Tuesday, October 21, 2008

W.

Sympathy for the Dubya

Oliver Stone's film W settles, in many ways, for a pretty easy depiction of W the man as Misunderstood Black Sheep who Just Wants Daddy To Love Him. This choice on Stone's part lets both W the film and W the man off the hook pretty thoroughly, and I simply don't understand the reasoning behind it. Stone's NIXON numbered Nixon's every nerve, sparing no one and nothing, showing me the shivering guilty little boy behind the permanent five o'clock shadow, and on some level it worked because it was apparently pretty well true. NIXON the movie managed to explain Nixon the man without excusing him, which can't be said of W the movie.

It has to be said, though, that NIXON the movie had a richer subject than W. the movie. Nixon's insane drive for power at all costs made for some fine drama, which W's bumbling fratboy who smirks his way to the top can't come close to approaching. There's nothing in W, for instance, to match the great shouting match between Joan Allen's Pat Nixon and Anthony Hopkins' frantic Dick. I'm tempted to say something about lesser actors for lesser Presidents, but there's more to it than that.

The most consistent attitude Stone takes toward W the man is bemused tolerant sympathy for Poor Lil' Ol' W. We also get W the Cunning Politician, sitting on a park bench rehearsing talking points with Karl Rove, and W the Zealous Convert declaring his politically convenient Christianity, and W the Clueless Boob refusing pecan pie because he's given up sweets in solidarity with the troops. There's some nice mean stuff in there, to be sure, but the edge is continually dulled by the constant return to W the Unloved Manchild. And Stone doesn't even bring up W's controversial and probably non-existent army career, the stolen 2000 election, or the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, issues that might more seriously lessen the sympathy Stone keeps whipping up.

Stone does manage a couple of odd moments. There's a dream sequence toward the end, set in the Oval Office. Bush Sr. is taunting W, they eventually come to blows, and W screams "Get out of my head!" and wakes up in a sweat. At first glance the scene is an embarassment, a film-student cliché, but on second thought it seems kind of appropriate for W to have such a pathetically obvious dream, one that any reasonably sentient being would be able to decode. I don't think Stone meant it as a satiric comment on W the man, but there's something oddly telling about it. The cry to "get out of my head" sticks out, because the film has never really gotten inside W's head in any meaningful way. Stone seems content to recycle the old stories without doing much with them, settling for some easy pop-psych cliches, of which this dream is the best and clearest example.

There's a second set of dreams or fantasies running through the film, more ambiguous and troubling. Every so often Stone cuts to W in an empty sports stadium, listening to cheers coming from absent crowds. There's something genuinely eerie about it, as opposed to the blatant obviousness of the Oval Office dream, a hint of the solitude that will in all likelihood envelope our man W when he's out of office and the crowds have moved on. In the final moments of the film, there's a loud crack from a ball hitting a bat. W. goes out to catch the ball, which never comes. The film's final shot is a closeup of W waiting for the ball, and waiting, and waiting…

I was reminded of the final moments of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, the last shot of Lawrence behind a dirty windshield, inscrutable as the film fades to black. Stone might have been trying for something similar here, but it doesn't really work with the film as it stands. With W the man, there can be no ambiguity. To paraphrase W himself, you're either with him, or against him. The fact that there has been no significant outcry from the Bush Administration should tell you how they feel about it.

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