When people expected Oliver Stones World Trade Center to be the ultimate Bush-bashing, paranoid conspiracy-theory thriller, he delivered a contemplative work of art. Here he goes again. The hard work of Stones new film about George Bushthat uses the synecdoche title W.is to avoid impertinence and rebuild the concepts of fairness and empathy while examining the Bush enigma. Stone gives real suspense to this process: First, he surmounts the class snobbery implicit in Bush-bashing (the opening baseball stadium scene emanates from Bushs imagination of his own ambition and personal challenge). Then, he looks past the undeniable mistakes in Bushs life journey (time-shifting from Bushs college years to his presidency) in order to portray his soul.
By considering the private turmoil of the man who has become a popular effigy, Stone opposes the easy sniping some people might crave. Striving for balance, Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser shape a narrative that aims for artistic justicereclaiming the high ground that was forsaken by Michael Moore and the fashionable trend of unapologetic media bias. While casting Josh Brolin as Bush and other familiar actors to portray actual Washingtonians who became figures of political celebrity and shame, Stone and Weiser initiate a giddily informed political pageant. Its a drama we all lived through and in which have a moral stake. Why should it be funny?
But Stone and Weiser dont repeat the infamous New Yorker magazine Obama cover-cartoon transgression that confused satire, parody and mockery. W. uses the rudiments of impersonation to spark recognition then shifts gears, deepening our responses. Caricatures become characters. (James Cromwell as George Herbert Walker Bush evokes the real mans height and simmering resentment; Ellen Burstyn enlivens Barbara Bushs white-haired reserve.) This restores the fascination of personality, the drama of watching how events shape persona and the spectacle of a manand the people around himswept along by history.
Keeping these near-legendary figures and events at human scale is a precarious feat, tainted by the recent piling-on of pundits and comedians. Todays political satire has distorted our sense of judgment. Jon Stewarts The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live are not high points of our cultureno matter how many viewers mistake showbiz temerity for political principle. But the scary way those programs have lately blurred with the Keith Olbermann, Bill OReilly and Bill Maher cable-TV mockery-fests only serves to destroy rational perspective. Considerations of Bush so frequently veer into derision and hostility that Stones own probity is at risk. Will he feed the media mobs hatred or venture to provide enlightenment?
W.s plot mechanism probes Bushs story to resolve a troubling uncertaintya presidents undeniable imperfections. At first the scenes of Bushs roistering youth (vodka-soaked hazing at Yale, careless impregnation, slacking off at various family-sponsored jobs) establishes a miscreants profile. Some screening-room jackals loudly enjoyed this as confirmation of their disdain. Yet while leaning heavily on Bushs flaws, Stones flashback structure forces us to contextualize them: This is another of Stones fortunate-son tales. As with Born on the Fourth of July and Alexander, W. carries Stones fascination with the epic, arduous development of moral fiber. Juxtaposing the young lout with the middle-aged politician, Stone asks Are any of us fully formed at college or is it simply when we are first judged?
Accounting for our own foibles is exactly what Bush-bashers have avoided. Stone follows a first-rate biographers creed: refusing vitriol and attempting to characterize without being intemperate. When haters conveniently dismissed Bush as stupid, it was always more supercilious than honest. (Stone wisely rejected the title Dubya as demeaning.) Alexandra Pelosis doc Journeys with George supplied a record of the mans charm and native intelligence. Stone similarly dramatizes Bushs humor. Answering a press query about his swagger, Bush responds: In Texas we call that walkin.
W. gets really good when scenes of early alcoholic revels and runty defiance demonstrate Bushs rebellion as well as his recklessness. In a quintessential Stone moment, son and father nearly come to blows and this primal passage segues into Bush meeting his future wife. Just before randy, beer-swilling, barbecue-guzzling Bush approaches Laura, Stone inserts a single shot of him stepping on a corn coba fillip describing his awkward, fated path. Laura (Elizabeth Banks), with her smooth fluff of brown hair, proves a worthy flirt for the gadabout scion; she also settles him and advises, People should not be defined by their politics. Her graciousness announces Stones artistic credo. Once W. hits its stride, Stone hurdles easy derision and concentrates on the difficult, elusive consideration of Bushs interior growth.
Seeing through politics has made Stone our most audacious political filmmaker. His richly cathartic World Trade Center confounded the pundits; he found depth beyond politics in JFK and Nixon. In W., the presumed obligation to justify Bushs policies is met by minutely recreating his staff meetings. Some of Stone and Weisers most interesting strategies are these inner-sanctum confabs. Through quasi-masquerades, Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Condoleeza Rice (Thandi Newton), Karl Rove (Toby Jones), Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) and George Tenet (Bruce McGill) create a lively colloquy. These scenes dont trap Bushs administration in deception but lay out its political logic, making their decisions plausible, humannot simply a cause for jeering.
However, a sensational bit of agit-prop occurs when Bush presents his Iraq invasion plans before Congress: Stone intercuts actual footage of the assembled pols. A close-up of John McCain applauding got an easy laughpopular cynicism affirmed. But no laughter followed subsequent shots of Biden and Hillary applauding the speech. Although Stone couldnt find a shot of Obama in the congressional fray, this is the archival edit of the year.
W. is most conventional when Stone becomes puckish: the cabinet meetings are lit hyperbolically, resembling the war-room setting in Dr. Strangelove. Stone cant entirely resist a satirical slant and fails with the Uncle Remus voice Wright gives Powell and limits Newtons hilarious Condi Rice to a devious Yes-man. These cheap shots dont prevent Stone from credibly showing Bushs advisors juggling estimates, theories, expertise, motives, mistakes and urgencyor lost on a country road. But instead of uselessly second-guessing Bushs doctrine, Stone lets Cheney point out: Your presidency is a fulcrum point in history. The discussion where the test-phrase Axis of Hatred becomes Axis of Evil is only ludicrous if you want it to be; just as Cheneys take on Iraq as an oil resource (the fertile choke point of civilization) argues American interest and necessity convincinglyexcept maybe to green peaceniks. These cabinet meetings clarify how power and empire work. As the director of a large-scale social and heroic history like the majestic, underrated Alexander, Stone understands Americas historic place as empiredespite whoever finds that concept dismaying. So Stone understands particularly well when Bush scoffs about his place in history: In history well all be dead. Presenting Bush as a paradox, not a fool, makes W. more complex than current political serio-comedies like the snide Charlie Wilsons War. Stone finds the texture of that paradox in the bi-cultural qualities that create a man who is both an Ivy League legacy-graduate and Texas-oil good ol boy.
At the heart of Bushs paradox lay class and cultural ambivalences that genuinely trouble the American conscience. When Bushs privileged white fraternity brothers boast, Were men of honor, decency and God-given character. That, and our family wealth, is why we rule the world! it reveals a burden. (Robert De Niro got at some of this in The Good Shepherds look at the origins of the CIAan insight critics roundly rejected.) After losing his first governors race, Bush vows, Theres no way Ill be out Texased or out Christianed again. And the trenchantly formal letter that accompanies the gift Bush receives from his father (a pair of cufflinks from their Prescott family heritage) pinpoints his critical unhappiness.
During the 1991 Gulf War, Bush Sr. explains why he pronounces Saddam Husseins first name by emphasizing the first syllable (It means Little boy who shines old mens shoes), which inevitably reflects on Bush II. W. observes the existential isolation of having a behind-the-desk father. Both mens rivalrya patrician war vet vs. a boomer vulgarianis classically American. Moving on to the lonely conscience of Bushs religious conversion, Stone captures his Damascus moment in an 8mm shot of his fist gripped with tension during a run in the woods. He confesses to Minister Earle Hudd (Stacy Keach) whose mellifluous voice quoting John 3:16 supplies a fathers dream voice: strong, comforting, inspiring. Daddy wont understand Im a Christian, Bush laments. Heres where Stone shows the now-uncommon decency not to question a mans profession of faith.
A startling conversion montage links a close-up painted Eye of Christ, then of Bushs eye, then his fathers eye. Ingeniously, Stone finds a Michael/Don Vito Corleone generational symbiosis, religious and political, natural and terrifying, that no one expected. That this revelation isnt more devastating probably falls on Brolin. He avoids a satirical impersonation like Chris Coopers bumbling Bush in John Sayles Silver City, yet Brolin doesnt pierce Bushs arrogance (or his own).
For the closing credits, Stone resorts to convention using Bob Dylans God On Our Side, which adds a convenient and probably facetious irony. I think Public Enemys Son of a Bush would better communicate a skeptical sense of heritage. Throughout the film, music cues are antic and at odds with seriousness. W. teeters between satirical Americana and patriotic commiserationin that opening baseball metaphor The Pledge of Allegiance overlaps the ballpark theme to create a rigorous, All-American frisson. It makes tradition and ambition equally frustrating.
W. is the best example of American filmmaking courage since Munich. Our mainstream medias vindictiveness toward George W. Bush has dismantled even the illusion of fairness. For the past eight years, the media elite have fought back against Bush winning the presidency in 2000, corrupting the purpose of journalism and entertainment by being vehemently partisan and ferociously illiberal. By opposing the mob mentality that would hang Bush in effigy, W. imaginatively sympathizes with the most maligned president in modern history. It might be too late to restore respect for the office, but Stone knows that until we learn that Bush is like us, we learn nothing.
OLIVERS ARMY Out of an audacious, ambitious filmography, these are Oliver Stones Top 10 Movies (before W.).
1. Any Given Sunday (1999) This great modern epic of American ambition depicts Football as Egotism as Capitalism as Bloodsport as Tradition. 2. World Trade Center (2006) Cathartic memoriam for a modern Day of Infamy encapsulating a wide range of experiences. 3. JFK (1991) Speculative political fiction and a virtuoso multimedia essay on modern memory. 4. Alexander (2004) A Western-Civ epic examining the myths that inspire war and imperialism. 5. Natural Born Killers (1994) Before it implodes, the definitive illustration of Postmodernism and Violence. 6. Salvador Crusading journalist B-movie exposing the mixed-movies of media and counter-revolutionaries. 7. Heaven and Earth (1994) A GI love story that brings home the Vietnam War and transfuses it into the American way of life. 8. U-Turn (1997) Turning lurid film noir conventions into a delirious (and sociological) psychodrama. 9. Nixon (1995) Extraordinarily compassionate bio-pic that effects an Oedipal-political reconciliation. 10. Born on the Fourth of July (1989) An American boys romance that turns tragic before it is eventually, triumphantly, awakens.