Saturday, May 9, 2009

W. (Lionsgate, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran us the film W. (the period is part of the actual title, separating it from M, O, Q, Z and other films with one-letter titles), Oliver Stone’s 2008 biopic of George W. Bush made and released while he was still president — which sets it aside from such other pre-Presidential biographies of American presidents as Young Mr. Lincoln and Sunrise at Campobello, though it has something of the same intent: to show how the future President was raised and thereby depict the qualities (or lack of same) he brought to the office and how his upbringing contributed to how he governed.

W. is basically two stories, told in parallel and intercut with each other: Bush in the period from the 9/11 attacks to the start of the Iraq war, and Bush from 1966 (his drunken frat-boy antics at Yale are shown in almost too much detail) to 1999, showing how he drank and drugged (the drinking is shown, the drug use is just hinted at) his way out of all the opportunities his dad’s money and connections could create for him until he found himself, found God, gave up the drinking (and whatever else), knuckled down to at least a pretense of running the Texas Rangers, ran for governor of Texas and ultimately used that office as a stepping stone to the presidency. When I first heard that Stone was shooting this film, my reaction was disbelief; I couldn’t understand why anybody would bankroll a film about Bush while he was still in office, or who they thought the audience for it would be. The people who liked Bush weren’t about to pay money to see a film about him directed by Oliver Stone, and the people who didn’t like Bush — including me — weren’t about to pay money to see a film about him at all, especially while he was still president and we could see far more of that Alfred E. Neuman mug and that whiny, petulant voice than we wanted to on the TV news for free. Now that Bush is out of office, we could bring a little more perspective to the movie and enjoy, or at least absorb, it for what it was.

What’s most interesting about the film is how sympathetic it is; Stone’s (and his screenwriter, Stanley Weiser’s) portrait of Bush is very much like the way Stone portrayed Richard Nixon in his earlier Presidential biopic, presenting his failings much more in sorrow than in anger — though any serious explanation of What Made W. Run is hamstrung from the get-go by the fact that he’s a relentlessly non-introspective person. One of the things that separates the Bush story from most addiction narratives — which is essentially how it’s presented here — is that one obligatory part of the addiction memoir is an account of how the recovering addict grew or changed as a result of the struggle to get off alcohol and/or drugs and what he or she discovered about human nature — both generally and his/her own — in the process. Bush doesn’t seem to have discovered a damned thing; he gave up some bad habits but doesn’t seem to have learned anything from either the experience of addiction or the experience of recovery, and to the extent that sobriety changed him, it seems (at least as it’s depicted in the movie, which tallies to what we know about his life) just to have sharpened his sense of entitlement.

Bush the active alcoholic was your typical spoiled rich kid, convinced that the world owed him a living because he was part of a family better than the ordinary run of humanity. Bush the recovering alcoholic — especially given the fact that a minister was his principal source of support in his recovery — seems to have got even more of a sense of himself as a child of destiny, marked for greatness not only by his parentage but literally by divine favor. Though it’s not depicted here, he’s known to have told his friends during the contest over the 2000 election outcome that they shouldn’t worry about how the final count would turn out because God had destined him to be president — and one Bush anecdote that is told in the film, though in a different context than the real one (indeed, a lot of the famous Bush pronouncements, including “Is our children learning?,” appear in the movie but are shoe-horned by Weiser into different contexts from the real ones — and one speech, in which Bush responds to losing his 1978 Congressional race to Democrat Kent Hance because Hance projected a more credible down-home image by saying, “I’ll never be out-Texaned or out-Christianed again,” seems to come not from Bush but from George Wallace, who famously reacted to his unsuccessful run for governor of Alabama as a racial moderate in 1958 by saying, “I’ll never be out-niggered again”), is how he said that he didn’t need to take advice from his father over what to do about Iraq and Saddam Hussein because “I have a higher Father that I answer to.”

By far the strongest aspect of W. is the relationship between Bush Jr. and Bush Sr. — indeed, when James Cromwell’s name came up in the credits as the actor playing the first President Bush, I couldn’t help but chuckle over the similarity between his role here and his part as Prince Philip in The Queen, where he was also a part of a hereditary ruling family who was being driven crazy by the scapegrace antics of his son. W. is a compelling piece of filmmaking in many ways. Stone’s direction is competent and assured, and avoids flashy camera tricks just for the sake of flashy camera tricks — though there are a few interesting angles, including one of his fraternity initiation at Yale in which liquor is forcibly poured down his throat and Stone seems to want us to make the connection, without underlining it too hard, between that and the waterboarding to which Bush’s administration subjected alleged terrorists at Guantánamo and in Iraq and elsewhere. Weiser’s script is well constructed and contains enough titles and other devices to make sure we always know when, as well as where, we are — a duty to the audience many filmmakers who make non-linear movies deliberately neglect.

The acting is also quite fine; Josh Brolin as W. isn’t anywhere near as dorky-looking as the real one — but then who, at least in Hollywood, is? — but he powerfully projects the character’s feelings of inadequacy and his re-invention of himself as a good ol’ Texas boy. Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush is just poignant enough to make us feel for her and wonder how presidential wives in general handle the First Lady gig — it must be harder for stay-at-home ones like Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Laura Bush than it is for women whose husbands allow them to maintain some degree of personal autonomy (Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and now Michelle Obama) — and the actors playing the familiar faces around Bush in his Presidential years are mostly on target (though it’s difficult to tally Scott Glenn’s Donald Rumsfeld with the real one, who managed at once to seem both more avuncular and more sinister than his movie avatar): Richard Dreyfuss is almost unrecognizable as Dick Cheney (though well before the Cheney we knew from the Bush years even existed — photos of him as a young man show yet another cookie-cutter young conservative from the Nixon administration and betray little hint of how he would age — Marlon Brando, playing the villainous head of the world’s oil industry in the 1980 thriller The Formula, offered an uncannily exact premonition of the W.-era Cheney); Toby Jones gives us Karl Rove the vulgar political operative rather than Rove the Right-wing visionary (I was a bit disappointed that a historically-minded director like Stone didn’t mention that Rove’s intriguing role model was Mark Hanna, who essentially did his sort of job for William McKinley); Thandie Newton is almost uncannily accurate visually as Condoleeza Rice and, in action in the film, comes close to dramatizing Charles’ old, bitter joke about her (“Bush’s geography teacher”); and Jeffrey Wright does justice to Colin Powell, the closest the Bush administration had to a truly tragic figure.

When Charles and I watched the 1956 film Helen of Troy I was struck at the uncanny parallel between its depiction of the Trojan War and Bush’s invasion of Iraq: “The Greeks openly and proudly declare their intention to launch a pre-emptive war against Troy; they reject Troy’s peace feelers (which is what Paris is doing in Sparta in the first place) out of hand; the moment they see a bit of the wreckage of Paris’s ship emblazoned with the Trojan royal eagle (which looks more like a Navajo blanket than anything else) they assume it’s the vanguard of a Trojan attack — they’re spooked about Trojan intentions because in this version of the tale they’ve already sacked Troy once before — and Nestor (Guido Nolan), the old wise man who tries to talk them out of the attack, gets treated like Colin Powell: ignored, shut out of the decision-making loop and ultimately persuaded to be a ‘good soldier’ and sign on to a policy he knows will be disastrous.” In W., Powell makes the objections behind the scenes his aides have assured us he did in real life — indeed, he predicts virtually the entire disastrous outcome of the war — though like the “good soldier” he was he ultimately goes before the United Nations and repeats all the administration’s propaganda and outright lies.

Here Stone mixes in archival footage of the real Colin Powell addressing the U.N., just as at other points in the movie he includes clips of the real Bush, Cheney and others in the administration; most of the junctures work well — remember, this is the director who in Nixon reproduced the 1960 TV debates between Nixon and Kennedy by intercutting archival footage of the real Kennedy with newly shot scenes of Anthony Hopkins re-enacting Nixon’s part — but a few, particularly the ones involving trying to accept Richard Dreyfuss and the more formidable real Dick Cheney as the same person, jar. In the scenes showing the buildup to the war in Iraq, W. comes across as Captain Ahab with Saddam Hussein as his own Moby Dick — a monomaniac unwilling to be dissuaded from launching the war or even delaying it (one of the most chilling scenes is the one between Bush and a hapless Tony Blair, played by “Mr. Fantastic” Ioan Gruffudd, who’s trying to get him at least to delay the war until the United Nations weapons inspectors finish their work) — and after major combat operations have ended, Bush has posed on the aircraft carrier under the “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” sign, and the occupation forces don’t find the weapons of mass destruction Bush and his associates were so sure he had, Bush regards their non-existence as a personal insult.

On one level W. is a well put-together movie, but on another level it doesn’t really work because we never get the sense of how what we see of Bush in the flashback scenes shaped what Bush became as President — and that, as I noted above, is a function of the bizarrely unreflective nature of his character, the way he seems to regard any sort of introspection as a fundamental betrayal of his self-image as a man of destiny, a man of action, a man who (as Hitler said of himself — and no, I’m not making any more of the parallel than this!) moved through events with the assurance of a sleepwalker, a man whose fundamental arrogance and sense of predestined privilege shaped not only his ascent to the presidency but what he did with it. That’s the part of Bush’s character that really doesn’t get shown in this film, perhaps because it would have been virtually impossible for Stone and Weiser to put it on the screen without making Bush seem certifiably crazy (which he clearly isn’t; for all the detachment of his thinking from objective reality, he didn’t sink into the sort of basket-case depression Nixon fell into in the last months of his presidency). As it is, W. is the effort of some talented, dedicated filmmakers who tried their best to be sympathetic, to see some good in this man without totally buying into his world-view (as most of Bush’s defenders did during his presidency — more than most Presidents, Bush seemed to divide the country into roughly equal-sized groups of people who thought he could do no wrong and people who thought he could do no right — as opposed to Obama, who has his own cadre of bitter opponents who think he can do no right but whose supporters are considerably more nuanced in their appraisal of him than Bush’s are, and ready — if not to lash out at him the way some Democrats did at Clinton when he ended up responding to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 by governing essentially as a moderate Republican thereafter — at least to write about him in tones of disappointment and sorrow), but the fact is that George W. Bush simply isn’t a complicated enough person to be the stuff of which protagonists of great dramas are made.