’s presidency. So he chooses the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 to serve as the film’s ending. That point arguably suits the central thesis of Stone’s psychological profile of the man, butit also serves to make that thesis seem heavy-handed or forced. The other side of that coin is that I doubt the Stone would have been able to market and sell the film for a few years after the end of the Bush administration, and the fact that so vintage a diretcor as Stone can still make such a raw and energetic film is a testament to his abilities (that some of us may have doubted after World Trade Centre and Alexander).


Misunderestimate at your peril...

Stone definitely deserves points for what must be the classiest guerrilla production ever. There’s no sign (other than the film’s cut-off point) that there was any time pressure on the production of this film. The casting is almost pitch perfect (in fact, Josh Brolin is so good in the lead that the original choice – Christian Bale – seems almost laughable now), the sets and the set pieces look grandiose and big-budget, and the film looks like it has been carefully and meticulously edited. There is no sign of any rush.

The one area which may have benefited from a little more time might have been the script. It’s always tough to condense a lifetime down into a two-hour film, particularly one as large as “a leader of the free world”. There’s a reason why these types of figures are more often the subjects of miniseries rather than movies. When working with an already stately runtime of two hours, you have to trim the fat somewhere. It’s very hard to second-guess directors and writers on these things, but one obvious exclusion stands out from Stone’s examination of the man: the 2000 election, particularly the Florida saga.

We get one scene in 1999 where Bush confesses to his pastor that he has “heard the call”. And then we see him in the White House. Given that Stone anchors this movie in Bush’s sense of self-worth, measuring his driving ambition in comparison to his father (which is why the cut-off point of a second term works, to some degree) and studying how the man was defined by his failures (he’ll never by out-Texas-ed again, he boasts at one point after a defeat), it seems that so close a presidential race would seem important to the President that he became. If he believed that his “higher father” was guiding him, how would having to get his victory affirmed by the Supreme Court impact on that belief?

But, such is life. It’s really the only omission that I am sorry to be excluded. Perhaps Stone excluded it based on logic: it is arguably the biggest event in his life not affected by his family, which is the driving force behind every aspect of the character that Stone presents to us. He is a man desperately yearning for his father’s love and affection, but doesn’t appreciate that he has it. Bush can’t comprehend feelings or facts that aren’t clearly articulated (Stone dwells on the irony in press scenes), which is why he is so hurt by politicians going behind his back to newspapers or why he can’t find that love he so sorely seeks in an affectionate hand-written note that his father gives to him on being inaugorated Governor of Texas. Bush is a straight-forward man: if you have a problem, state it. It’s no coincidence taht he seems most comfortable with individuals who wear their affiliations on their belt buckles (like his pastor who wear a cross, or himself who wears a buckle shaped like Texas).

In fairness to Stone, he reigns back on the politics here. For the most part. He’s more concerned with the saga of the most influential political dynasty since the Kennedys (George Bush Snr. even asks “Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?”). James Cromwell is impressive as the father and former President. I’m almost surprised at how sympathetic and tragic Stone concedes him to be – Stone seems to agree with his son’s assessment that he lost his re-election bid because he didn’t pursue the Gulf War to its logical conclusion (“He’s soft,” the son proclaims of the father). George W. Bush is driven as much by his desire to surpass his father as to impress him. If failing to take Baghdad cost his father a second term, surely a successful invasion would secure him an eight-year stay in the office?

As well cast and managed as the family is, I’m not sure Stone convinces his audience that the President can be psychoanalysed so easily. The fact that I can summarise the character’s arc in two paragraphes perhaps suggests that Stone doesn’t treat his subject as being as complex as that other President he studied for Nixon. Or perhaps the film is not meant to be complex. Perhaps it’s an attempt to simplify the past eight years of American history so that they can placed firmly in the past.

I remarked that Stone benches the politics. Mostly. There’s more than a hint of cynicism in the way that he portrays the hawks in the administration attempting to justify the war (by inserting the claim that Saddam had WMD’s into documentation under the nose of the CIA), and there’s also more than a bit of political foreshadowing as the first Bush withdraws from Iraq for the first time, rubbishing the tempting prospects of taking Baghdad (the fear of being an occupying force in an Arab land while the coalition falls apart around them). There’s also conspicuous shots of Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Ted Kennedy applauding Bush’s “WMD” speech – the most important figure here to Stone is noticeable by his absence.

Arguably the biggest political statement the film offers is in the characterisation of Condelezza Rice, in what is perhaps the film’s weakest performance. Thandie Newton is a fine actress, to be sure, but her Rice is presented as an undermining sychophant, the only girl in an all boys club, full of wrath and bitching and backstabbing. She’s never presented as capable or competent. The film does no great favours to Rumsfield (played by Scott Glenn) or Cheney (more inhabited than portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss), but it at least acknowledges their skill and abilities. Rice (in real life a protege and genius) is here portrayed as a woman whose soul function is to massage the egos of the men around her. It’s arguably the most simplistic portrayal in the entire film.

But for all that, the film is a solidly interesting bio-picture which seems at least sympathetic to its protagonist (as unlikely as that may sound, given the source). It may suffer from being too simple or attempting to condense down too much into too little space, but it is an interesting study of the life of one of the most defining political figures of our generation. Stone posits Bush’s ascent as the flipside of the American dream: if anyone can reach the top, maybe that’s not a good thing. At one point on the campaign trail, Bush asserts that voters want someone “like you” to lead the country, not the more established and disconnected politicians. Maybe we don’t want a perfectly average person leading the country, maybe that’s a task set out for those with skills. And maybe, despite how elitist or contrary it may sound, it’s for the best.

Maybe. It’s certainly an interesting – if overly simplistic – film. It might not stand as the best film in Stone’s pantheon, but it is at least worthy of attention.


W. is directed by Oliver Stone (Wall Street, Platoon) and stars Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men, Milk), Elizabeth banks (Scrubs, Zack and Miri Make a Porno), James Cromwell (Deep Impact, Star Trek: First Contact), Toby Jones (Frost/Nixon, The Mist), Scott Glenn (The Silence of the Lambs, Vertical Limit), Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) and Elen Barkin (Requiem for a Dream).

3 Responses

  1. pretty much summed it up there Darren – ‘overly simplistic’ – especially when dick cheney pulls down the wallchart about oil like a dastardly villain. agree with you on Condi too. this movie was a missed opportunity, and apart from Brolin’s performance, isnt really worth seeing

    • Yep, Brolin was great. I’d almost suggest he deserved the Oscar nomination for this rather than Milk, but that would have put in in the Lead category. I actually loved James Cromwell as the strangely pathetic “Poppy” Bush – though I always have room for James Cromwell.

  2. I actually enjoyed this movie, more so than you did. It certainly has an arbitrary cut-off, but it kind of made me feel sorry for Bush, and I never expected in a million years that anyone, to say nothing of freaking Oliver Stone, could do. But Thandie Newton’s performance borders on the outright awful. How she made it past the audition is a mystery.

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