Oliver Stone’s latest film, W., a seeming semi-satire on only the first term of President George W. Bush (no Hurricane Katrina, no BS on "the Surge has worked," no economic disaster), is a hit and miss affair which, given Stone’s track record in film this decade, is possibly a slight improvement on those earlier films. Recall the deadening mediocrity of U-Turn and utter pointlessness of Any Given Sunday, or the not quite campy enough schlock of Alexander? If you don’t, consider yourself lucky.
That said, W. promised a hoped for return to the great films of Stone’s earlier days: Nixon, JFK, The Doors, or at least the gleeful camp of Wall Street. Unfortunately, Stone forgot the advice that Richard Nixon gave General Eisenhower, during the 1952 campaign, after Nixon’s slush fund was found out: shit or get off the pot. The fact is that Stone simply cannot decide whether or not to make his latest film a straight history or a satire. Thus, it fails on both counts.
As for the failure of history- there is not a single moment in the film that makes a viewer ask why this man deserves a film? There is no revelation into what makes the current President tick (and worse, not even an attempt to do so), save for the way too trite ideas that Junior is a human cipher, and is still looking for Daddy’s approval, even though he explicitly rejects his father in the film, for other ‘fathers’ as Senator Barry Goldwater, President Ronald Reagan, and his own warped version of God.
Instead, we get Josh Brolin mugging his way through an apish impersonation of W. Okay, that may be enough to resolidify Stone’s Hollywood liberal bona fides, but it does nothing for his audience. And yes, Brolin is a good imitator, but what he does not do is act in the film. There’s not a moment a viewer empathizes with the lead character. We only see W. from the exterior, and it is a Howdy Doody-like portrait.
In fact, the only bits of real acting in the film belong to the roles of George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush (the Elder), played by James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn. In fact, Cromwell’s performance (too short, and Burstyn’s is even shorter) is so good that it truly deserves Oscar consideration. Yet, his is one of the few key roles that is not a Saturday Night Live level impersonation. Cromwell does not look, sound, nor act with the easily parodic mannerisms of the elder Bush (think of Anthony Hopkins as Nixon vs. Dana Carvey as the elder Bush, and the gulf between Cromwell’s performance and the other actors’ performances in political roles becomes clear)- yet he nails the performance. When he loses the 1992 election to Bill Clinton, one actually feels for Poppy Bush.
Only Elizabeth Banks’ Laura Bush is also not a caricature, but one gets almost nothing of the life of this woman that W. loves, especially after she marries the man. Why? Because it might humanize the real Bush to his detractors (however correct they may be)? Would that not make him all the more vexing and a better character for a work of art? Of course. Stone is smart enough to know this, therefore his choice of this portrayal is tantamount to a snubbing of connoisseurs of film, screenwriting, and acting.
As for the other leads? They are uniformly terrible. The worst transgressor is Thandie Newton’s lisping and speech-impedimented NSA, Condoleezza Rice. It’s so bad a performance that I cannot even do it justice, save to say that the only way it could have been salvaged is to have her break out into a performance of Springtime For Hitler. Richard Dreyfuss’ Vice President Dick Cheney is almost as bad. Yes, Dreyfuss is made up to look like Cheney, and snarls and misappropriates power; but just watch the scene where he, Bush, and the top-level Cabinet folk discuss the reasons to invade Iraq and Iran, and watch Dreyfuss almost drool and slaver over the word EM-PIRE, and one might feel this was an outtake from an updated Dr. Strangelove. It simply does not work, and then there is a bizarre oddity in that a world map, Cheney points to, shows China without Tibet as part of its boundary.
Scott Glenn’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is a cipher, Ioan Gruffudd’s British Prime Minister Tony Blair is a vapid, mealy-mouthed airhead who does as he’s told without cogitation, and Toby Jones’ scheming Karl Rove is a sycophant and weasel (and possibly a closet homosexual), while Bruce McGill actually looks like FBI Director George Tenet, and does not overact, but is mocked as being asleep in bed during Bush’s State Of The Union Address where the Weapons Of Mass Destruction lie first started, against his approval.
The only Bushie cut any slack is Secretary Of State Colin Powell, yet Jeffrey Wright plays him as an impotent and Tommish lackey. Only Stacy Keach’s carny-level preacher, Earl Wood, seems suited for the parodic treatment he is given, yet, oddly, his characterization is far less buffoonish than that of the politicos. And the fact that the two most interesting characters (and portrayals) in W.’s life are Poppy and preacher Wood may be due to the fact that Cromwell and Keach are likely the two best actors in the cast, which only points out the need for Stone to have done better casting to cover up the gaping holes in his script.
This points to the film’s greatest weakness- the pallid, obvious, heavy-handed and clearly rushed, screenplay by Stanley Weiser, who also wrote Stone’s Wall Street. Now, all of these portrayals may be essentially who these people are- and politically, I agree with the thrust of the assessments, but, as an artist, these are so overdone as to make the film suffer hard for their overreaches. Even at a relatively short two hours (compared to Stone’s earlier Presidential films) W. feels excruciatingly long.
The cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is pedestrian- even W.’s moment of revelation- an attack while jogging in the Texas woods, cannot invoke the beauty and awe behind W.’s conversion from drunken playboy to religious teatotaler. Just compare the sunlight through the color tree branches moment to a similar set of shots from Akira Kurosawa’s black and white Rashomon, and the power of a good shot is evident, and evidently lacking in this film- also, likely a byproduct of Stone’s desire to get the film out before the end of the 2008 election.
The basic problem with the film’s narrative is that it simply goes nowhere for no reason, and this is summed up in the film’s final dream scene- and the film is so pointless that my iterating its end will not matter one iota. W. dreams he is playing centerfield for his old baseball team, the Texas Rangers. A ball is hit, he runs back to the wall to catch it, as he did in an earlier dream scene. Except, this time the ball never comes down. W. just looks up into the heavens with a goofy look on his face, clueless as ever. While the ending may simultaneously capture the real confusion of the real President as well as Stone’s caricature, it also recapitulates the superficial glibness of Stone’s whole film. It is shallow, dull, and cannot even induce the hatred inspired by the real W.
Yet, even if one accepts that there is no ‘there’ there, inside of the President, could not Stone have at least turned his guns on the American electorate for electing such an idiot. In an earlier film of Stone’s, Natural Born Killers, Stone really tore the American consumerate a new asshole. Granted that film was over the top where this film is too reserved, even as both are broad in their portraits. But Natural Born Killers, at least, had balls, and skewered the average American. W., by contrast, is a eunuch, and Joe Average gets off as easily as W., the real man, has.
That stated, the two extremes mentioned in those two films are not the only way Stone could have gone. As example, look to Nixon, and the scene where Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) forces Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger (Paul Sorvino) to pray with him during the Watergate tumult. Now, if there were ever two real men ripe for parody (especially at such a moment) it was Nixon and Kissinger. Yet, the scene, as played and filmed, is actually quite moving. Granted, part of this is because Hopkins and Sorvino are great actors, whereas Josh Brolin and the bulk of this film’s cast are not. But, the screenplay was also far better, and showed Nixon as a complex if base, man. W., by contrast, is the aforementioned cipher, and, given that so much of this film relies on the fact that its audience will know much of the political minutia, for having lived through these years, this does not bode well for future viewers to whom Bush’s usual suspects will seem bizarre creatures from another dimension.
Often, in art, a work of art is esteemed as great, not because it is technically, aesthetically, nor creatively, great, but merely because it represents a great break, or a great step forward, from what the art form offered before. What it does is not as important as what it symbolizes or represents, ideatively. Examples of this can be seen in the rather rote epopee of Homer and Virgil, the bloated religious didacticism of Dante or John Milton, the predictable comic convolutions of Charles Dickens, or some of the lesser works of Cubism, or any other school of art.
Oliver Stone’s latest film, W., oddly seems to invert that truism. It is a regression from not only Stone’s earlier, greater films, but from satire itself. It also represents a regression for Stone even as the film is, on the surface, more entertaining than his recent offerings. But, this is a man capable of greatness, and a greatness of Shakespearian levels.
This film’s failure, then, most likely is Stone’s unwitting admission that his slow descent into irrelevance and artistic anomy will be unabated. The same thing has occurred to other great American filmmakers like Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese (despite his recent ‘career’ Oscar for The Departed), but it makes it none the less sad and frustrating for his viewers. If only he had shown the nerve to try, this time out, one might have been able to forgive him his failure. But, Stone’s own uninspired direction and effort can only elicit a shrug from fans of his work. Like breeds like- a point Stone seems to have wanted this film to make, but….yawn.