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W., or the Rush to Simplify

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Lionsgate)

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Sunday, November 09, 2008


W.
Directed by Oliver Stone
(Lionsgate)

Reviewed by Eric Hynes

With Oliver Stone’s W. out and among us for a few weeks, and the initial, justified responses of boredom and bafflement (why exactly was this film made?) retreating, along with its subject, into the past, it’s time to appreciate the film for what it is and shall forever be: the first stab at condensing the Bush 43 presidency into its pithy, bite-sized essentials. This is breezy, received history, not the haunted, fragmentary counter-historical narratives of JFK and Nixon. This time Stone seems content to build a simple floatable vessel of familiar vignettes and long-ago lampooned quotes (culled from the likes of 2004 bestsellers like The Ultimate George W. Bushisms and Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld — now available used via Amazon.com for $ 0.95 and $0.01 respectively).

Every presidency gets this kind of treatment, if not always in a multiplex-friendly format. The quick-takes that endure are as follows: Kennedy was inspirational and fashion-mag sexy while Johnson, the anti-Kennedy, mired us in Vietnam. Control-mad Nixon went too far but was great on foreign policy while Ford was dumb as a post. Carter was a nice fellow but led us astray while Reagan restored American pride and power. If W. has any prescience, it’s in recognizing that bite-sized history will be kind to George, buying into the late-night monologuists picture of him as a half-wit manipulated by diabolical ideologues, and giving credence to the strict binary of a just war in Afghanistan versus a botched job in Iraq.

That Stone’s characterization, all aw-shucks twang and adolescent jock itch, looks like knee-jerk 2004 and that a fuller, even darker picture of Bush has since come into view hardly seems to matter. Yes, he’s a savvy politician. Yes, he’s seductively, dangerously bullish. Yes, the buck really does stop at — and gets brazenly vetoed by — him. But details and nuance won’t work for a standard narrative. What we need is something pithy, something we can cup in our hands and swallow in one gulp. Think of how Reagan, in the final days of his presidency, was quite literally a shell of his former self, seemingly disconnected from his own questionable decisions. Yet the Reader’s Digest character of Reagan as America-restoring, Republican-party-fathering, stately Cold Warrior had already been inked and dried, undisturbed by fresh inconveniences like Iran-Contra or Star Wars or the national debt. Now Oliver Stone, he of the conspiracy theories and Fidel Castro sympathies, is first in line to let George W. Bush off the hook.

W. got me thinking about the late, not-great Eighties television show, D.C. Follies, a half-hour comedy revue that used sub-Muppet puppets to tepidly satirize politics and popular culture. Compared to its incisive English counterpart, Spitting Image (best known stateside for creating Genesis’s “Land of Confusion” music video), D.C. Follies was never very funny or incisive, coasting on broad parodies and borscht-belt punch-lines. Produced by Sid and Marty Krofft, camp legends for making trippy Seventies kids shows such as H. R. Pufnstuf, The Bugaloos and Land of the Lost, as well as one-note “adult” shows like Pink Lady and Jeff, D.C. Follies had a two-year run that straddled the Reagan and Bush 41 presidencies.

Sid and Marty, like the Oliver Stone of W., peddled an oddly conservative outlandishness, coming on all naughty but keeping things harmless and syndication-safe. W.’s big historical re-enactments are a cuddle of Muppets mucking around in the War Room making a crazy mess of the world. Jeffrey Wright’s Colin Powell is a tormented, righteous Sam the Bald Eagle (yes!), while arch-rival Richard Dreyfus’ Cheney is a lip curling, furry-brow-raising Oscar the Grouch (perfect!), Toby Jones’s Karl Rove is an Iagoed Scooter (apologies to Libby, of course), Thandie Newton’s Condoleezza Rice has the chirping monotony and trusty sidekick stiffness of Beaker (Beaker!), and Josh Brolin’s Bush is one blissfully naïve Elmo. K Street Live! On ice! This is history, baby.

Not only does W. fail as both drama and comedy, it’s unclear which sequences are meant to be which. Stone shifts tone haphazardly from scene to scene and even shot to shot, eliding SNL parody with flat naturalism, rote Oedipal bombast, and shot-from-below expressionism. Brolin, playing the sitting President of the United States, spends the majority of the film doing one of three things: cramming his face with food, sitting on the toilet or bowing to pray. Talk about your common man. Yet that’s what Stone passes off as character, and he may indeed have anticipated our desire for a cuddlier version of our least popular president. After all, as Rove is made to improbably mouth during W.’s gubernatorial campaign, Bush appealed to voters because he was an ordinary bloke you could have drinks with. Somehow, despite eight tragically mismanaged years, this is what Stone chooses to harp on. In a matter of months a new president will be inaugurated and, to steal from President Ford, this long national nightmare will be over. Let the selective, reductive memory begin.

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