Friday, October 17, 2008
I find it surprisingly hard to grade this movie. Do I assess it as an artistic act? As a reenactment of history? Do I grade the man portrayed? Do I assess how accurately that portrayal aligns with my mental template after these eight years?
I have no ready answer. I read a couple other reviews before I went to see it which said the film is either too early or too late: it's too early to have a very measured view of a sitting president, especially one whose approval rating is in the tank; but it's too late to revisit the events so close to the election, where it might have had an impact on the presidential race.
I might start by reviewing THESE sentiments. While we always come to assess presidents in a more measured and less emotional way a couple decades after their terms are over and done (e.g. Ronald Reagan, whose star has faded quite a bit, I think), this does not preclude us taking a level survey of those things we do know. Yes, there's a possibility we may come to look more favorably upon W's work, but what we currently know about W's two terms is pretty unflattering. Perhaps catastrophic. It's a story that needs to be told, again and again if necessary (and apparently it IS necessary when so many people think that a candidate in agreement with most of W's key policies is a good idea for our next president). And as for the claim that the movie may have come too late to have an impact, I disagree: most movies will have a shelf life of only a few short weeks, which is exactly what we have until election day. Stone's timing is right on, I'd say.
But I don't think it's self-evident that Oliver Stone is trying to throw the election to the Democrats (unless one uses the Fox "News" scale, wherein all things which do not promote conservative ends are liberal; by this measure, this film might be deemed a polemic because it does not laud the man). I'd argue that his movie is unflattering to George W. Bush in exactly the proportion that W's life and behavior and presidency have been unflattering. Stone paints neither a celebratory nor excoriating picture of the man or his works. If you like the man, you'll likely find much in this movie to like. We are led through his young adult life, through his mediocre school performance and a string of failed jobs and ventures--all of which events seem well documented--to arrive at his governorship of Texas and, in what seems a surprise to everyone, the Presidency.
Along the way we meet Karl Rove and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Condi Rice and all the others, and each plays their familiar and expected role: Cheney is the driving force behind W's presidency, a ruthlessly ambitious man of empire who desires to control the world and bend it to his own ends; Condi Rice is the quintessential yes-woman, providing unctuous and sycophantic support of her president no matter the action or consequences; Karl Rove is the "boy genius" who follows the president around like an external brain, quietly planting the seeds of his every move and stance. Against these stronger minds, W occasionally gives the talking-Ken-doll assertion that he is "the decider," even as it's clear that he's not "the thinker." All this just echoes what we already know, or think we do. One new thing to me is the emphasis placed on W's strained relationship with his successful father (played sympathetically by the excellent James Cromwell) as both the source of a continuing ache of disappointment in W's life and also a spur for him to achieve. W's younger brother Jeb is shown as the favorite son, and W is seen always struggling to find his father's approval.
Through interaction with these people, we come to see W as a man not without intelligence but as someone whose orientation and talents, such as they are, are utterly unsuited to this kind of work. The man who sees the world in black and white is utterly at sea with the myriad nuances and interconnected details involved in national and international affairs. There can be no shades of gray. Those surrounding the president seem to humor his limitations while showing obeisance to his office and the authority that comes with it.
One great mystery is W's relationship with his wife. She is portrayed as a sympathetic and intelligent woman, and her attachment to W is an enigma. They began their courtship with a good-natured clash, and the story gives no explanation as to how she reconciled her passions and principles to his. But she is shown as being pretty solidly behind him in most things, even as one gets the sense that she is a much more nuanced person than he.
We are treated to a goodly dose of W's familiar verbal gaffes, things like enemies "misunderestimating" the president or the "fool me twice... don't get fooled again" business. Mostly these are delivered by Josh Brolin as though he were channeling the man himself. He has the speech cadences and pronunciations down pat, and he provides these incontrovertible details without judgment or caricature. I left the theater with a more concrete sense of George W. Bush as a flawed human being rather than as a conjured repository of all humanity's failings and weaknesses. To that extent, the movie does the man a service.
But George W. Bush's story is a painful one for me, a bone bruise on the idea of informed democratic self-government. And insofar as the story has been depressing and stressful as it unfolds, it is exactly the same when it is relived in a two hour time-lapse. Crappy ingredients make for a crappy soup, and the bad results can be counted upon. So the movie is good or bad in exactly the same way as Fahrenheit 9/11 is good or bad. W is a well-made movie, and it tells a fascinating, stranger-than-fiction story. As craft, the film gets high marks.
But I wish the story could be jesused out of existence, that it had never happened. And I'd be happy if I didn't have to revisit this chapter ever again. Alas, I feel pretty sure we haven't heard the last of George W. Bush.
I can't keep myself from compositing a grade between craft and subject.