Sunday, October 19, 2008

A visit with Oliver Stone's "W."

The biggest strength of Oliver Stone's "W." is that as I was watching it I had no idea just who this movie was intended for, so you can bring into and take from it just about whatever you want to about our current ruler.

The second biggest strength is Josh Brolin's portrayal of George W. Bush himself, but we'll get to much more on that later. First, a breakdown of what you'll see and what you won't in this mostly successful portrait of power.

After a rapid but not particularly mean-spirited run-through of W.'s missing years (you never see, for example, the man snort coke in daddy's White House or anywhere else), Stone moves quickly to his main focus here, W.'s leadership of the Iraq War.

And this is when his flick is at its strongest, giving a real sense of palace intrigue as nearly all his players disappear into their characters to the point that you almost think you're watching a documentarian's portrait (with the sore exception of Thandie Newton, who we'll also be hearing much more about later.) My favorite moment came as the decision was made to go to war - as the big boys are making the final call, our "decider" sinks into the shadows and seats himself beside Toby Jones' Karl Rove, a subtle moment a younger Stone would never have been able to attain.

But in this stretch and elsewhere you also sense what's most noticeably missing - any of the flights of fancy that made his earlier presidential flicks and other movies so much fun. When they do come here, as in W.'s dream sequences on the Texas Ranger's ballfield and a very ill-conceived one near the end involving daddy, they just seem jarring and take away from the otherwise tight story Stone is telling. I read in the New York Times that he once conceived another dream in which W. was flying on a magic carpet and raining bombs over Baghdad. As silly as that would have been, I still would have loved to have seen it make the final cut.

And after setting up a very plausible case that many of W.'s actions regarding the war and other business are motivated in large part by his daddy issues (and Stone gets a huge assist here from a sensational performance from James Cromwell as Bush the elder), he completely omits the biggest gift and burden that "poppy" bequeathed to his son: The presidency itself. I would have gladly given Mr. Stone another half hour or so to see what he had to say about the fact that if daddy's hatchet man - James Baker - hadn't intervened in Florida, W. would probably never have become president at all. That subject is completely brushed over here, but if you want to get a workmanlike but solid taste of it, Netflix HBO's "Recount" (and keep your eyes on Laura Dern, who just nails the dippy Katherine Harris to a tee.)

But what makes Stone's flick mostly work so well is Josh Brolin, who dives so completely into the role of W. that you never for a minute think you're watching anyone but our leader. He nails it so perfectly that you can read his performance just about any way you want to. While many will see Stone and Brolin's largely sympathetic portrait of W. as a strong leader who follows his convictions, many others (me included) will see an arrogant, more than slightly intellectually challenged and ultimate dangerous man. The fact that you can read it so many ways is exactly why you'll be hearing Mr. Brolin's name on Oscar night.

Cromwell is also exceptional as poppy, but another word of praise is in order for my favorite of the supporting players, Stacy Keach. He makes his first appearance about half way in as the preacher W. turns to after he is born again, and Keach gets to deliver the key speech about Christian love that makes (for me, at least) the crux of Stone's ultimate but subtly made point. How much you think W. has followed this teaching will inform your assessment of the man, and Keach just sells it perfectly.

And, finally, it brings me no pleasure at all to state that Thandie Newton turned in the single worst performance I've seen in all of 2008 with her "portrayal" of Condoleezza Rice. I've had a major thing for Ms. Newton ever since "Flirting," a charming little Aussie flick in which her knee socks just drove me (and Noah Taylor) wild (and for another flick that she just smolders her way through, I highly recommend Bernardo Bertolucci's "Besieged.") I think it's this addiction to her sheer physical beauty that has blinded me over the years to the fact that she really just can't act a lick, which is on blatant display here. Her attempt to capture the nature of Ms. Rice is the perfect example of simple imitation rather then interpretation, and it's almost as bad as Frank Caliendo's take on W. (which, because I love baseball almost as much as our president does, I've had to watch what seems like 10,000 times by now.)

As a last challenge, I wonder if there's anyone out there who likes the president more than I do who found that Stone had any kind of axe to grind with the man in this flick. In his public remarks, the director has certainly disparaged W., but his movie portrayal is about as close to fair and balanced as I could have expected, and almost as entertaining too. Peace out.


kat said...

I saw the movie this weekend, too. Your excellent recap makes it pointless for me to write my own review. I think I'll just link to yours. :-)

Given the trailer, I was expecting a more stylized movie. I thought the liberties that Stone did take with the film (the "fight" scene with his dad, his dreams of adolation on the ball field only to lose sight of everything) worked quite well, though I agree if he had dipped too far into fancy he may not have been taken seriously with this film.

All of the cast really worked for me. Josh Brolin was fantastic. It did seem an odd casting choice but I think he got the look, the swagger, the frat boy antics and the vapid look down perfectly. And every once in awhile you'd see a look flitter across his face showing a guy who's never really in charge of his own destiny and, had he been blessed with the skill of introspection, would have understood that he was not very happy, either.

James Cromwell was wonderful. He always is, but he managed to animate the elder Bush in such a way that you could respect him, on some level, even if you didn't agree with him. And you sympathized with him having doubts about his son's presidency and the people advising him but not wanting to publicly criticize his son. (It's a hell of a place to leave the rest of us, though.)

I thought Jeffrey Wright, as usual, was marvelous as Colin Powell. (Loved that priceless little moment in the situation room where Powell, under his breath, tell Cheney to fuck off.) Once again, Colin Powell is a maddening figure. Someone who's judgment and initial read of a situation you trust but the fact that he never stands by his own convictions renders those judgments moot.

And Richard Dreyfuss....nailed it. That is all.

I didn't hate Thandie Newton to nearly the degree that many other reviewers have mentioned. It is oft been commented that she is relying more on spoof than actually living in the character, but I didn't quite see her performance that way. It may be that Rice is essentially an unknown person, despite her high profile. I also thought that the tact was to show that Rice was something of a cypher and treated more like a lap dog than a highly degreed foreign policy thinker. Which of the two is actually true, I have no idea, but Rice has certainly never impressed me with her independence.

At any rate, I think I might have wanted to see that flying carpet scene as well. I've always wondered how on earth Bush managed to nearly choke himself to death---I wouldn't be surprised in the least if his mind were elsewhere and he literally couldn't think and chew food at the same time.

Handsome B. Wonderful said...

I'll be checking this one out for sure. Also, I want to plug "City of Ember." Just saw it and wasn't frankly expecting much but it was really good!! I did a little review for it on my blog.

Basically it's a fun adventure movie that is a kind of futuristic "Goonies."

Here's my review.

Reel Fanatic said...

I saw "City of Ember" too, Mr. Wonderful, and I pretty much agree with your assessment that it was a lot of fun ... I'll stop by and read your review tomorrow when I some valuable time-killing time at work

And thanks for your thoughts on the flick, Kat ... the "fuck off" moment was one of my favorites too, especially since they both played their characters so well that it still managed to be a surprise though we know Cheney's proclivity for profanity

D.A. said...

Thanks for the review. The movie opens mid-November here in the UK, and I'll definitely be watching it... although it's been a while since I've enjoyed a Stone film.

Reel Fanatic said...

It's easily the best film Mr. Stone has made in many, many years, d.a., and I think even nonfans like yourself will really enjoy it when you finally get a chance to see it

Anonymous said...

Good review, Reel Fanatic. I enjoyed "W.", and even though I am anti-Bush, I actually found it refreshing that Stone made a fair portrait of the man. It would've been way too easy to go the farcical route...since the real deal is tragically comic in itself.

Brolin definitely deserves some awards for his performance. Dreyfuss as well; I could feel the room go cold whenever he appeared on screen.

I, too, also posted a review of the movie on my blog :).

movie fan 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

Chalupa said...

Saw W over the weekend. Really enjoyed it. Multiple people got up and left during the film. Newton playing Rice was a bit disappointing, but everyone else was amazing. Brolin and Cromwell as Bush and Bush were great.

I also thought the film was pretty neutral and could be viewed as "good" with varying perceptions/viewpoints on George W's presidency.

Reel Fanatic said...

Wow ... I can't imagine why even the most hardcore conservative would actually walk out on this one, but I guess the world takes all kinds of folks!

Chalupa said...

Yeah, it was hard to figure out why they walked out. Usually when that happens in a film, it's easy to identify a breaking point directly related to content.