Film: Oliver Stone: W. (2008)

The most encouraging part of the aftermath of Barack Obama’s inauguration two weeks ago was the response from the rest of the world: the parties in Kenya, the good wishes from leaders across the globe.  I worked with two separate British production crews last week, both of whom seemed as relieved as any Americans I know to have not just a brilliant, charismatic black man in office, but a near-polar opposite of his predecessor, who sat stone-faced at the Capitol as Obama, standing a few feet away, tore down the former administration’s ideology, sharply criticizing both its excesses and its shortcomings as decidedly – if not in so many words – un-American.  In the two weeks since, a lot of us have been in a sort of slushy haze of happiness, as though we’ve finally discarded a bad relationship and started a new one that shows how much the last one hurt.

In that light, Oliver Stone’s W. is a curious thing.  I’m glad I saw it first when it came out in theaters, before the election, when McCain and Palin still stood a chance at the White House and resentment for George W. Bush still hung heavily around our collective neck.  Now, post-election, post-inauguration, W. feels at once like a better film and an unwelcome, redundant specter of the old relationship we abandoned.  With a new love in place, the old can’t serve us anymore, even in its instructive failure.  Or maybe we just don’t want it to.

It’s not without some irony that Oliver Stone makes this film.  He was once the most energetic of American filmmakers, splashing his guts across the screen with an artful wrecklessness approaching dementia, threatening to decog the gears with brute, impassioned force.  He wound up with pseudo-masterpieces like Born of the Fourth of July (1989), JKF (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), and Nixon (1995), gorgeous, lustful films hampered only by Stone’s interpersonal ineptitude; he simply cannot build complex dynamics between characters with any tact or subtlety, and any scene that demands it clogs with syrup.  Stone is a man’s bleeding-heart man, filled with gutteral, inarticulate emotion that flows best with vinegar, with aggression.  The most visceral relationship in any of his films is between Mickey and Mallory, in part because Stone recruited two of the boldest young actors alive to play them, but also because when Mickey and Mallory are not making love with the extravagance of teenagers, they’re killing people – perhaps the least tactful act imaginable.

Extravagance is Stone’s specialty, but since the mid-90s, there’s been another dimension to his films that has alternatively served him well and destroyed his expressionistic cache.  It’s a sort of cartoonish excess, the other side of a tenuous tonal line that, until Natural Born Killers, he never really crossed, although he was clearly aching to.  He treated his last great film, Nixon, with his usual restrained solemnity, but his next film, U-Turn (1997), displays a grostesque lampoonery – a black, black circus of slapdash behavior, disgusting in its excess.  His camera, never a stranger to vertigo, reels off the reels, and his storytelling collapses in a viscous overabundance of phlegm.  A phase of Stone’s development as a filmmaker is over, and despite abominably tone-deaf attempts like Alexander (2004) and World Trade Center (2006), he never returns to the austerity that used to work well for him.

But Any Given Sunday (1999), silliness aside, is full of enthusiasm, a certain mindless joy of filmmaking that seems somehow beneath Stone but will serve in grandeur’s absence.  His strongest traits are on full parade: dizzying camerawork, staccato sound editing, red-blooded characters steaming into battle.  All pretense of sobriety is gone.  Back in the late 70s and early 80s, when Stone was writing films like Midnight Express (1978) and Conan the Barbarian (1982), he was a cocain addict; he claims he gave it up during the writing of Scarface (1983), after which he disappeared for three years before emerging in 1986 with two films – Salvador and Platoon – of great sincerity and structural looseness.  I’m not sure it’s at all unreasonable to suggest that now, after once again casting aside the druggy glut that characterized his work in the 90s, he’s gotten back to something closer to himself: stylish films of well-meaning simplicity, hinting at greatness.

And more or less, that’s what he has made of W. With screenwriting credit carefully attributed to Stanley Weiser (who places probably too much emphasis on Bush’s daddy issues), Stone positions himself as the film’s sculptor of sound and image, not its author.  It’s an unusual credit sequence, akin to Elton John putting Bernie Taupin’s name before his own, and serves to distance Stone from W.‘s content.  He gets to paint Bush instead, to color him with a mixture of Josh Brolin’s characterization and visual aplomb – endlessly stuffing his face, skulking Nixon-like through rooms, kicking his feet up, all captured with a camera that embraces Brolin’s performance with an exaggerated warmth, a wool blanket a touch too heavy for the weather.  The effect is light comedy, just shy of affection.  Criticized in the past for humanizing Nixon, Stone seems content to view Bush as a self-caricature, a sincere man whose essential fecklessness shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  But his actions do have consequences, and Stone ultimately excoriates him as oblivious, his camera crawling close into Brolin’s eyes as they peer out at a world far too big and ambiguous for him.

Still, it’s hard not to see the parallels between Bush and Stone: men who live by their gut before their brains, gorging compulsively and expressing with relish – not to mention endowed with names of such perfectly earthy simplicity – and I think Stone, in spite of himself, feels a certain brotherly compassion for Bush.  The world has grown increasingly unforgiving of Bush, embittered over his staunch neglect of human rights and international cooperation, and Stone’s sad-clownish portrait smacks of an apology more than anything else.  Bush, he suggests, really was misunderstood, misunderestimated; he might has made a good leader if he weren’t so understandably fettered with the need to be appreciated.  I don’t know if this is the right instinct on Stone’s part.  In a sense it’s beside the point, because Stone gets to play with his camera for two hours at Bush’s expense, and the chuckles along the way are almost nostalgic for us.  There was a time when Bush’s incompetence provided so much fun, as well as a convenient target for our anger.  He was a great cosmic joke, but for all our incredulity that the joke existed and bore long-lasting ramifications that Obama will now have to undo before he can get around to governing, the irony was worth laughing over.  How else to live with it?

Now, in February 2009, it just feels old, and so does the film.  Nostalgically, this is no more Stone’s fault than it is Bush’s – or Obama’s, for that matter – but it does have something to do with Stone’s approach these days.  He’s lost the drive to plumb and invigorate.  His broad strokes blend together without edges, without snap, and I suspect he’s happy with that.  And although there are scenes reminiscent of Stone’s dextrous way with palace intrigue – the magnificent setpieces with Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney, conjuring up the Axis of Evil and ogrishly strategizing the colonization of the Middle East – the problem is that the film lacks any broader perpective on Bush or his administration’s legacy, limiting the depth of its insights to Freudian impressions of Bush as a man.  The film itself drifts away on a breeze, pleasantly enough, but it reminds us of things we’re happy to put behind us.  The future is so much brighter, and carries so much awesome potential.

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