The opening day audience at the Vista wanted blood. You could sense this in the air. I was in that theater, popcorn in hand, and I wanted it too. It was October ’08. A long time ago now and no time at all. I was standing in line when I realized I had forgotten to call a friend that week to wish her a happy birthday. It was mere days from when I finally joined Facebook. And the election was happening, right in the midst of the financial meltdown and everything else swirling around it. Including, of course, the release of Oliver Stone’s W. which had been raced through production to be in theaters before Election Day and get in whatever Oliver Stone wanted to get in there. It was a film seemingly made for just those few weeks and after that who cared. So that Silverlake audience which had no doubt been simmering all that anger since the end of 2000 wanted blood.
W. the film has been mostly forgotten since those few weeks which I guess isn’t really a surprise since not much blood was ever really spilled during the course of those two hours and you could feel the air go out of the room well before the end credits. As it turned out, that clearly wasn’t what Oliver Stone wanted to do with it anyway. Ask me what Stone’s films mean to me right now and you might get a very long, uncertain answer although I’ll still gladly sit through WALL STREET again anytime. Recently SNOWDEN didn’t get that much of a reaction out of me at all and as for certain comments he’s made in the press, I guess if he wants to vote for Jill Stein that’s what he’s going to do. Thinking back on some of his other films, JFK is a gigantic, manic cry in the night for a utopia that never was while NIXON is this gargantuan crazy thingamajig, long, flawed, big and messy. It’s not a masterwork even if it feels designed to be one but even its clumsiness has power and I can’t imagine it coming from any other filmmaker. The best of Oliver Stone is when he’s more than a little crazy, whether he knows it or not and when he downshifts into a more easy listening mode as he’s done in recent years it doesn’t really do anyone much good. And it’s hard not to want W. to get a little crazier, if not full Strangelovian, since having made the film at that time would seem to imply that’s what it was going to be, to not deny the anger anyone had been feeling during those years. Comparing the two, Stone himself once called NIXON a symphony and W. more of a chamber piece but instead it feels more like a loose jam session by talented musicians ready to swing which gradually, maybe before anyone realizes it, turns into more of a formalized performance of what’s on the page. It’s not in any way bad but still has a certain patchwork feel and never seems entirely complete which may in itself be part of the point but the ‘THIS MOVIE NEEDS TO BE MADE NOW’ aspect feels part of its limitations.
Of course, W. is the story of George W. Bush (Josh Brolin), 43rd President of the United States and his journey from hazing rituals at Yale to aimlessness and drinking while meeting wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) to quitting the bottle and finding the lord all the way to his position as most powerful leader in the world. It’s as notable for what it leaves out as much as what’s in there whether for legal reasons or if Stone has simply decided that certain details just don’t matter as much. More than anything it’s about a guy who sought glory, whatever that glory was going to be, since in spite of the silver spoon provided by his family was always looked at as the black sheep for reasons never fully articulated to him almost as if his own parents had an OMEN-like premonition about him from birth. So he fights back to achieve that success at any cost, knowing that in this life it’s who’s up on the marquee that matters and if you can present yourself as that winner, you can own the world. His memory is sharp enough that he can always rattle answers off the top of his head whether nicknames of frat buddies or just knowing that Iran and Iraq are two separate places but he’s not particularly interested in the nuances of differentiating those things or what any of these facts might actually mean. The film bounces back and forth between the heavy drinking of his early adulthood and the days in the White House preparing for the Iraq invasion but it never plays as if he’s personally flashing back to those events—he reflects on himself simply through the baseball fantasy of standing out in center field, which he calls his favorite place, forever in search of that empty glory. That’s all his inner life is, at least that’s the way it is through Oliver Stone’s eyes.
Written by Stanley Weiser, Stone’s co-scribe on WALL STREET, with various pieces presumably pulled from multiple sources, the seeds of satire are ingrained in almost every scene and there’s something about W. which feels designed to play as underground, unauthorized and maybe a little dangerous. Even the modest scale of the production, as opposed to the epic feel of NIXON, adds to this but it all quickly becomes overly genteel, Eisensteinian cutaways as punctuation not having the impact they sometimes do in his work. The approach is also a reminder of how certain characters in his films are very obviously meant to represent Stone—he’s not Gordon Gekko and I don’t think of him as Mickey Knox but he is Ron Kovic in a sense, he is the Charlie Sheen avatars of PLATOON and WALL STREET, Jim Garrison seeing the light of the truth of conspiracy in JFK, Frank Whaley’s paramedic in WORLD TRADE CENTER finding a place for himself in the world again, he’s whichever character is being told in giant letters ‘THE WORLD IS YOURS’ whether by Angelina Jolie or the Goodyear Blimp. W. could easily have been even nastier than it is but it’s held back seemingly to bring gravity to the personal drama of quitting drinking and discovering the lord as well as, I suppose, the all-important oedipal drama which allows Stone to connect Bush to himself (as any piece of publicity about the film reminded us, the two men were in the same freshman class at Yale) so for once this not-quite-yet historical figure can serve as his peer, literally, and he doesn’t have to reach too far for the parallels.
As W. begins, everything is already in progress and the meeting we witness isn’t about the invasion of Iraq per se as much as the message the administration is declaring, discussing the creation of the term ‘axis of evil’ and the presumed necessity of what they’re going to do. It’s all about perception which is the reality as we’re later told by ‘analysts’ who are clearly meant to represent talking heads on a certain network who stress that W. ‘didn’t fight in the war but he looks like he did’. He’s for real because of how he looks. It’s that hubris of what the man took from his losses early in life and after that deciding not winning was forever out of the question. The film goes back and forth in chronology but W.’s basic character remains the same, he eats with his mouth full and carries on conversations with his wife while sitting on the toilet just like every other slob, ready to get back to watching sports on TV with his Bologna sandwich and Cheetos for lunch. Stone observes this but keeps his excesses in check mostly limited to a few giant close-ups as punctuation and the sly body language coming from some of the actors. A few moments indicate the film could have gone further, as also seen in a few deleted scenes on the Blu, but instead of outright anger is the feel of blithe amusement mixed with some sadness, maybe coming out of how much Stone relates to W. and the paths the two took in life. Maybe that anger had left Stone by this point, bled out from the failure of ALEXANDER, maybe for him it only applies to the fall of his own youth, from what he portrays in the Oliver Stoneland
of PLATOON, JFK, THE DOORS and NIXON when to him it was worth getting angry. Maybe he’s just too aware of what seems to be happening again and again so the movie is more of a sigh than a shout, no thundering John Williams score this time presumably because someone of this intellect doesn’t deserve such a theme. Much of the score is somewhat low key as a result, with one of the most notable musical moments a gentle guitar strumming of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as the decision to go to war is made, the light glowing from above W. and the certainty of his choice.
The film also divides W. dealing with both his family and his personal cast of characters in the White House, which is enjoyable if not too fiery in its approach. Dick Cheney as played by Richard Dreyfuss seems content to remain in the darkness off to the side since he doesn’t need the spotlight, Toby Jones as Karl Rove telling him what the public wants to hear, Thandie Newton as Condeleezza Rice loyally deferring to everything W. says, like a henchwoman in a Matt Helm movie. The tone sometimes swings all over the place here but at least feels unpredictable as opposed to the family drama which is somewhat more familiar, James Cromwell as George H. W. chastising him while admitting his own limitations in a way his son is unable to do. Brother Jeb, except for a brief teenage appearance during a flashback, is an unseen Chuck Cunningham, off living up to the ever-important family name the way they want. W.’s break from his father is made clear in how he doesn’t want to be called Junior, but is still so desperate to make him proud that he listens to the two devils on his shoulders in Cheney and Rove. They clearly know how to manipulate him and he wants them to, each getting an equivalent scene ending with W. reminding them before they walk off who’s really the decider but their power standing right behind him is unlimited and they know it. He refers to speaking to the “higher father” about what he’s doing instead of his own actual father figure keeping the former President in exile up in Maine, totally forgotten about (as for his mother figure, the line drawn from Caroline Kava in BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY to Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush here doesn’t seem that long). To all of them it’s as if W. is a kid who just needs to think that he’s really in charge and all they need to do is follow.
Ultimately, it’s a guy who put his life together, kicking the bottle (and good for him) and finding Jesus, but he’s still the same guy, only more focused and now drinking non-alcoholic beer. That in itself says something about him, desperate to hang on to the guy he was, but you could also say that W. is in some ways a non-alcoholic Oliver Stone film, missing the delirium that almost seems like would be a given. Occasionally it comes together, particularly during Stacy Keach’s two scenes as fictional televangelist Earle Hudd offering spiritual guidance who plays the first with massive close-ups, siphoning himself into W.’s very soul, warning him against the pitfalls of regret. The film’s centerpiece, an 11 minute sequence detailing the arguments of going into Iraq, avoids such tricks intentionally and doesn’t really need them, taking the idea of what were presumably hours of discussion and laying out the arguments as dry and forceful as possible, including Jeffrey Wright’s version of Colin Powell as the voice of reason no one listens to, as persuasive as he is, not having any idea that he’s just a small part of W.’s private oedipal drama. The film focuses on the performances and the words circling around to the same argument over and over (“Drain the swamp,” says Scott Glenn’s Rumsfeld) while Cheney’s ‘We stay’ answer to the question of an exit strategy serving as this film’s version of LBJ declaring ‘Just get me elected, I’ll give you your damn war’ as Richard Dreyfuss gets the icy confidence just right as oil is talked about, oil, oil, OIL! Of course, in the film’s eyes the argument is just an excuse for what W. wants to hear to pull it off for daddy and allow the family to ‘honor our commitments’. It builds up to what may be Brolin’s best moment in the film as he takes control, completely focused and talking that Bush-speak that only he fully understands (“We’re not so sure who the ‘they’ are, but we know they’re there.”) with a total lack of regard for anything other than what he’s already decided. For once the film pulls off the tightrope of that language and the full gravity of what’s happening.
Much is left out, of course. Except for Bush 41 saying how he had to “pull your ass out of the fire in Florida in 2000” there’s no mention of the Florida recount, 9/11 is only referred to in the past tense (and enigmatically in the future during one flashback) maybe because Stone had covered the day in WORLD TRADE CENTER, there’s no mention of Katrina since the film ends before the 2004 reelection campaign, etc etc etc. For the purposes of this film, these are just details we know about already. Aside from one quick montage of war protests there’s not even that much of a feel of the outside world, whether for or against him (again, that part of the film would have been the audience in October ’08 watching it). This could have given the film a more underground, maverick feel but it never quite gets that wild, searching for the middle ground between truth and satire, sometimes coming close to the mark. In a broader sense the film remains compelling over repeat viewings since of course the Oliver Stone version of this story is never going to be a standard cable biopic and it is entertaining, probably better than its rep in the end. The sequences of Bush and ‘his gang’ figuring out how they’re going to approach the process of war are at times particularly sharp and, hey, I like movies with guys in suits talking anyway, it’s just not as fully formed as it maybe should be. There wasn’t time for that anyway since it was roughly five months from start of shooting to release. In the film’s eyes, for all intents and purposes Iraq is the W. presidency and the lightly comical nature of it all makes the film a little like ‘The Bush 43 Follies’ but also in its incomplete nature is maybe just ‘Highlights From W.’ the laughs correctly undercut by the brief scene of him visiting wounded soldiers as everything starts to crumble, trying to keep a brave and noble face on where this all led. Stone can’t satirize this of course and doesn’t try. All the film needs to do for these few moments is observe.
I was just watching a Rachel Maddow interview
with Stone from the time of the film’s release where she speculated that Bush simply wanted to ‘be President’ and would pretty much disappear from the public eye when he left office. For what it’s worth, Stone doesn’t seem so sure that he will. I won’t say revisiting W. after all this time gives me nostalgia for any of those days but compared to some of what’s going on now and what might be in the future it doesn’t actually seem so bad. It’s very clear that elements of W. are in there purely for dramatic purposes, certain quotes removed from their original context. Back then we’d maybe heard a few of the ‘You don’t get fooled again’ type phrases a few times too many. Now, of course, all this is in the past. W. sort of comes to a stop near the end as everyone realizes there are no WMDs, ‘nothin’ on nothin’’ as the President puts it, his staff eating pie as the world burns. And when it comes time for an answer without Cheney or Rove whispering in his ear he merely shrugs and has nothing to say. ‘The End’ abruptly flashes onscreen as if the film is telling us, we know that’s not really the end but what more do you need? We were so looking for blood at the time and so desperate to get all that done with that in some ways the film works better now as a reflection of that period than it did then, even if it still doesn’t feel complete. We know the ending anyway, or at least that particular ending. The past always seems more innocent as we get further away and new monsters emerge. The Rosebud in NIXON was that President’s mother, the pain of his poverty-stricken childhood. There are no flashbacks to childhood in W. which could almost mean that he never grew up at all, no Rosebud aside from the warning his father once gave him. The final scene indicates he never even figured out what that Rosebud could have been. In the end, or at least this version of the end, he’s nothing.
As difficult as it clearly was to portray George W. Bush without coming off like an SNL sketch, Josh Brolin does a phenomenal job combining the man’s stubbornness with a genuine need to prove himself, as lunkheaded as he always was going to be in doing so. You can almost see the wheels turning as he does the simple arithmetic in his head to determine each new step and the pride in his face when he assumes command of a room as if pulling off an impersonation of a genius. It’s not quite the real W. but it does communicate the empty essence of his very being. While there isn’t much to say about the character of Laura Bush as presented in the body of the film, written as doing little more than being supportive after their initial meet cute where she displays at least a little independence, but Elizabeth Banks is able to find much of her performance between the lines in her silent gazing while forever remaining by his side. Richard Dreyfuss, the one actor in the film who seems to have publicly spoken about his issues with it, transforms almost more than anyone while still looking exactly like himself, playing Cheney as totally focused, arrogant and quietly dismissive of almost everyone else around him with a dryness to his presence as if there may be intellect in there but definitely no soul to sell. It matches up well against Jeffrey Wright, quietly seething as Colin Powell, clearly aware how much his expertise is being disdained and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. Tonally speaking some of these performances do waver but I’ll give points to Thandie Newton for going as far as she does as Condeleeza Rice even if she clearly thinks the film is much broader than it is while Scott Glenn is oddly almost too lackadaisical as Rumsfeld whether it’s he or the film holding back a much harsher portrayal. James Cromwell comes off as more of a Bush-type than actually George H.W. Bush (the glasses are right at least) but the inherent decency he tries to project from that man comes through as the future he once foresaw never comes to pass. Though playing a fictional character Stacy Keach manages to find the truth in this material almost more than anyone with even a beat or two of ambiguity in there but no condescension in the religious fervor with how he plays his scenes opposite Brolin and the power from his presence is undeniable.
It’s a film that is more reflective than I gave it credit for at the time, but maybe without that blood spilled even to this day the experience of watching W. will never be as cathartic as I still want it to be deep down. So now we’re here, eight years after all this. As I write this it’s an ugly time. Just revisiting W. is a reminder of where we were then and we don’t know if we’re going to go back to that. Or worse. The fictional Earle Hudd warns W. about the pitfalls of wanting to live your life over again and you can’t live it over again. But you can’t get rid of your regrets either, let alone your dreams of what might have been. Sometimes it’s hard not to let out a scream in the night about it all. I suppose that W., at least as portrayed here, has decided at the end that those things don’t matter since in the future, as he reminds us, we’ll all be dead. In my mind I live those eight years over. I live the past eight years over too. It’s hard not to think about the past and try to put right all those time you fucked up, when you missed what was right in front of you. I suppose we spend way too much time in life missing things. That’s the way we are.