dir: Oliver Stone
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On some level I have to suspect Oliver Stone wants to think of himself as one of the premiere chroniclers of the American nation . Kind of like a Ken Burns or Sir David Attenborough of presidents, wars and otherwise momentous times. True, he did the dirty with Alexander the Great, which is an abomination wrapped in a travesty wrapped in a fiasco, but his focus has generally been on the American soul and body politic in all its glory.
After JFK, after Nixon, he’s taken the curious step of eulogising or biographising a president still in office at the time of the film’s release, which seems odd. There hasn’t been time for history to either elevate or diminish a statesman’s legacy to any appreciable degree yet, to warrant such a going over, you could say. There hasn’t been the time for the dirt to come out, for the squealers to squeal, for the many damning versions of the truth to accrete, accumulate and overflow. You question the purpose, the intent, the objective. The point.
Oliver Stone is not a subtle man, nor a humble one. Making a film about a sitting president is as much about trumpeting the director’s view of that president to the world as it is about the president himself. You’d think the intention, thus, is critical or at least condemnatory.
Returning to Nixon again (yeah, yeah, I know, this is supposed to be about W), it exemplified two themes most of all on Stone’s part as a didactic storyteller.
In Stone’s sweaty hands, the purpose of biographical movies chronicling times, people and places is really about psychobiography or psychohistory: that using a blend of anecdote and first year psychology texts can give an interesting if inaccurate explanation of why anyone did anything over the course of their lives.
And that someone’s demons define their every action. In the event that they lack demons, then maybe it was Jesus.
The most complex and convoluted of occurrences and people, the most intensely scrutinised events boil down to whoever the protagonist of a Stone film is more focussed on as a parent: they are haunted either by their mother or their father.
Usually, it’s been mothers who’ve made Stone’s men monstrous (Alexander, Nixon, Natural Born Killers) but now it’s daddy’s time to shine.
The most curious element for me is the gentle way in which Stone handles the main character as superbly played by Josh Brolin. That’s not to say that it’s an admiring or even complimentary portrait. It just isn’t the hitjob people suspected, though, or that many people might believe is fully warranted.
In Stone’s and Brolin’s hands, W is just a guy. He’s just a good ol’ boy who’s been trying to make his father happy for all of his life, and has failed at every turn, only because it is impossible to make his father, in this case George H. W. Bush (James Cromwell), happy. W is a source of perpetual irritation and disappointment to his long-suffering father, who vastly prefers golden boy son Jeb. In fact, when W (who hates being called Junior) is going to all the trouble to earn his father’s love and respect by running for political / gubernatorial office, George Senior can’t help but get aggravated because he thinks Junior is going to detract from Jeb’s political aspirations.
Most of the flick, except for the surreal-because-they’re-real moments in White House meeting rooms, PowerPoint presentations of evil, press conferences where W mouths inanity after inanity, is about stuff that has nothing to do with political office itself. It’s all about how Junior sees himself in the shadow of his family’s legacy, how he feels that nothing he does will ever earn his father’s approval, and how, despite the best of intentions, no-one really appreciates the things he’s done because they keep misunderstanding him and underestimating him.
You know, misunderestimating him (groan). I died a little inside each time I heard any of the hackneyed phrases Junior ever butchered during his time in office repeated in this film, because it sounded like the script monkeys received the same forwarded emails that I received over the last few years listing the many examples of the Wit and Wisdom of the President, and decided against, what should have been their better judgement, regurgitating them in ungainly and awkward ways here.
Moments where Stone’s trademark lack of subtlety should have intruded and rendered the flick a comedy are mostly absent, in that he treats moments such as Junior’s revelation of divine inspiration to his spiritual mentor Earle Hudd (Stacey Keach) straight and with respect. Moments that some might say were begging for parody or satire, or at least some kind of commentary are left to their own devices.
Many of the more surreal moments in the flick representing his back story have the uncomfortable virtue of being true: Drunkenly challenging his father to a fist fight after crashing the car is a matter of public record; knocking up some hillbilly chick, boozing and coking like a fiend and then giving it up upon becoming Born Again, losing his first swipe at politics to a Democrat in a congressional election for not being ‘Texan’ or Christian enough. The bits that have less historical backing, like scenes and arguments between father and son, husband and wife, Junior and his buddies, extrapolated solely from what Stone (and script monkeys) like to think might have happened (i.e. they pull scenes entirely out of their arses), have less of that ring of truth that someone like Stone at least deludes himself into believing he achieves in his movies.
No, the truth is ever elusive, especially when you’re trying to capture it and put it on display in a Hollywood movie with pretentions of historical worth. So even when Richard Dreyfuss, Thandie Newton, Scott Glenn, or Jeffrey Wright give good renditions of Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and Powell respectively, sometimes eerily, it doesn’t convince me that Stone knows anything the rest of us can’t surmise from reading books by Bob Woodward or Seymour Hirsch or any number of other weighty tomes by weighty journalists purporting to weighty significance. None of the high-end stuff, the kind of stuff that was the meat and potatoes of movies like JFK or Nixon, is at all convincing here. The character stuff, however, the desperate questing for the unattainable parental approval, the comfortable and loving conversations between husband and wife, the casual depiction of earnest and good-natured arrogance, they’re the parts that feel real despite the lack of substantiation.
The real story of what went on over the last eight years, and the role, either by direct choice or by tacit manipulation, or through utter cluelessness on the parts of major players, is not the story deemed worthy of telling here. On some level, the quintessential image Stone wants us to take away from this film is of W playing to the non-existent crowds at the stadium but still hearing the cheers. And for that he resisted telling anything except broad anecdotes and the tamest of vagaries depicted as little more than high spirits and ‘boys will be boys’ hijinks about someone who lacks the complexity to make a complex film about. From someone who had Good Intentions.
I can’t quite remember what that road to hell is paved with: what was it again, broken United Nations resolutions, the destroyed goodwill of the international community, disregarded and waterboarded human rights, the blood of the innocent and the guilty alike? Oh yeah, it was good intentions that that road was paved in. Glad I remembered.
On some level I should be incensed. Nearly a million people dead. Four million people displaced. Escalation and escalated justification in the rise of fundamentalist Islamic terror, that on paper looks like it’s being ‘won over’ through surges and the might of the American war machine, whilst rage and evil intentions keep growing and growing and spreading.
But he meant well, and if only his father hadn’t been as hard on him.
The pop psychology of it, the superficiality of it, the finger-nail depth shallowness of W should offend me, but it doesn’t. Because Stone, against what should have been every intention, makes you like, feel sorry for and empathise with Junior, something which I never could have expected and in fact never wanted. I have to admire the craft of it, and the quality of Brolin’s performance, even as it rankles with me the way a trip to the beach leaves you with sand in all sorts of uncomfortable places. Many of the conservative commentators who went berserk about the film unseen were absolutely right: he doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment. They were correct, they just didn’t realise how right they were or in what direction.
The irony of it all should be enough to make anyone cry tears of blood.
6 times I thought Thandie Newton’s Condoleezza was a stunning approximation, until I realised she was just making and maintaining an “old woman” face to achieve it out of 10
“History? In history we'll all be dead!” – W.