Monday, November 3, 2008

REVIEW: W. (***)

I wish I had more to say about Oliver Stone’s W. (***). Not that it’s a bad film; rather, it’s just a decent one. I liked it. I found it to be entertaining and darkly humorous at times. It’s just that I expected more from Stone. He’s made, more or less, one masterpiece after another throughout his politically charged filmmaking career. Even in a film like ALEXANDER where not everything worked, there were still moments of brilliance lurking in the shadows. But look at the list of some of the films that Stone has been responsible for over the years: SALVADOR, PALTOON, JFK, NIXON, WALL STREET, THE DOORS, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY and ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, just to name a few. There is fiery passion and a combustible filmmaking style in every one of the films listed above. But for whatever reason, Stone, and his WALL STREET screenwriter Stanley Weiser, have played it safe in their latest outing. What should have been an angry, tense, and damning portrait of our deer-in-headlights President, W. never catches fire and is content to be a solid, down-the-middle excursion into father-son rivalries. And while W. is never bad at any point, it’s never better than good, except when it comes to Josh Brolin’s magnetic performance as our current schmuck-of-a-President, George W. Bush.
The film goes back and forth in time, documenting a college-aged Bush getting into alcohol fueled trouble at Yale, then segueing into his post-college years as an aimless boozer and womanizer who mucked up every job he ever got his hands on. From his life-long obsession with baseball (which Stone and Weiser cleverly use to bookend the film) to his family’s political importance, Bush was never particularly good with whatever came his way. We get to see Bush become a born again Christian and swear off alcohol after he realizes that he’s letting the drink run (and ruin) his life. We spend time with Bush and all of his supporting characters: Dad (the regal James Cromwell), Mom (an underused Ellen Burstyn), wife (Elizabeth Banks, radiating warmth as Laura Bush), Dick Cheney (a snarling Richard Dreyfus), Karl Rove (an oily Toby Jones), Condoleeza Rice (a squinting, grinning Thandie Newton, one step removed from an SNL skit), Donald Rumsfeld (a miscast Scott Glenn), and Colin Powell (a quiet, forceful Jeffrey Wright). Skipping over 9/11 and it’s direct aftermath as well as not covering any of his elections, Stone and Weiser instead opt for a tired expose on how W. never felt his father’s love and how he always felt overshadowed by his brother, Jeb, who gets almost zero screen-time in the picture. What we’re left with is all stuff we’ve seen or heard before, thus raising the most important question of all: why make the film to begin with?

However, it must be said that Brolin delivers a phenomenal performance. Never going over the top and infusing Bush with as much humanity as possible, it’s a difficult performance to pull off without ever feeling like a cheesy imitation. The media and Hollywood have been taking cracks at Bush for the last eight years so it must’ve been a challenge for Brolin to ignore all of what’s come before him (Will Ferrell’s SNL-skewering, Michael Moore’s documentaries, etc.) He’s got the drawl, the walk, the gestures, and the attitude down rather perfectly. But beyond simply mimicry, Brolin does something that I never thought possible: make Bush seem like a regular person. When he was cast, I thought it was an odd decision to hire Brolin for the role. Now, having seen his work, I can easily state that there is nobody else out there who could have given this particular performance. It’s a great piece of acting in a film that should have added up to a whole lot more.

This is not the review I wanted to be writing about this film. I love Oliver Stone as a filmmaker and I love the way he used to make movies. In his previous picture, the wrenching and often-times emotionally moving WORLD TRADE CENTER, Stone tamped down his visual pyrotechnics and told a straight-from-the-gut story of survival and dedication. It was the most un-Oliver Stone film that he’d ever directed but the material required a sobering approach to aesthetic style. And while W. is competently shot (by Phedon Papamichael) and edited (by Julie Monroe) and moves along with a nice pace and is never boring, there is nothing visceral or immediate about the film. Where has the razzle-dazzle gone, Oliver? This lack of immediacy is shocking considering how timely the film is; releasing a film about a sitting President has never been done before. Stone got his financing for the film from foreign producers and had no studio suits sitting over his shoulder telling him what he could or couldn’t do. Why didn’t Stone take more chances? W. feels more like an experiment, a film that plays like a supposed mirror of our times. And most interestingly, for a guy who has despised Bush for years, Stone goes soft on Bush throughout much of the picture, even creating a feeling of sympathy (or at least empathy) that I never imagined possible. And I just don’t get it. Who the hell wants to watch a movie about Bush and walk out feeling slightly sorry for the guy? I know I sure as hell don’t.

Maybe Stone and Weiser should have waited a few more years before making this film. In his masterpieces JFK and NIXON, Stone had the advantage of time and perspective on his side. W. is so in the moment that we’ve barely had time to reflect on everything that Bush has done to screw our world up. The broad-strokes are all well know, but the problem with W. is that it’s only the broad-strokes that Stone wants to show on screen. I liked the film but I wanted to love it. And while Brolin’s incredible performance ranks as one of the year’s best, it’s just about the only thing that I can recommend the film for. It registers as something of a disappointment for me, if for no other reason that I expected a completely different film from a filmmaker like Stone when it comes to material like this. He should have excoriated Bush. Instead, he makes nice. This is truly a shame.


Joel said...

I didn't care for it. **1/2 from me. I thought it was too soon for comfort and too sitcommish. Josh Brolin was the saving grace.

Actionman said...

Yeah...I feel the same way pretty much. I didn't dislike the film; it just should've been better and different.