Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Once in a Lifetime: W.



To honor the release of
W. on DVD, I bring you one from the archives:


A startling work of empathy in the face of infantile Bush bashing, Oliver Stone’s ode to the baby boom generation defies easy labeling because it refuses to pander to bi-partisan bias. Rather than conforming to a derogatory and simplistic portrayal of the President, Stone seeks to use film as a medium of social, political, and emotional enlightenment; and in the process elevates modern history to a Shakespearean power struggle. Indeed, Stone uses this portrait of the President as a gateway to exploring America at this most peculiar phase of her existence, and the chain of events that led to this most unlikely President.


While W. features scenes set during Bush’s Presidency, most of the film focuses on his youth and the path he chose that led him to the White House. Some of the film’s most effective moments show an unsure Bush rebelling against his father--- in effect rejecting and resenting his royal creed in an effort to create his own identity. Because Stone is such a perceptive observer and dramatist of history he recognizes the oedipal dynamics of Bush’s story. The film traces Bush’s paternal evolution; in his youth he resents his father’s stature, during his middle years he is in awe of it, and during his Presidential years he surpasses his father in drive, enthusiasm, and global vision. James Cromwell brings a sense of nobility and dignity to the role of G. H.W. Bush, turning a modern President into a classical figure. While the portrait of Bush the elder may be a bit exaggerated for dramatic effect, it has a valid emotional tenant within the context of Bush Jr’s baby-boom identity crisis.


Stone turns what could have been an extended Saturday Night Live skit into a rich, slightly satirical examination of modern power dynamics. While the film does have a few laughs at Bush's expense, it never feels like we are supposed to be laughing at him. Rather, Stone creates a feeling of empathy while avoiding being outright piteous. Stone, who is a few months younger than George Bush, clearly identifies with the President in unique, unexpected ways; he documents his determination, his humor, and his ability to relate to people on a common, unpretentious level. He recognizes the sheer gall necessary for the unprecedented pre-emptive attack on Iraq, even while illustrating the folly of such a course of action. The story would be unbelievable if we hadn't lived through it.


The performances avoid mere impersonation and instead the cast embody their respective characters. Stone has always been effective at casting historical figures--- Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon, Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger; and the entire ensemble shines here. Like the sections of an orchestra, they come together to form a seamless illusion of sight and sound, and bring modern history alive. The cabinet meetings function like one would imagine they do: Condoleezza Rice as the policy apologist, Rumsfeld as the tactician, Cheney as the artful manipulator, Powell as the voice of reason, with Bush standing as the ultimate commoner of the group; a Frank Capra character with a subversive dark side. But Stone doesn't merely reduce Bush to a one-note buffoon, a superficial oversimplification that has been mistaken for commentary in the era of Michael Moore and Bill Maher.


What Stone does in this film is examine Bush's place within the lexicon of our current culture. The film regurgitates the facts of Bush's life that we have all become familiar with these last eight years, but it brings such a sense of life and energy to the story that it feels as though we are seeing and hearing it for the first time. Some critics have complained that there 'aren't enough surprises' within the narrative of the film, that it doesn't tell us enough that we don't already know, but to insist for a surprise in a biopic of a sitting President is to miss the point entirely. Rather, through the examination of George Bush’s life and times we can understand America’s current place within global politics. When I saw the film, it seemed to me that its unique insight and emotion was wasted on most of the audience, who came to take part in a condescending exhibition of the President’s weaknesses. While the film in no way idolizes Bush, it also avoids senseless vilification. It may be the first step towards understanding the last eight years.

13 comments:

Jill said...

I kind of like infantile Bush bashing....

Ryan Kelly said...

Tin soldiers and George Bush comin', right? ;-)

Hey, I like to pick on the President as much as the next guy. It's what America is all about.

Ryan Kelly said...

P.S. thank you for being my first ever comment. =)

Jill said...

Tell me how and I'll put a link on my blog so the same people who don't read mine can not read yours :)

Jill said...

Well, there are a whole lot more dead to count in Iraq than there were in Ohio, but yes, same sentiment.

Adam said...

Guess who? It's Icebox, that's who!

Ryan Kelly said...

Yeah, I was gonna tell you I took the damned thing off private, but you never got back to me like a week ago!

Whaz crackin'?

Adam said...

lol, well I was never sure if it was actually going to work, so naturally I just, well... procrastinated.

We gotta get Eva and mj to come here, too. And worov, perhaps? Let's bring the whole freaking wild bunch while we're at it!

Ryan Kelly said...

No doubt. But, if MJ comes, I may have to turn on comment moderation. I don't think he's gonna be too happy with my 3000+ word Batman piece. =P

Emily said...

Oh, don't be a geek. There's no reason the Batman war shouldn't overrun this corner of the internets, too.

Emily said...

P.S. Post that shit already.

Ryan Kelly said...

Internets, as in more than one?

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