Wednesday, October 22, 2008

OT Fun: Stone, Bush, Nixon(?)

There is an interesting "discussion" over at Slate about Oliver Stone's W. Unlike most movie-related jaw sessions, this one has some commentary from folks who might know something about the Bush Administration. Two players are Stone himself and Bush court historian Bob Woodward. It's interesting enough to read.

I saw the movie last weekend, and I think that Stone fell short of his own personal best, Nixon. That's understandable, however, since comparing the current President Bush to Richard M. Nixon is like comparing MTV's The Hills to Shakespeare's King Lear or MacBeth (probably the latter). In both cases, the former provides drama while the latter provides tragedy. Stone didn't reveal his subject to be a roiling mass of contradictions and conflicting motivations, undeniably great and almost pathologically driven to wreck himself in his time and for posterity, but that's because I doubt George W. Bush is all that conflicted.

Richard Nixon could be a generous, progressive-minded visionary and statesman; three seconds later, however, he could be petty, vindictive, and nasty in the basest way. (Anthony Summers had a better turn of phrase along those lines in The Arrogance of Power, which is a little more gossipy than Ambrose's three-volume snoozer, but I probably didn't have to tell you that.) Even an author like Joan Hoff, writing a reevaluation cum defense in Nixon Reconsidered, has to call Nixon "aprinicpled," like someone is amoral. George Bush, on the other, hand is always George Bush. It's hard to dissect and analyze the motivations of a man whose public persona is, if not transparent, at least easy to read.

I think the other major problem with Stone's latest movie is, of course, the simple fact that we have been living in the epoch of George W. Bush for the last eight years. All of us are familiar with the specific incidents and general personalities that make up the story of the 43rd chief magistrate of the Republic. Any judgments about George W. Bush that needed to be made after 2000 (see, e.g., 121 S. Ct. 525) were made in 2003-4. Oliver Stone, to be frank, isn't telling us anything we didn't know or sense and he's not informing a decision most of us have already made. In the absence of a compelling character or novel story, what is there in a movie?

Well, there's cinematography and individual performances. Stone follows the Nixon formula nicely in W, but uses some weird dream sequences and other things that don't quite work. Indeed, Stone follows the Nixon formula without the Nixon ingredients. W is a far less experimental (or creative, if you will) film than its predecessor. Hardly coincidence, if you ask me, which you didn't. The technical moviemaking is fine, which is to say both that it's at least as good as anything else you'll see this fall, and that you shouldn't throw out your Criterion disc of Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Josh Brolin deserves praise for his portrayal of George W. Bush, and you'll hear that elsewhere. What I found impressive was James Cromwell's turn as George H.W. Bush, however. That veteran character actor, which isn't an insult, created a man who appeared bound by tradition and propriety, but still expressing his emotional side as he knew how. Everyone ranges from very good (Toby Jones' turn as Rove) to a Pacino-esque, scenery-chewing caricature (Dreyfuss. Cheney. QED)

It's worth a view, and, with the increasing uniformity of quality to be found in most movie-theater popcorn selections, to say nothing of DIY Flavacol and "butter" stations, you'll get something out of the trip. Even if it is a clogged artery.


At 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Josh Brolin did a convincing Dubya, though he reminded me a lot of his cowboy character from No Country for Old Men... over all, i don't doubt that 'W.' will have the effect Oliver Stone desired


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