W. (Oliver Stone, 2008)

I can only assume Stone’s message in W. is that the roa to hell s paved with good intentions. It’s unfortunately only as the end credits begin to roll that this becomes apparent and it pales against the virtuous lyricisms of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side”. Though a failed film, W. is still an interesting failure and I have to recommend it.

Both the left and right have condemned Stone’s film for wildly disparaging reasoning. Speaking both or the film’s unevenness and it’s refreshing humanity. Though it doesn’t avoid the easy jokes and jabs at the president, the film still manages to be very sympathetic. The Freudian father psychology is painfully overwrought, though in principle, it does serve to understand some facets of the Dubya mentality.

As I’m writing this review, I’m very conflicted as to how I should treat it. It never paints itself as a documentary, though, so embedded with modern times it’s easy to confuse fact with fiction. I am not politically savvy as perhaps I ought to be, but I’ve been told my friends that so much of the film is inaccurate and fabricated, though I had only assumed this beforehand (what is real and what isn’t is what traps me). My feelings are mixed as result, and the only real conclusion I’ve come to is that W. of the real worl is an extremely elusive and complicated man.

For the sake of my own sanity, continue reading the review under the assumption I am talking about a fictional Bush rather than the real one, if it’s even possible for me to distinguish the two.

I am surprised at how Stone manages to strike a centered balance between laughs and sympathy. For every vocal misstep, there is almost always a searing pain that I’m misunderestimating a well… good person. Even amidst the boozing and philandering of his youth, the film can’t help painting George W. Bushh as a good man. You do feel as though you’d want him as your friend, and he does have the natural charisma of a leader. Even his apparent stupidity does not seem so great as he has a natural political touch and a strong emotional perception (there is more than one type of intelligence, and Dick Cheney aside, W. seems very much in tune with the intentions and needs of those who surround him).

Though presented at times with a tongue planted firmly in the cheek, even Bush’ religion is presented with sincerity. The film gives him the benefit of the doubt that he is a true believer, and he is not using his religion to his political advantage. It is, after all, his religion that lifted him from the depths and put him on the right path.

It’s unfortunately at this point that Stone’s political analysis seems to fall flat. Having successfully painted the President as a good, well meaning man the film seems to fall flat to persuade that his good intentions are not enough. The real world has made this painfully obvious, but Stone’s film unfortunately does not. Though concerned with the Iraq situation, the film paints this segment with too broadly with caricatures. I’m not suggesting the film should have dropped the comedy, but it should have perhaps been more thoughtful. Some of the scenes work so beautifully on both levels, but many do not. Too often, Dubya’s good nature are overshadowed by his need for cheetos. It strikes me as unfair.

At the same time, it’s painfully obvious that this is a man over his head. Not stupid, but unprepared and misinformed. He has faith that God is on his side, on America’s side and that’s enough to guide him right. The film paints Dick Cheney as evil incarnate, displaying and vocalizing the most crul and evil traits that have been thrown at George W. Bush over the years. Within the context of the film he is essentially the devil, persuading the President to do things he perhaps ought not, and often for the wrong reasons. There is an insecurity in his dependence on Cheney, who is painted as an opportunist, taking advantage of the good natured sluggishness of his President, bringing him down. Why Bush listens to him and not Colin Powell is never really understood. Perhaps he falls for the same traps and tricks of wording he throws upon the public. Powell is reasoned and clear, but he does not use catch phrases or “evil” quite enough to capture W.’s attention.

On the other side of the spectrum, Laura Bush is presented in the best light. Enigmatically brought to life by Elizabeth Banks, she is afforded humanity beyond ridicule (somehow, you never laugh at her, the only character really exempt from mocking). Motivated by intelligence and love, it seems she becomes the mirror of good in George W. Bush. It’s through her eyes we’re able to see the good in the man, and she is the motivator for change. Considering, it’s also surprisingly grounded and impartial. She is not blind to his faults, but she seems him for the good he is capable of.

One scene that stands as the very best of the film, striking the perfect balance of all of Stone’s ideas, is a re-creation of the press conference where Bush has been asked about his mistakes. He seems confused and is unable to answer, you are laughing… but are simultaneously heartbroken. Grobin’s performance adds gravitas to the moment, and it’s as if you’re watching a naked man drowning. Humiliated and broken by the idea of his own insufficiencies. I don’t think he believed he was without fault, but it’s as if all the flashbacks of his mistakes are flashing before his mind, and he can’t just pick one. It’s not a matter of pride, but immense shame that he is an imperfect human being.

As “With God on your Side” begins to play, it becomes clear that God does not tae sides because the world is never black and white. W. and humanity itself exist as a shade of gret and without acknowledging that, only pain will follow. In a film as imperfect as the man it’s portraying, W. is still able to touch on the few golden moments, shedding light on one of the most (in)famous of American Presidents, maintaining that he is only human. Does this means we should forgive him? Forget all the lives that have been lost because of his blunders and the grand assumption that with God on your side everything will work out. Unfortunately, though plagued with the idea that his own father picked a favourite son, W.’s striving to be the preferred in the eyes of God is misguided. He is well meaning, but there is no real understanding of consequences or limits. Without this vision, it’s difficult to guide others down the right path.

4 responses to “W. (Oliver Stone, 2008)

  1. I finally saw this Thurs. night, and I was very entertained by it, but I’m not sure at all how to categorize it. Stone’s “Nixon” was so imposing and “Citizen Kane”-like with its narrative back-&-forth, it’s experimentalism, its monumentality and of course its intoxicating treatment of power. There’s never any real doubt about the centrality of the protagonist: he may be a ‘fallen hero’ but he’s not an anti-hero, someone whose fate is really not of his own making.
    “W.” is almost a satyr play. Here the implicit contrast is between Dubya [as I designate the incumbent President] and Bush [as his father may be rightly called!]. The father is a man who paid his dues and won power because he understood its workings. Stone cleverly shows the confused depths of Dubya’s narcissistic, ignorant infatuation with his own supposed superior masculinity by having him upbraid his victorious father as a wimp, or by telling him “not to overthink things too much” while Cromwell’s Bush looks on at Junior, his face registering a kind of confused grief (like, “is my son retarded?”).
    As an old fan of Bush Senior, this is really the emotional crux of the film for me– how a patently inferior son is driven to surpass a man who’s superior merits it would really behove him (and the world) to come to grips with. So that, Dubya’s final nightmare becomes a kind of wish fulfillment for him– damn right, that’s “HIS office, not your’s!”
    I was at times curiously reminded of “Reversal of Fortune” during those White House meal scenes where Dubya’s advisors bat pieces of information and advice over the head of the president. It’s really a mise-en-scene thing, I think: it’s the closest the film comes to registering that same “monumentality of power” I’m talking about in “Nixon.” But of course, it’s farce. But the farce aspect, though at times very funny (as with Thandie Newton’s scene-stealing caricature of Condi Rice, which feels so palpably true) is also essentially tragic. At least Nixon and his politburo knew how to run things. These people palpably don’t know what they’re doing, and they don’t care. Rumsfeld scooping up his pecan pie hits the note that Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” never did, or probably never wanted to: idiots gorging themselves on power simply because it’s a free lunch.

  2. Wait, I meant his “final nightmare becomes a wish-fulfillment for ME”– that is to say, maybe Dubya can finally figure out that he can’t surpass his father and he ruined his country in his vain, self-indulgent attempt.
    but, this is a movie, not real life, so I’m not holding my breath for Dubya to make that admission . . . .

  3. Wonderfully said, you touched on so much I couldn’t articulate, or else missed entirely. I think part of the interest the film has for me is that there is an almost indeciseness in what kind of film it is. I’m always fascinated by films that seem a little tonally off-balance. I’m not sure why.

    I haven’t seen Nixon, so I can’t compare. I’m actually largely unfamiliar with Stone’s work. I’ve seen JFK, but it’s been several years. That film though had a very strong emotional effect on me. The “back and to the left”, is just devastating… I think less because I’m buying into the conspiracy, but at that very moment that film strikes me as the dissection of a fallen dream.

  4. I think you captured the film’s tonal dissonance very well, in fact. At times, like with the imagery of Christ, you feel like Stone’s putting Dubya’s religion in the context of Stone’s own eccentric, mystical aspirations; at other times, the film is deeply sardonic about that, as other things. It’s not a masterpiece, but I found it fascinatingly entertaining to watch, and a considerable directorial statement for Stone.

    That said, “Nixon” is an altogether different beast, an attempt at an American epic ala Citizen Kane or The Godfather Part II that– I believe– succeeds wildly. I’ve seen it, I think, three times, so I don’t feel that I’ve “lived with it” enough (also, I think, Stone may have extended the cut on dvd); but it’s a bravura work.

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