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W. (2008)

Dead Meat

Goddammit. I've gotta stop getting excited about films. Between Oliver Stone's W. and this summer's The Dark Knight, this has been a rough couple of months--marked, sadly, by torpedoed expectations and bad times at the movies...

Both films, coincidentally enough, share two commonalities. They both sport great trailers that have absolutely nothing to do with the actual movies, and they both feature Oscar-caliber performances completely undeserving of the surrounding material. In the case of The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger delivered the goods in a way that surpassed the hype (until his final thirty minutes, when he was undermined by the terrible script). In W., Josh Brolin creates a fascinating George W. Bush creature that is both the genuine article and a weird caricature that is impossible not to admire--in terms of performance if not conduct...

The starring role aside, W. is an utter mess, a complete waste of time, and a film wholly lacking in Oliver Stone's finger prints. Its Tarantino-style flashback/flash-forward structure serves only to mask the fact that there are significant holes in the narative and leaps of logic that would not stand up to a linear treatment; more on that in a minute...

From the previews, I'd expected a surreal, Dr. Strangelove-style film that mixes black humor with real-world drama. Stone, apparently, lacks humor in general, and fails to evoke even a chuckle--outside of audience members who have either not been paying attention for eight years, or who love hearing the same joke repeated over and over again (and not particularly well). Yes, Condoleeza Rice is a bizarre political animal with a grating Mickey Mouse voice. What she is not is a scrunched-faced personal assistant who twitters and snorts her way through her professional life; I know this because I've seen her interviewed and, though I can't stand her politics, I understand that she's definitely a person who commands respect. Thandie Newton's unforgivable portrayal of Condi belongs in a farce, or better yet, in an episode of Li'l Bush; that goes for Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Drefuss as Dick Cheney. Colin Powell, played by Geoffrey Wright, pulls the over-serious card as the lone voice of reason standing between Bush 43 and a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq; Stone can't resist underlying this point with fucking piano music during a crucial scene, which was irritating--but not as irritating as Powell's utter capitulation two minutes later, in the same scene. I understand that the Secretary of State rolled over, eventually, but as presented in this movie, there is not motivation or sense...

Which is the hallmark of the picture, honestly. Though Oliver Stone likely believes he has crafted a striking portrait of a son who so wants the approval of his distant father that he would sacrifice the lives and reputations of Americans, all he really does is paint a picture of a spoiled rich kid with a drinking problem who rebels against a father who expects better from his child of privilege. This is not at all a sympathetic take on Dubya...

It's also not a fair portrayal of history. As I mentioned earlier, W. leaves out a number of crucial elements in the historical narrative, such as Bush's cocaine use, his National Guard "service", and, most strikingly, the 2000 election and 9/11. By the time the flashbacks catch up with present day, we've jumped from 1999 ("Hey, I think I'll run for President!") to 2003 ("We've gotta do something about Iraq!"). This is the equivalent of telling the story of Jesus without mentioning the incident in the temple, the Sermon on the Mount, or that boring crucifixion-thing. Many of the excised elements are discussed cursorily in conversation, but I paid to see a movie, not listen to C-Span...

In the end, Brolin comes out on top, followed closely by James Cromwell as Bush 41 (though he avoids imitation--thankfully--he manages to convey the frustrated wimpiness of the man) and Elizabeth Banks. Her Laura Bush is smart and sexy, and completely, unconvincingly attracted to George W. Bush. I buy their meet-cute, but not the marriage, the kids, and the silent acceptance of his demons--real and imagined...

Oddly enough, I think W. should have been an hour-and-a-half longer. But only if told in a straightforward fashion and with a mind to exploring what allowed the current president to become the man he became. This movie feels much longer than its two-hours-ten-minutes run-time because it is pure re-enactment and no drama. And the material that is chosen to be re-enacted is flat and uninteresting. Michael Moore made this movie four years ago, using news footage and editorial wit. Someone should've told Oliver Stone to save his time and our money...

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