Sunday, May 17, 2009

W. (2008), Oliver Stone's Bush Countermyth

Life hasn't been a lot of fun for me this year. Since February, it's been a painful, stressful, frustrating soap so ridiculous that if I wrote it as a fictional tale, no one would believe it. My health has taken a hit--I lost 26 pounds in a matter of weeks. In the prosperous, porkulous Civilized World, most people would no doubt be elated by this development but they definitely wouldn't want to go through what I went through to lose it. Things have gotten pretty bad. So fewer entries here. Owing to these circumstances, this one may not be among my best. I suppose I'll know soon enough:

For an upbudget, big Hollywood kind of guy, Oliver Stone can be a very interesting director, often a great one. The major focus of his work throughout his career has been historical subjects, mostly big historical subjects, mostly of recent decades. W. is his attempt at a profile/biopic of George W. Bush, one of the worst presidents the United States has ever seen, who hadn't yet left office when the film was completed and released. When the project was announced, it was assumed in most quarters that Stone, a well-known lefty, would use it to seriously strip the bark off Bush and his administration.

Those expecting that sort of well-earned thrashing will, I suspect, be disappointed by W..

Stone has an unfortunate habit--in his historical films at least--of falling in love with his subjects. Perhaps "love" isn't exactly the right word. He doesn't always like them but he tries too hard to find personal psychological motivations behind their actions and makes them more sympathetic than their real-life counterparts. This is the habit of a screenwriter, not an historian, and these motivations often have much more imaginative than historical. Stone is trying to humanize his characters but in trying, he sometimes ends up lying for them, making them into much better people than they are. He did this with JFK (with Jim Garrison),[1] he did it with NIXON and he's done it again with W.. The film has massive holes and many of them are present because Stone is trying too hard to make Bush understandable. Most of the uglier parts of Bush's early life--his drunken driving arrest in the '70s, his defense of horrific student hazing and so on--are left on the cutting-room floor, while Bush's service--and more particularly, his lack of service--in the Texas Air National Guard, which he used to escape Vietnam, are obliquely mentioned in only a single line.

Stone's thesis--that in Bush-as-President, we're presented with a moron who was completely out of his depth--is quite correct and Stone is right to present, as the defining moment of Bush's presidency, the infamous press conference wherein Bush, when asked, can't think of a single mistake he's made or lesson he's learned while in office. Where Stone fails is that, in trying to humanize Bush, the director sanitizes him by presenting him as virtually a clueless child being led around by ill-intentioned (or foolish) advisers. But a moron isn't necessarily an innocent. A moron can also be ill-intentioned and Bush is the best example of it. The incredible cynicism of that administration is almost entirely absent from the film.[2]

Most of the portions of W. dealing with the Bush presidency is devoted to the buildup to the Iraq war and on that subject, its sanitizing of events is most egregious. The Bush gang's cynical, relentlessly duplicitous manufacturing of a case for war from practically nothing is erased. In its place, the public pronouncements of Bush's cabinet principals--pronouncements those principals knew full well were false, misleading and/or unfounded--are, in the film's dialogue, just ported directly over into their private conversations among themselves, as if this was what they really believed. Whether Stone intended it or not, he gives them a pass on this, which renders a rather pernicious lie most of the portion of his film dealing with the Bush presidency.[3]

That isn't to say an historical film must be entirely historical. Very few of them ever even try to be. Strict adherence to history is, for a number of good reasons, usually problematic to dramatists. What the best of them try to do is distill the essence of their subject; to get to a truth about it, even if every event isn't presented exactly as it happened. In W., Stone failed at this, and it's a movie that's hard to judge as a standalone drama without reference to the events it portrays. It's easy to watch, well-paced, technically competent, as one would expect. The cast is certainly top-knotch in every respect. Josh Brolin becomes Bush. Richard Dreyfuss is at least as solid as Dick Cheney. He gets one of the best scenes in the movie when Cheney explains, with great vigour, his Grand Plan for the Middle East. The script offers a number of well-written scenes like that. Unfortunately, they don't cohere very well. The film is stitched together like a patchwork quilt, jumping between various moments in Bush's life without much of a common thread (other than Bush himself) holding the scenes together. Without reference to the real-life events they portray, these scenes aren't much of a drama and with reference to those events, they aren't much of a history. At the end of the day, they don't really add up to much of anything. In that respect, they're like Bush himself, so I suppose one could argue Stone got some little something right after all.



[1] But with JFK, this could be somewhat justified, as Stone was really just using the Garrison investigation as a vehicle for exploring the Kennedy assassination, not trying to present an overly literal representation of that investigation.

[2] Stone presents Bush, for example, as a committed evangelical Christian. It's a matter of public record, though, that the fundamentalist community to which Bush appealed with his public professions of faith was openly mocked within his administration, the office of "faith-based initiatives" blatantly used as a publicly-financed campaign apparatus of the Republican party. At the very least, this adds an important perspective to Bush's professions of faith, a perspective missing from the film.

[3] Bush isn't the only one sanitized when it comes to Iraq. In one scene, Bush suggests to British PM Tony Blair setting up Saddam Hussein by trying to get the Iraqis to fire on an intentionally mismarked plane in order to act as a pretext for war. Blair reacts with barely disguised disbelief. This was a real conversation that happened in early 2003 only weeks before the war was launched. Bush really made this suggestion. Blair was not stunned by it. It's a matter of public record, in fact, that he and Bush had, by that point, been involved for months in a conspiracy to try to goad Saddam into some sort of action that could be used to justify a war.


  1. Well, that is certainly the most informative review I have read. Even in tough times you remain a wonderful writer.