We Will Make Hallelujah Ring
W. / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | October 17, 2008 | Comments ()
Oliver Stone is not a subtle filmmaker. I’m not just talking about the obvious stuff, like the assault on the cerebral cortex that is Natural Born Killers or the bloated quasi-importance of Alexander. I mean this guy has no patience at all for details when loud visual cues will do, as in Sgt. Barnes’ scarred face in Platoon that makes sure everyone really knows he’s the bad guy. But Stone couples his habit of eliminating nuance with a genuine passion, a passion that’s most notable when he decided to tackle political figures or eras on film. The window between his subjects and their filmic exploration has been shrinking, too: He made films about Kennedy and Nixon in the 1990s, but World Trade Center, about the attacks of 9/11, came out in 2006, just five years after the events in question and still close enough for people to feel OK about not feeling OK about seeing a movie about terrorism. But W. is fiercely immediate, a film about a sitting president that only began production five months ago. That kind of rapid response is a feat in itself, and it gives the film a surreal quality, as if it shouldn’t actually be possible to be seeing the past eight years re-enacted onscreen this soon. But it also renders the film weirdly pointless, and for all its merits, it’s hard not to ask of it the same question one character asks of the 2003 invasion of Iraq: Why? Stone has created a melodrama that flirts with Shakespearean tragedy, but it’s just another version of the same story people are still telling. Like the very president Stone is trying to understand, he sacrifices depth for immediacy and winds up with something shiny but sometimes not very convincing. His passion and grandiosity battle to a draw.
The film opens with President Bush (Josh Brolin) in an empty baseball stadium, standing on the mound and listening to the imaginary cheers of an invisible crowd. It’s a fantasy sequence Stone returns to sporadically, placing Bush in an empty arena that serves as a thin metaphor for his desire for popular acceptance and struggle to “win” at being a president. Bush shakes off the daydream and returns to a meeting in the Oval Office in the fall of 2002, where he and his senior staff are haggling over language for the upcoming State of the Union address, hammering out the wording for the phrase “Axis of Evil.” It’s an interesting and lengthy scene in which Stone basically lays out every success and failure he will have trying to turn this into a movie. The actors are all caught in the horrible gray area of trying to do an impression of their real-life counterparts, or just playing the role slightly straighter, or attempting to find common ground. Right off the bat, Brolin’s Bush gains ground as the most genuine characterization: He’s got the accent and the verbal tics, but he’s not beating them into the ground. Jeffrey Wright’s Colin Powell is equally watchable, a performance that’s at once recognizable but separate from its source. Surprisingly, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney feels real; he’s cranky and strong, but not goofy about it. But everyone else is either forgettable or cartoonish, the latter most notably represented in Thandie Newton’s role as Condoleezza Rice, which is done with such a bizarre smirk it’s like she’s trying to make the B-team at “Saturday Night Live.” But the group bull session also shows Stone’s strength with the material and his willingness to let these people bicker while Bush gradually becomes more infatuated with the idea of wielding power. Stone is determined to tell a human drama, which is going to necessarily be a story about miscommunication and regret, and he does a great job capturing the fractious relationship between the advisers as everyone vies for a different way of executing Bush’s newly stated doctrine of anticipatory retaliation. Stone’s movie is political in as much as it deals directly with the politics of the past eight years, but to label it a liberal screed or soft-hearted defense is too easy, and it’s not the movie Stone’s interested in making, however close he might come to doing so.
From there, the film jumps back to 1966 and Bush’s days pledging a fraternity at Yale, and the bulk of the film cuts between charting Bush’s life and the time leading up to the State of the Union and subsequent Iraq invasion. Screenwriter Stanley Weiser (who also wrote Stone’s Wall Street and the TV-movie “Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story”) drew on Bush biographies and the work of investigative journalists in piecing together the screenplay, which gives the film a feeling of being one step removed from truth: It’s like the events on screen are happening in a version of the story someone is telling you, instead of playing out in a film version of a real world. Stone said that those journalists’ pieces were “that raw body of work (that) was the basis from which to simplify and condense into our movie,” but he’s also said that he views W. as a “magic realism biography,” meaning everything has a deliberate feeling of almost-reality, whether it’s Bush’s problems holding a steady job to the way he tosses himself into the good old boys network and just assumes things will work out because of his father’s connections. Stone’s Bush is also a man horribly at odds with his father, torn between loving the successful politician who’s supported him and hating the man whose love he feels is impossible to earn. Stone casts Bush as a tragic hero, a man driven by desire to look good for his father that sends him on a downward spiral for most of his adult life. As melodrama, it’s a workable plot; as biography, it’s a little too cut and dried, and assigning the fate of the free world and the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq to a guy with daddy issues is a risky card to play.
Just as Stone veers from theory to fact, the tone of the film bounces from satire to drama. Weiser works several of Bush’s less fortunate public statements into private conversations with his staff — most notably, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me … you can’t get fooled again” — and Stone juxtaposes many of the heavier moments with a score built around “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and country songs like “Chatahoochie.” But he also wants the film to be a genuine exploration of what could drive a man to so bend his life that he continually transforms himself into something new until he finally becomes what he thinks his dad wants him to be. And when Stone gets going, he makes a compelling argument and tells a good story. The film is fantastically well-made with director of photography Phedon Papamichael capturing the sharp colors and blasts of light Stone wants to use to tell Bush’s tale, and Bush is often tightly framed to reflect his growing sense of entrenchment in a battle to win approval from God and his father.
Once the flashback narrative catches up with Bush’s 2003 State of the Union, the film traces the growing unrest in the Middle East and the administration’s attempts to curb growing violence and Bush’s dawning realization that he’s committed the armed forces to an exercise that’s going to last longer than he’d planned. Stone’s biggest problem, though, is the fact that nothing in the film feels new or revelatory. It’s not like the biographies or investigations that formed the script weren’t available to the public. This isn’t Woodward and Bernstein talking about the process of investigating a president; this is a writer and director taking things that most functioning adults already know pretty well, from Bush’s days as a partier to his rededication to Christianity. What’s more, the constant availability of political psychoanalysis in the age of the 24-hour news cycle has mined every bit of ground in the Bush presidency, and what little touches Stone can bring to the story to distinguish it as his own are lost in the fact that the film is still somewhere between a re-creation of the nightly news and a retread of everything we’ve seen there. The hell of it is that Stone turned out a well-made film, but fell victim to his own eagerness. “We don’t know much about Bush yet,” Stone has said. “There have been early books. … But this is early. You’ve got to let the books build over the years.” The same goes for movies.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.