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Friday, May 8, 2009
Dubya biopic in need of conspiracy
Some things don't require a lot of explanation. If I were to tell you I was planning a barbecue in my kitchen, filled my sink with kerosene and reached for a lighter, you wouldn't need to stick around to guess what happens.
Similarly, if I were to tell you that Oliver Stone was making a movie about George W. Bush, you wouldn't have to be Cassandra to predict an explosion. Hollywood's most pugnacious leftist, the director of "Salvador" and "JFK," taking on the embattled icon of red-meat neocons: The firestorm seemed inevitable.
And yet, despite the fact that Stone's biopic — simply titled "W." — opened just before last year's presidential election in the States, response to it was muted, nothing like the Armageddon that greeted Michael Moore's similarly-timed "Fahrenheit 9/11" in 2004.
Perhaps that's because by that point, with support ratings down to about 22 percent, Bush had so few defenders left, other than people with investment portfolios in homeland security companies. Maybe it's because the public was just "bushed" after eight years of mismanaged wars and ballooning deficits, and simply could stomach no more of the man.
The most likely reason for the muted response though, is that as far as Oliver Stone movies go, this one's carefully pitching to the corners, when it should have been throwing at the head. Stone's portrait of Bush, from his drunken college years through his eventful presidency, is neither sycophantic enough to please the right, nor enough of a hatchet-job to please the left.
The miasma of conspiracy surrounding Bush and his powerful vice president, Dick Cheney — their obsession with secrecy; their belief in absolute, unchecked presidential power; and the hidden agendas behind the decision to invade Iraq — should have been an obvious entry point for the director of "JFK." Instead, Stone goes for a vaguely Oedipal portrait of Dubya's psyche, how his life and presidency were shaped by a rocky and competitive relationship with his father, George H. W. Bush, the 41st president.
Josh Brolin ("Milk," "No Country For Old Men"), himself the son of a famous father — James Brolin, who starred in "Westworld" — who's taken a long time to succeed on his own terms, seems the right man for the role. His appropriation of Bush mannerisms — the smug grin, the mangled syntax, and, yes, the folksy charm — is eerily accurate. Brolin's take is not a parody — Bush's born-again moment is handled with respect, as is the pain of his first electoral defeat. Yet the overall impression is one of an amiable dunce with good political gut-instincts — and a fatal disinterest in detail and nuance. Scene after scene shows the president with his feet up on his desk and a sandwich in his mouth, a down-home lack of pretension or a lack of rigor and focus, you decide. Ditto for when Bush visits horribly wounded soldiers in a hospital: His concern seems real, but his strained cheerfulness seems inadequate.
"W." starts with Bush in the White House, on the eve of the Iraq War, and proceeds to flash back to events that shaped the man. We see Bush the party-hearty frat boy, getting into trouble that his politically connected father reluctantly gets him out of. An early run for Congress in Texas leads to a humiliating defeat and a hard lesson learned: "Politics is a kick-ass, skull- crushing war," says the young Dubya. "I'll never be out-Texaned or out-Christianed again!" And indeed he wasn't.
Midlife sees Bush find religion and drop drink, garnering some success as the owner of a baseball team, then as governor of Texas and on to the White House. Throughout, the point is rammed home that he's trying to prove something to his dad. So was the Iraq War simply because the Prez's daddy didn't love him enough? (The film posits Jeb Bush as the favorite son.) Stone's film does delve into the Cabinet meetings debating the Iraq invasion idea, with the moderation of Colin Powell (played by Jeffrey Wright) outnumbered by hawks like Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton) and the sneering man lurking in the corner, Dick Cheney (a saturnine Richard Dreyfuss.) Stone posits not one reason, but a convergence of interests — oil, payback and genuine fear — resulting in the decision to invade, and that seems plausible.
Much of the film appears to be based on books by Ron Suskind, Bob Woodward, Ronald Kessler, Scott McClellan and others, and that is the film's weakest point: All this stuff has been discussed endlessly over the past few years, and "W." contains no surprises. Viewers seeking the vast rightwing conspiracy of "JFK" — not to mention its groundbreaking stylistic construction — will be disappointed. "Family of Secrets," by reporter Russ Baker, should satisfy that urge, with a boatload of wild allegations that come tantalizingly close to being proven.