Son of a Bush

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:10

    When people expected Oliver Stone’s 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 Stone’s new film about George Bush—that 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 Bush’s imagination of his own ambition and personal challenge). Then, he looks past the undeniable mistakes in Bush’s life journey (time-shifting from Bush’s 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 justice—reclaiming 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. It’s a drama we all lived through and in which have a moral stake. Why should it be funny?

    But Stone and Weiser don’t 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 man’s height and simmering resentment; Ellen Burstyn enlivens Barbara Bush’s white-haired reserve.) This restores the fascination of personality, the drama of watching how events shape persona and the spectacle of a man—and the people around him—swept 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. Today’s political satire has distorted our sense of judgment. Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live are not high points of our culture—no matter how many viewers mistake showbiz temerity for political principle. But the scary way those programs have lately blurred with the Keith Olbermann, Bill O’Reilly and Bill Maher cable-TV mockery-fests only serves to destroy rational perspective. Considerations of Bush so frequently veer into derision and hostility that Stone’s own probity is at risk. Will he feed the media mob’s hatred or venture to provide enlightenment?

    W.’s plot mechanism probes Bush’s story to resolve a troubling uncertainty—a president’s undeniable imperfections. At first the scenes of Bush’s roistering youth (vodka-soaked hazing at Yale, careless impregnation, slacking off at various family-sponsored jobs) establishes a miscreant’s profile. Some screening-room jackals loudly enjoyed this as confirmation of their disdain. Yet while leaning heavily on Bush’s flaws, Stone’s flashback structure forces us to contextualize them: This is another of Stone’s fortunate-son tales. As with Born on the Fourth of July and Alexander, W. carries Stone’s 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 biographer’s 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 Pelosi’s doc Journeys with George supplied a record of the man’s charm and native intelligence. Stone similarly dramatizes Bush’s 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 Bush’s 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 cob—a 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 Stone’s artistic credo. Once W. hits its stride, Stone hurdles easy derision and concentrates on the difficult, elusive consideration of Bush’s 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 Bush’s policies is met by minutely recreating his staff meetings. Some of Stone and Weiser’s 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 don’t trap Bush’s administration in deception but lay out its political logic, making their decisions plausible, human—not 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 laugh—popular cynicism affirmed. But no laughter followed subsequent shots of Biden and Hillary applauding the speech. Although Stone couldn’t 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 can’t entirely resist a satirical slant and fails with the Uncle Remus voice Wright gives Powell and limits Newton’s hilarious Condi Rice to a devious Yes-man. These cheap shots don’t prevent Stone from credibly showing Bush’s advisors juggling estimates, theories, expertise, motives, mistakes and urgency—or lost on a country road. But instead of uselessly second-guessing Bush‘s 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 Cheney’s take on Iraq as an oil resource (“the fertile choke point of civilization”) argues American interest and necessity convincingly—except 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 America’s historic place as empire—despite whoever finds that concept dismaying. So Stone understands particularly well when Bush scoffs about his place in history: “In history we’ll all be dead.” Presenting Bush as a paradox, not a fool, makes W. more complex than current political serio-comedies like the snide Charlie Wilson’s 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 Bush’s paradox lay class and cultural ambivalences that genuinely trouble the American conscience. When Bush’s privileged white fraternity brothers boast, “We’re 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 Shepherd’s look at the origins of the CIA—an insight critics roundly rejected.) After losing his first governor’s race, Bush vows, “There’s no way I’ll 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 Hussein’s first name by emphasizing the first syllable (“It means ‘Little boy who shines old men’s shoes’”), which inevitably reflects on Bush II. W. observes the existential isolation of having a behind-the-desk father. Both men’s rivalry—a patrician war vet vs. a boomer vulgarian—is classically American. Moving on to the lonely conscience of Bush’s 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 father’s dream voice: strong, comforting, inspiring. “Daddy won’t understand I’m a Christian,” Bush laments. Here’s where Stone shows the now-uncommon decency not to question a man’s profession of faith.

    A startling conversion montage links a close-up painted Eye of Christ, then of Bush’s eye, then his father’s eye. Ingeniously, Stone finds a Michael/Don Vito Corleone generational symbiosis, religious and political, natural and terrifying, that no one expected. That this revelation isn’t more devastating probably falls on Brolin. He avoids a satirical impersonation like Chris Cooper’s bumbling Bush in John Sayles’ Silver City, yet Brolin doesn’t pierce Bush’s arrogance (or his own).

    For the closing credits, Stone resorts to convention using Bob Dylan’s “God On Our Side,” which adds a convenient and probably facetious irony. I think Public Enemy’s “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 commiseration—in 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 media’s 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.


    OLIVER’S ARMY Out of an audacious, ambitious filmography, these are Oliver Stone’s 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 boy’s romance that turns tragic before it is eventually, triumphantly, awakens.