21 October 2008

This W Stands for Wow

Try to forget for a moment the "who" of Oliver Stone's newest film, W. and concentrate on the "what."

The "who" of course is our current president, his family, cabinet and vice president.

The "what" is the story of one man's rise from alcoholic ne'er-do-well to the office of United States president. It was an amazing transformation.

I have never for one second been a fan of George W. Bush. According to a poll of historians on the History News Network 61% of historians rate him the worst of this country's presidents. Given the state of the economy, Iraq, our world standing etc. etc. etc., that's pretty hard to argue with.

W. does not rehabilitate Bush in any way but it does humanize him in a manner I'd not have thought possible. While he will remain to most of us a bumbling idiot, thanks to Stone we see that he is a well intentioned one. Every step of the way Bush has held to his convictions and persevered. True, the country would be far better off if he'd have quit, but that's not in his nature. One can even admire him for pulling himself up by the proverbial bootstraps. He went from flop to the top.

Ahh but there's the rub. Could he have done it if daddy was not a wealthy and powerful politician himself, one who himself had risen to the presidency? Not a chance.

(Conservatives who bemoan affirmative action conveniently forget all the special privileges attendant to those born rich.)

Of course Bush's relationship with his father is a central focus of W. Stone's film posits that George the younger's rise to, and motivations once at, the top have been shaped by a most curious father-son relationship. George bristled at his father’s seeming favoritism for brother Jeb and of his father’s constant haranguing. But George used that very scolding as motivation and it quite possibly shaped policy decisions, particularly with regard to Iraq.

Okay now to the "who". As he’s done before, most notably with JFK (1992), Stone pulled together a stellar cast. Their challenge was to play familiar public figures who have appeared nightly on TV for eight or more years. Without exception the performances did not lapse into caricature. For example Richard Dreyfuss veritably embodied Dick Cheney, capturing his look and manner without a touch of mimicry to his portrayal. The passing of the test was evident thusly: after initially thinking, “wow, Dreyfuss sounds and looks just like Cheney,” I soon forgot I was watching an actor "playing" Cheney.

Meanwhile Jeffery Wright (surely one of our most underrated actors) looked and sounded considerably less like Colin Powell, but was brilliant in his role just the same. Toby Jones as Karl Rove was similarly inspired. Thandie Newton’s portrayal of Condi Rice was eccentric but enjoyable. James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn as Ma and Pa Bush were excellent. Elizabeth Banks may have been too pretty for the part of wife Laura. Happily the most notable performance was the most important one, Josh Brolin as the title character.

Brolin pulled off Bush over a 30 year period capturing the look, the manners, the voice. I would think having to act as a famous person would be one of the greatest challenges an actor could face. You have to register emotion in such a way that is consistent with your understanding of a character and will ring true with millions who have watched the real life version of that character for many years.

Brolin was as successful a George W. Bush as Cate Blanchett was as Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator (2004). That’s the highest praise I can offer.

W. the movie follows W. the person from the time of a fraternity hazing at Yale in the late Sixties through the first year of the Iraq war. The story is not strictly chronological. Stone deftly shifts back and forth from Bush's presidency to his younger days. We see everything from Bush the party animal to Bush the congressional candidate to Bush the oil rig worker. We see how these events shaped or or were overcome by the sober born again Christian Bush. As president we see the internal squabbles and power broking that led to the greatest disaster in American political history -- the current war in Iraq.

Would a wiser man not influenced by the likes of Dick Cheney have taken a very different path after 9/11? And how much did his father's disinterest in taking Iraq during the Gulf War play into W.'s determination to oust Saddam Hussein? The answer to the first question is an obvious, "yes." According to W. the movie the second question is very much open to debate.

A lot of people will stay away from W. because they’ve had just about enough of the real life Bush. Others will give it a miss because they like the man and fear another hatchet job on him.

W. is not a hatchet job. Though some on the right will doubtless find it somewhat unflattering I believe it a fair portrayal of the man and events as they are generally known. For those on the left fed up with him, this may be a good way to remember George as he -- thankfully! -- leaves public office in a few months. It does not hurt to see someone long demonized, shown as a person. Audiences will not grow fonder of him but they will perhaps appreciate that there is a human being behind the gaffes. That Oliver Stone pulled this off is a testament to an outstanding film maker.

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