After seeing Oliver Stone's W., I found myself wishing I had a little more time to think it over before writing a review; then again, I'm sure there are some involved with the film who found themselves wishing they had a little more time to think over the Bush administration before making it. Distance grants perspective, or so we're told; what could a film about the life and presidency of George W. Bush released while he's still in office really have to say about his life and times? If distance grants perspective, though, you could also argue that proximity grants immediacy, and argue that Stone's W. is not meant as a somber, serious look back but rather a cautious, nervy attempt to peer into the recent past, a film with, in the words another Presidential candidate recently borrowed, "the fierce urgency of now."
But W. has plenty of urgency; you could argue that what it lacks is a point of view, or rather a point of view other than Freudian family psychodrama, with George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) fighting for the presidency and fighting in Iraq as a way to earn the respect and love of his distant, driven father George H. W. Bush (James Cromwell). But to many, examining the inner life of George W. Bush is like asking yourself about the source of the lumber when you're being hit in the head with a baseball bat. We get a lot of dialogue in W. about the difference between the external and the internal, between ideology and identity; Laura Bush (Elizabeth Banks) offers that "I don't think politics should define a human being ..." while George H.W. notes that "I've always believed in leaving personal feelings out of politics." But in W., it feels like Stone doesn't even want to let politics define politics, and leaving the politics out of the personal feelings he's exploring.
W.'s tone is also bizarrely uneven. Some of the performers (Brolin, Thandie Newton, Richard Dreyfuss) hurl themselves into looking, speaking and moving like the real people they play; other performers (James Cromwell, Toby Jones and Scott Glenn among them) do not. This disconnect has the curious effect of making some moments in W. play like a wig-and-makeup slapdash parody of the real presidency it's supposed to depict; on the other hand, some would say that the Bush administration was, itself, a parody of a real presidency. Is W. a serious drama, or a nightmare comedy of power, privilege and parental friction played out on the global stage? I lean towards the latter, even if Stone plays his cards relatively close to the vest; there's a scattering of dreamlike moments, but the tone is scary-funny, even if most of W. consists of people talking in well-furnished rooms. What elevates it from psychodrama is what they're talking about; before the invasion of Iraq, Dick Cheney (Dreyfuss) explains how the exit strategy for Iraq is not to exit, staying in the region to take oil and leave freedom. "Empire. Real Empire. Nobody will ever fuck with us again."
It's a great moment, and there aren't enough like it; as Dreyfuss' Cheney, Glenn's Rumsfeld and Jones' Rove hover about W., getting him to do the things they want by making him think they're what he wants, you feel like Stone's filming the voyage of the ship of state and trying to get us inside the head of the wooden figurehead carved into the bow instead of the people actually steering the vessel. And it's a voyage that isn't even over; when Stone flashes up a climactic title card reading "The End," I stared at the screen slack-jawed at what was either monstrous naiveté or deliberate provocation; The financial system is in its death throes, American troops are still in Iraq, and we'll be paying for the Bush Administration in blood and treasure for years, if not decades, to come. It's not "The End" of anything for America; it's the beginning, but if Stone's trying to warn us of further adventures in the Middle East (and the film explicitly depicts the neocon interest in Iran),then why burn up screen time with W.'s drinking and thinking, both revolving around the absence of his father's love? Brolin does a lot to sell W.'s pain; actually, he does a lot to sell the film. Even when his Bush is a callow youth, you sense how he's destined for greatness; even when his Bush has attained greatness, you still get a sense of the little boy inside. It will, for some people, take a lot to make them feel sorry for George W. Bush; Brolin's performance may very well do it.
A friend offered how he wished W. was "Stonier," and while it's hardly an elegant turn of phrase, I know exactly what he means; Stone's a master technician, and he understands and exploits film as a medium in a way that's distinctively his, taking advantage of how film can be shot, cut, edited, affected and altered to craft distinctive visions and visuals in the service of his stories. There aren't a lot of over-the-top Stone moments in W., nothing to match the crazed inventions of Natural Born Killers or the hammer-blow clinical editing of JFK, but we do get a few moments of flash and flair, like W.'s post-hangover run where he has the epiphany to stop drinking, his face in such stark focus we can smell the booze leaking from his pores while the trees and sky above bloom and blur in the breeze and the sunlight.
Stanley Weiser's screenplay impresses when it gets up the guts to snarl a little, like when Jeffery Wright's Colin Powell barks to Cheney "Don't patronize me, mister five deferments ..." or when a news commentator notes of the infamous "Mission Accomplished" stunt when a flight-suit clad Bush landed his plane on an aircraft carrier and swaggered to the podium that "He didn't fight in the war, but he looks like he did. ..." But it also makes minor fumbles, too: Iraq war protest footage is cut over Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky," a '60s relic under post-millennial footage. (Whenever a filmmaker breaks out the Time-Life Sounds of the '60s singles for a montage, all I can hear is a roaring voice screaming "The bums lost, Mr. Lebowski! The bums lost!")
Weiser's best contribution -- which Stone and Brolin bring to life in a rich, haunting way -- comes in the moments scattered through the film with George W. Bush alone in a baseball stadium. At one point, he's reveling in the roars of a crowd that isn't there; in another, he races to the back wall to make a lucky catch; finally, in the film's final moments, Bush is ready in the outfield, hears the crack of the bat and races back to field the hit, even though it never comes. Perhaps Oliver Stone did rush this film; perhaps it could have benefited from a few years of perspective instead of a few weeks. But then we wouldn't have the perfect timing of that deftly turned closing image: W. opens in theaters as an election looms, as American mega-capitalism chokes on its own arrogance and greed, as dead American soldiers are still being offloaded from transports in flag-draped coffins far from the view of the press and the general public (and Iraqi civilians simply die far away). What started as parody and comedy builds to a haunting final moment thanks to Stone, Weiser and Brolin, and in W.'s final seconds it is not just George W. Bush who's waiting for the ball to drop, it is all of us.