Never mind about spin — “W.” is a dizzying experience, even by Oliver Stone standards.
While I certainly won’t attempt to speak for everyone here (even though the view of our narrowly elected president has never been closer to unanimous), I can report that I watched “W.” in a deeply pleasurable state of interpretive red alert, taking measure of any and all gulfs between a White House official’s original “performance” and his or her uncannily re-created one.
As Stone is fully aware, his hall of mirrors looks even more wildly reflective for our constant sense that the “real” W. has himself been acting in strained emulation of others — of Pappy, the Gipper, God, or, as my MCAD students duly instructed me, Paul Newman’s Hud, another good ol’ Texas cowboy trying and failing to earn his father’s spurs.
Sports enthusiast that he is, George W. Bush himself might appreciate that his unlikely biopic is something of an athletic exercise for the viewer. As for me, the critic whom he’d surely call a “latte-sippin’ lefty,” I staggered out of “W.” as if from a marathon session of hot yoga — exhausted but at peace and somehow … cleansed.
Really? Purified by the acid-dropping maker of “Natural Born Killers”?
A less assaultive director
Stone’s reputation as a reckless agitator has persisted mainly on the basis of “JFK” (1991), whose assaultive montage shot back in anger at the Warren Commission and in the process collaterally damaged a half-dozen other powerful groups — the Mafia, the CIA, Hollywood, the corporations, the military-industrial complex, Kevin Costner-haters, et al. But hasn’t the filmmaker been acting less like a terrorist and a lot more like a Buddhist lately?
Between his criminally prosecuted “World Trade Center,” widely misperceived as a right-wing patriot act, and now “W.” (opening in theaters today), Stone, if not recognizably to all his reviewers, has been cultivating his calm side, dealing with national trauma — namely, 9/11 and the Bush administration — in a manner that feels, at least to me, like a call for healing.
Or a work of exorcism. In “W.,” Stone’s meticulous reenactment of the public and private Bush, mythic and televised, announced and uncovered, the filmmaker effectively seizes control of the grand narrative from the president and his expert magicians. The release of the movie in thousands of theaters, while its subject is still in office, is its own proof that the official White House story has reached what an old-fashioned movie would announce explicitly as “The End.”
Borrowing from Karl Rove’s own brilliant directorial sleight-of-hand, Stone insists that if we can faithfully stage this eight-year farce ourselves, playing it straight in recognition that such dark comedy needs no exaggeration to look absurd, then we can lower the curtain, too. As Bush admitted in a legendarily naked press conference, “Maybe I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be.” You can say that again — and as W., Stone’s fearless actor, Josh Brolin, has.
Chronology falls away
Stone’s virtuoso editing in “W.” goes far beyond his swift progression from, for example, “Mission Accomplished” to the explosion of roadside bombs. Indeed, the cutting reaches a point about halfway through where chronology completely falls away, where even dates like “1971” or “2001” aren’t needed to clarify his psychoanalytic treatment of the amnesiac president we know backwards and forwards.
In part because Stone’s own father was an investment banker — and because “W.,” like the director’s “Wall Street,” was written by Stanley Weiser — I had hoped that the narrative of this quickly assembled movie would zoom all the way ahead to the Near-Great Depression of 2008. After all, Stone is the auteur who scrambled to splice a blink-and-you’d-miss-it snippet of O.J.’s speeding white Bronco into release prints of “Natural Born Killers” in ’94, more than a year before the Juice stood trial. But while “W.” isn’t quite current on all counts, it’s contemporary enough. Indeed, the film’s most rigorous re-creation — Bush’s “uranium” speech, rendered in pixilated video textures just as “JFK” recaptured every Super-8 scratch on the Zapruder film — includes the real (and really revealing) reactions of Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
I can imagine that some viewers will assert that there’s Kerryesque flip-flopping in Stone’s interpretation of Bush and his closest advisers, and they’ll be right. One minute Laura (Elizabeth Banks, fearless herself) is critical of her hubby, and the next she’s not. In the darkened cocoon of the First Bedroom, more removed from war than any bomb shelter, Laura offers to cheer up her fallen man with a pair of tickets to his beloved Broadway musical “Cats,” and suddenly it seems like old times again. Or maybe not. Meeting the prime minister on royal territory, Stone’s W. tells Tony Blair that the “start date” for the Iraq War is March 10, 2003 — as though he were a studio executive launching a global blockbuster campaign. But by the end, aspiring ballplayer Bush can’t picture a winning catch even in his dreams.
There’s catharsis in this, of course, just as “World Trade Center” shrewdly offered a way out of our collective rubble in the flashback image of America’s potential to unite in grief and acceptance — whatever one’s party affiliation — on the morning of 9/12/01. Possibility is unlimited for anyone who dares to (re)write history; behind the war room’s closed doors, for all we know, anything could’ve happened. Maybe grave-faced Colin Powell acted the droll comedian on his way out of the administration? Played in the film by Jeffrey Wright, Powell runs down the list of W.’s “Coalition of the Willing” and adds, “Don’t forget the 90 Mongolians — and they’re damn good wrestlers, too.”
Strong cast throughout
Brolin deserves to be bronzed for having so convincingly slithered into W.’s skin. But the rest of Stone’s cast is strong as well. As Karl Rove, Toby Jones subtly acts the geeky author of Dubya’s script — a profoundly cynical man for whom the presidential election is “about who Joe Blow wants to sit down and have a beer with.” (And now it’s Joe Plumber.) Richard Dreyfuss has Dick Cheney’s distanced smirk down cold — ice cold. As Condoleezza Rice, Thandie Newton interprets the sometimes grotesquely contorted face of the administration’s lone female as the pained result of playing second or third fiddle — a secretary, literally picking up spilled papers and rarely speaking her mysterious thoughts aloud, except to say, for instance, that she’d be delighted to get Putin on the phone. As for Paul Wolfowitz, whatever is lacking in Dennis Boutsikaris’ cameo turn gets a boost from W.’s typically inarticulate complaint: “Wolfy, don’t get that look on your face!”
I fear I’m making Stone sound like a potshot-taking smartass here, when the fact is that his punch lines in “W.” are funny in part for being so believably ridiculous. So, too, are the situations, from W.’s mid-’60s frathouse hazing (compare its period intoxication to “The Doors”!) and his late-’70s poker-fueled bid for the “family business” to his literal interpretations of brighter men’s metaphors — pulling lettuce from his presidential sandwich when Cheney only meant to suggest that things like stray nukes, not leafy greens per se, can sometimes be remotely dangerous.
Like Alexandra Pelosi’s unsettling documentary “Journeys With George,” “W.” doesn’t ignore the man’s charm. Banks’ soon-to-be-Bush says it best by calling her suitor a “devil in a white hat.” Thus Stone proceeds to cast out this insidiously persuasive evil spirit. Cinematic references are scarce in “W.” compared to most other Stone films, but at times this one looks a lot like “Forrest Gump” — that sneakily critical movie whose massive popularity in ’94 should’ve scared voters silly with the reminder that stupid is as stupid does. As W. says consolingly to Poppy, “Just don’t think about it too much — that screws you all up.”
What great courage Stone displays by putting his audience in the feeble mind of George W. Bush — most indelibly in a scene of booze-soaked W. jogging, collapsing in pain, looking up at the trees, and suddenly seeing the face of his lord God, just like the miraculously saved Port Authority cops in “World Trade Center.” No wonder that, unlike Stone’s film noir-ish “Nixon,” “W.” is bathed, cinematographically speaking, in a heavenly light.
Will the holy life eventually deliver W. from his pain? Not likely, according to Stone. Both international stage and potato’s couch — where Dubya nearly chokes to death on O’Douls and a pesky pretzel — look equally, pitifully, oppressively lonely in “W.” Some will argue that Stone ought to have made this movie in 2003 or 2004 — but it’s plain to see that he barely got it made and released in ’08. Still others will say that this historically unprecedented display of near-instant dramatization is too merciful. I’d say that Stone knows he can’t punish W. any more severely than the man can punish himself simply by living.
Rob Nelson, a member of the National Society of Film Critics, writes about movies for MinnPost.