Friday, May 22, 2009

Sort of Like How the Map Is Not the Territory

DVD via DVDPlay

Oliver Stone: I've seen nearly all of his movies and I've enjoyed almost none of them. Natural Born Killers is overrated and outshined by a number of similar films from the same time period; Platoon has exactly the same problems. JFK was boring and The Doors was tone-deaf. Alexander was a travesty, a meandering pointless movie with no memorable roles about one of the most interesting people in history. Wall Street is the one film of his I'd rank as a classic. Nixon was OK.

I'm not exactly sure what Stone was up to with W. Other Bush-hating filmmakers got to the party much earlier and with far sharper knives. The idea of an instant biopic is sort of intriguing, but ultimately there isn't enough historical distance to take anything like an accurate inquiry into the character of the real Bush. Will Ferrell's Bush is more convincing than Josh Brolin's, but that's not really the reason W. doesn't work. I think on purpose Stone avoids using anyone who looks even remotely like their character -- James Cromwell is so massively qualitatively different from George H.W. Bush in voice, appearance, and presence that the mind simply refuses to accept that's who he's playing, and Elizabeth Banks is a fair bit too sexy for Laura Bush -- because the director wishes to make you think about Bush the man rather than Bush the punchline, the soundbite. I get that, and I get how the noticeable usage of snippets of real Bushspeak (and his infamous nicknames for all of his inner circle members) are punched into the script to tie the revisualized cast to their real-world figures.

It doesn't work, though. Because it's going to be many years until all of the involved (guilty?) parties all finish their speaking tours and publish their memoirs, merely skimming from speeches and interview clips doesn't get the real measure of the man. W. takes George W. Bush's status as a born-again Christian seriously, but it also notes how his faith made him a more attractive political candidate in a sophisticated and even-handed way. It has a more nuanced approach to what some might call his birthright -- the film's Bush isn't handed everything he ever gets, exactly. It's more that he was raised from birth to hone a very particular skillset, one that makes it easy for him to repeatedly convince rich white people to give him money. In an early scene as a frat pledge at Yale, he already knows the name of every blueblood upperclassman who's hazing him. It's his business to know this stuff -- the business of those having the means to power handing the reins in an aboveground democratic way to their offspring.

Stone is good at showing events, as he always has been, but has difficulty rounding out his characters. Here there isn't an appropriate cinema ending for his hero/villain, so he and his screenwriter graft on a rather tired and false-sounding running thread involving W.'s deeply insecure relationship with his father. Here, they might as well be doing Trey Parker and Matt Stone's mercifully short-lived "That's My Bush!". That conceptually fascinating (but also truly unfunny) comedy took actors and actresses who looked like White House main players (more so than the ensemble in Stone's film) and grafted their likenesses, names, and props to a deliberately formulaic bad-neighbors sitcom. A strange idea, but in effect no different than what Stone has here, which is a film about characters who have the same names as the Bushes but have little to relation to the living humans themselves. I don't think the real George W. Bush is wracked with self-doubt about his decisions as president -- and that's way more interesting to me psychologically than some half-baked Joss Whedon plot about daddy issues.

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