December 2008 – January 2009

Arts & Letters

Big thoughts, empire burlesque

By Luke Davies
Oliver Stone’s ‘W’

"The incumbent Administration has distinguished itself for the ages." So wrote the editors of the New Yorker recently, before clarifying: "The Presidency of George W Bush is the worst since Reconstruction." In an unusually partisan collective editorial published before the American election, they went on to elucidate, over several pages, the litany of erosions supporting their assertion: the near-doubling of the national debt, the quagmire of Iraq, the health-insurance mess, the shifting of the tax burden from the wealthy to the rest, the diminishment of America's moral standing in the world, to name a few. It was nothing new, but as an end-of-reign précis, all neatly stacked together, it was sobering. Back in 2001, the Onion ran its famous satirical headline ‘Our Long Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity Is Finally Over' after Bush was ‘elected' by a chad's breadth; looking back, it seems more prescient than comical.

Oliver Stone's rise-and-rise biopic of the life and times of ‘Dubya' was long awaited. Stone has a lively mind and a history of making lively, at times frenetic, films. Would he give us some insight into a man known, in personality at least, only through his comportment in press conferences? I had always thought that anyone with a competently functioning human radar would spot in Bush, in any given press conference, that unmistakable mixture of feckless arrogance and happy-go-lucky thickness that would be priceless, were it not so tragic. Nearly half of American voters either did not spot this, or found it to be acceptable in a world leader. In any case, Bush has had a big-budget feature made about him while still in office, a feat not even Nixon managed to pull off.

Stone's George W, as portrayed very well by Josh Brolin, is a classic yob - for half the film at least, until a higher calling forces him to temper said yobbishness and don suit and tie. Brolin makes a good good-ol'-boy, all ego and no understanding. The unexamined life is not worth living; in Stone's interpretation, Bush's life has been worthless. And this makes it hard to get a grip on the film's central character. The fault lies not with Brolin but with the material he's been given. There's no interior exploration. The point, no doubt, is that Stone believes there's nothing to explore; certainly, Bush has learnt nothing by the end of the film. But audiences want more, especially in biopics that are critical of their subjects. Stone does try to give us a psychological back-story: the narrative is framed by Bush's need to both break free from his father and win his father's approval, and the director knocks this into us with a mallet. In Stone's Freudian power struggle, Bush the Younger is cowed into seething, defiant resentment by Bush the Elder. For much of the film, George W is an ordinary redneck with a drinking problem and anger-management issues. But Stone's back-story is so overt that it seems cartoonish and simplistic. If that's really all there is to Bush's psychological drive, then what happened in the past eight years might indeed be all the more frightening. But it doesn't make the film an ounce more dramatically engaging.

Brolin's Bush has nuance, to an extent, but it's the nuance of a boorish ego responding to an external world of threat and obstacle. Even when Bush becomes a born-again Christian, we don't get the sense that it's a considered decision made with any profundity, nor a moment of being touched by the hand of God. Instead it comes across as an animal cry of great pain, a crisis of alcoholism for which belief seems to be the solution, and from which Bush will white-knuckle his way to his destiny, with Jesus riding shotgun.

Meanwhile, when weighed against Stone's body of work, the film comes across as decidedly placid, as if, aware of the contentious subject matter, Stone wanted to make a movie where he couldn't, for once, be accused of generating leftist hysteria. It may be a forlorn hope. The big studios at first didn't want to touch the film because they thought the script was too anti-Bush, while independent backers found the same script too sympathetic. It's certainly a film made quickly, and in anger. "He left our nation disgraced, in tatters, bankrupt," Stone said recently of Bush. "This guy was on a tear from the beginning."

Whatever its origins and impetus, W is tonally inconsistent. Oval Office war-cabinet meetings - a touch one-note, but some of the most interesting scenes in the film - are dark and Pinteresque, while the time compressions which get us to the presidency (Bush helps his father's presidential campaign, Bush owns the Texas Rangers baseball team, Bush runs for governor of Texas) play like farce or burlesque; some moments seemed so stylised it's like comedia dell'arte.

Richard Dreyfuss's Dick Cheney is manipulative, cunning and endlessly patient with his favourite nincompoop. "When we're in meetings with others, keep a lid on it," Bush says, in a private lunch meeting. "I thought I was, sir," Cheney says obsequiously. "Just keep your ego in check," Bush adds. "'Cos I'm the chief. I'm the decider." Cheney nods deferentially, the slightest hint of a smile on his lips. Dreyfuss approaches the role with a warm amusement that seems almost fatherly, making the vice-president seem even more sinister than if he had been played all cold-blooded and Dr Evil.

Of the inner circle, Jeffrey Wright, as Colin Powell, is the most interesting character. Powell, in Stone's reading, experiences a genuine moral quandary: the faulty intelligence that leads to the invasion of Iraq is known to be faulty, and Powell has the most trouble sweeping this knowledge under the carpet. Wright plays with shoulder-sagging weariness the battle to shore up a certain amount of integrity against the forces that would erode it. There's no love lost between Powell and Cheney, who Powell refers to, in one mini-spat, as "Mr Five Deferments".

Thandie Newton, as Condoleezza Rice, is an enigma. It's hard to tell if she delivered a bad performance that Stone was forced to cut around, or if it's what he wants: a secretary of state with nothing to say, an obsequious yes-woman, a figure of comic fun made up almost entirely of tics and half sentences, neurotic grimaces and odd mannerisms. She comes across as lost among all the men.

Odder even than Condie is Stone's version of Karl Rove. Toby Jones plays Rove as a campy, mischievous puppet-master, and the portrayal feels mean and almost homophobic. The internet abounds with rumours that Rove is gay; Jones plays him arch and stylised, like a villain out of Gilbert and Sullivan, and it feels, coming from Stone, like a straight man's gimmick. Still, it raises a laugh - and you wonder if it is apocryphal or true - when Rove says to his protégé, during the Texas-governorship era, "I'm just a little fairy, putting down a little magic dust for you." Rove nurtures Bush through all those years; initially a liability in news conferences, Bush begins to harness what might be defined loosely as down-home charm in the service of meaningless but emotionally powerful sound-bites.

Behind the comic ineptitude, there is something deeply disturbing about these sound-bites and homilies. It's the banalisation of language itself that we must fear most. All politics distorts language to some degree, but this coven of semanticists managed to flog its hide from its flesh. We see a little of Rumsfeld's notorious circumlocutions. We see Cheney able to get across the geopolitical essence of an argument. (To which Bush can only reply, "Big thoughts. Big thoughts.") But when language is fed through the sausage grinder of politics, we are left with the terrible poverty of those platitudes. "Everywhere that freedom stirs, let tyrants fear," Bush says, with John Wayne-like certitude. The worst, indeed, are filled with passionate intensity.

Through all this, Bush is controlled by vastly more intelligent men who possess a more complex will to power. In demonising the whole crew (Powell excepted, perhaps), Stone makes Bush Senior seem positively virtuous, as if there were a Golden Age of Presidents from which George W devolved. James Cromwell, as Bush the Elder, spends most of the film expressing disappointment and exasperation with his son. Later, when he says, "As a father, I'll be damned if I'll listen to people always trying to tear the boy down," it is a rare moment of heartfelt emotion.

But what a target for tearing down. "I think that he has limited intellect and limited interests intellectually," Stone says. "And I think what aggravates people about him is that he has no ability to admit any wrongdoing. There's just no inner life." The film portrays a man who had no real sense of what government might be: that glorious dream of fairness imagined, for all its flaws, by the founding fathers. He lacked all appearance of coherent intelligence when it came to spontaneous answers in interviews, but was very good at punchlines - often the very punchlines coached in cribbing sessions with Karl Rove. Reagan had the advantage of appearing at ease with both spontaneity and pre-packaged lines; even when his answers were homely fluff and spin, as most were, he was never a deer in the headlights. For Bush, when he wasn't coached and ‘on message', those headlights were home. If he was not actually America's dumbest president, this is what made him look like it.

"Some day this war'll be over. Then we can have our lives back," Laura Bush (Elizabeth Banks) says to her husband. When Robert Duvall, as Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, said, "Some day, this war will be over," he meant the opposite: after that, there will be nothing to live for. We can only hope that Bush, in retirement, finds something to live for - the birth of introspection, perhaps.

Bush's brother, Jeb, called the film "hooey", proving that as a politician, he may not be such a bad film critic. Oliver Stone is nothing if not sincere in his beliefs, but his canvas is too broad, and W is like the highlights reel of one man's powerful life. Stone seems to know the kind of criticism he'll be in for, and in his press has been launching pre-emptive strikes. "It's an urgent situation," he argues. "It's a time for film-makers to step forward, if they have something to say ... So this is not the definitive movie. This is the beginning. There could be other Bush movies by other people, and they may be very good, but this at least starts the process.

"I think there's an immediacy to the situation. I think the movie leaves you with the idea of ‘How did this guy get elected?'"

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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