A temporary home and repository for television and film critic Daniel Fienberg, formerly of HitFix.com and Zap2it.com and one half of The Firewall & Iceberg Podcast.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
MovieWatch: "W [red period]"
"W [red period]"
Director: Oliver Stone
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 43
In a Nutshell: [Apologies for the long time between posts. I was unexpectedly called out of town for family matters and getting back into the writing swing of things these past few days has been a struggle.]
Oh Oliver Stone, you gloriously tricky bastard!
News comes out that you're making a George W. Bush biopic and everybody assumes it will be a leftist hatchet job. You [or your people, or your people's people] leak the script to said movie and everybody becomes *convinced* that it will be a leftist hatchet job. You release a trailer that's so bizarre and confusing that everybody decides your movie will actually be an unintentionally hilarious leftist hatchet job.
Then the movie comes out and it *isn't* a leftist hatchet job and it *isn't* really all that unintentionally funny.
Thus, thanks to the wonders of the ol' bait-n-switch, some critics, confused that "W [red period]" wasn't the thing they feared it might be, were fooled into thinking it's actually a good movie.
Full review after the bump, of course.
I know people who still insist that "Natural Born Killers" and "Any Given Sunday" are great movies. I don't necessarily trust those people, but I know them. To my mind, though, with the exception of "Wall Street," Stone's contemporary movies have never been as good as his period pieces. He's a master of history revision, nor clear-eyed contemporary vision. When he views a world that's within a decade of our current one, he's prone to either being blandly literal ("World Trade Center") or over-the-top literal ("Any Given Sunday") or just plain over-the-top ("Natural Born Killers"). Sometimes he just can't see the angle.
With "W [red period]," Stone is in "amalgamator" mode, convinced that be sheer display of enough pseudo-facts, a pattern or truth will immerge. And when the pattern fails to immerge, Stone does little more than graft on the most simplistic of Freudian analysis. George W. Bush is a spoiled rich kid with a so-so IQ and daddy issues? I'm shocked. SHOCKED. The flaw with being smack-dab in the middle of the Bush Junior Administration -- other, of course, than the reality of being smack-dab in the middle of the Bush Junior Administration -- is that Stone doesn't have access to anything more than what's commonly available. And even what's commonly available is only in moderate supply. So it isn't like he can look at the Kennedy Assassination and say, "You've heard one story, but here's the story of an obscure New Orleans DA..." He's working with the exact same materials that are available to everybody and every section of the movie that feels believable is already part of the publicly acknowledged mythology, or at least the publicly acknowledged mythology for anybody who gives a damn about an Oliver Stone biography of George W. Bush.
Stanley Weiser's script is all about squishing in pieces of research, no matter how irrelevant or out-of-context it might be. Some historical obsessives will be confused by the order of events or meetings that may or may not have taken place, but Weiser had anecdotes he wanted to work in, chronology be darned. There are three or four famous Bush malapropisms that have been wedged into circumstances where they didn't occur, with Weiser taking the license that since they occurred at some point, it's acceptable to resequence them or to shuffle them around.
In that department, the thing I want to pick on is the scene with W. and George Bush Senior that's supposedly set in 1990. Daddy Bush tells W that he's proud of his role as owner of the Texas Rangers and W says something like "Even though I traded Sammy Sosa?" Well, yes. George W. Bush has frequently said his biggest regret as owner of the Rangers was trading Sosa. The problem: In 1990, Sosa hit .233 with an OBP of .282 for the Chicago White Sox. He followed that up by hitting .203 the following season and .260 in his first injury-shortened year for the Cubs in 1992. It wasn't until 1993 that Sosa hit 33 home runs and Bush might have had some legit misgivings about trading him. Weiser's theory is that since Bush *has* said he regretted trading Sosa, it doesn't matter *when* he said it or *why* he said it. I can't help but feel that he probably did this with *dozens* of quotes and incidents and facts that may have been even more significant than the Sosa thing. I'm just pointing out the shoddy historicizing that I noticed.
Stone's point of view is that since he can footnote his movie, it's therefore true, which is comically disingenuous.
So the factoids are fused around what Stone decides is the key moment in Bush Junior's presidency, the decision to invade Iraq. Again, this has been chronicled in a half-dozen books and several TV movies and Stone doesn't have an iota of extra factual information to add. So it's all just reheated leftovers glazed with that "I want my dad to LOVE me!" subtext and served as a fresh meal.
As such, "W [red period]" gives what could absolutely be described as a charitable portrait of our currently president. "Yes," the movie seems to say, "George W. Bush is a bit slow. And no, he didn't necessarily have the qualifications to be president. But he did the best he could." The movie portrays Bush as trying to do well by his father and trying to do well by his country and maybe he would have done a great job if not for the evil people in his administration, particularly Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Karl Rove (Toby Jones). Bushie was an innocent victim, which still makes him more complicit than Gen. Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), who Stone treats at an absolute hero, the one wise and noble man in the Administration. Powell's polar opposite is Thandie Newton's Condoleezza Rice, who seems to have been an utter blithering idiot, if you trust Oliver Stone.
I've glanced at a few reviews that try splitting the huge cast into the "Great" performances and the "Thandie Newton" performances and I've even heard one or two people trying to say that Newton captured Rice perfectly. Everybody is uniform in their praise of Josh Brolin who does, indeed, capture the cadences and mannerisms of our president, even if his performance mostly consists of furrowing his brow to express constant confusion.
So I'm fine with Brolin, but I'll say what nobody else is saying: EVERYBODY else in the movie is awful, with the possible exception of James Cromwell, who doesn't make any effort at all to look, sound or move like George Bush Senior. That prevents him from embarrassing himself.
The rest of the cast seems to think that they're all guest starring on "Saturday Night Live" and doing a prolonged skit. Stone cast these people, but the makeup department probably has to take some criticism for just how shoddy and uncomfortable Powell, Dreyfuss, Rob Corddry, Scott Glenn and Ioan Gruffudd look. All of the contemporary political scenes play like animatronic exhibitions at some Hall of Presidents or other.
Overall the movie looks cheap and hastily made, which it was. The production decision is far sub-"West Wing," poorly lit, poorly decorated and mighty inauthentic.
With a movie like this, you yearn for either enlightenment or vindication, either to have your opinions reshuffled or powerfully confirmed. "W [red period]" does none of those things, preferring to fictionalize a factual figure in the dullest way it can.
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