Thursday, November 13, 2008

Improbably President, Improbably Interesting

Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring: Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Burstyn, Thandie Newton
Grade: B

The very essence of "Dub-ya", a moniker we're encouraged to adopt when looking at the poster of W. (which gives us that uniform pronunciation at face value), is that George W. Bush is not just a name, and at the very least had enough humility for a nickname. Indeed, the beginning of W. feels so geared towards pushing this empathetic view of the man as an irresponsible, beer-swilling Jack-the-Lad in the 1970's that I did rather wonder if the film was a little heavy-handed in its attempts to create as rounded a portrayal as humanly possible. And in the end it feels almost as token as the dead brothers of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash in recent biopics, but I say almost because a) these scenes at least feel like a prelude to Bush Jnr's almost conciliatory delve into the political spectrum, and b) because as W. soldiers on it becomes less and less of a biopic than an examination of recent American governments and the true derivation of their aggressive foreign policy.

But that doesn't mean to say that W. spurns the traditional biopic hallmarks, letting a thoroughly bored Elizabeth Banks wander through this film in two-minute pockets and generally shedding very little light on Laura Bush or her marriage to George. It also hops back and forth in time restlessly, and there was a point towards the end that I began to think it was to its own detriment, but W. deserves credit for spanning thirty years and making each segment of time seem definitive, if visually rather plain. James Cromwell as Bush Snr. is more than a little stolid in a role that requires as much sternness as you'd expect from both a disgruntled father and an old-guard republican, and the repetitiveness of the father and son exchanges expose screenwriter Stanley Weiser's lack of insight as to just what on earth went on between the two, which feels like it ought to amount to something more sinister and a lot less bland. What we do learn is that "Poppy" was perturbed by his son's inability to hold down a job and find a suitable path in life, but W.'s familial vanilla is arduous to pore over, and the urge to purse your lips Miranda Priestley-style and exclaim "Am I reaching for the stars here?" is an increasingly overpowering one.

Still, routineness is perhaps a concession W. must and is certainly willing to make, and it's a blot on a largely successful canvas. This political drama manages to make an issue discussed to death (the Iraq war) feel as alien to us as all those pre-20th century empirical battles, where world leaders seemingly preferred quarrel to peace. Contemporary politics is hard to demonstrate, not least because we're so familiar with how it's perceived and presented - particularly in the media. For all of the fluency that Stephen Frears' The Queen exhibited it couldn't shrug off all those blatant stereotypes that we associate with the Royal Family and the government. But if life is a cartoon nobody told Oliver Stone, or the makers of W., or indeed the actors portraying the members of the presidential inner-circle, who (save Thandie Newton's hilarious face-pulling as a supposed Condoleeza Rice) carry off a debate that feels authentic and remarkably original. Its very presentness and the problems that that poses is indicative of how, in many ways, the entire setup of this film seems to work against success - not least because it's about someone who very few people like (twenty-odd percent of Americans according to opinion polls, and precious little outside of the continent). As it turns out, sitting around a table discussing weapons of mass destruction and, on occasion, the dreaded oil issue, feels a lot less self-conscious than you (or certainly I) might have imagined.

It might look as if Oliver Stone is winding down with age, tackling tricky subjects with firm neutrality (see World Trade Center), but in this venture he's proven right. Contrary to popular belief "Dub-ya" is not the spawn of the devil and is in fact as clumsy as he sounds. Portraying George Bush as a simple, passive and often ignorant President is the best way to go, and it works. Do I feel like I know the most powerful man in the world a little better now? Maybe. Not an awful lot, that's for sure. But it at least makes him, and our current political climate, clear and accessible. I'm a firm believer that fictional roles generally offer a bigger challenge to actors, but it would take a lot to convince me that there's a bigger burden to bear for an actor this year than Josh Brolin's task as the detested Pres. Brolin has an admittedly modest gamut but, then again, it's difficult to believe Bush himself has vast emotional capacity, and so the real task is very similar to Mirren's turn as Elizabeth Windsor in that he has to get us to relate in some way to this political nightmare. He has the hot-headed exasperation of a young tearaway, and even when he becomes the familiar grey-haired awkward figurehead it feels like his early days have somewhat shaped him and in a way still linger in his blunt, decisive, even impetuous nature. He gives Bush an intricacy and depth (of development if not personality) that emerges as something surprising. Defiant really of the measured, uniform, and sometimes rigid format W. can't shake off.

As the wheels begin to come off of the Iraq War wagon we're given a metaphoric sequence. Bush is chasing a baseball hit to centre field, and as he pauses to measure up the catch the ball disappears entirely. He's lost it; his grip is gone, judgement forever tarnished. It's an unapologetically basic attempt to demonstrate the realisation of a complex and dire situation, but by that time is a more-than-fitting method of displaying the man's self-evaluation. Like "Dub-ya", what you see is what you get. Devoid of much in the way of artistic swagger it's the perfect way to tell this particular story. Brash, uncomplicated, together.

No comments: