October 15, 2008

W., round 2.

W Before picking up where we left off, that is, the first round of reviews and related profiles, interviews and so on, I've just got to note that Kevin B Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz have launched a series at Moving Image Source: "Oliver Stone's George W Bush biopic W., opening October 17, is his latest foray in a genre that has yielded some of his most memorable work: the political biography. The four Stone films examined in this series of video essays - Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Nixon and Alexander - dramatize conflicted relationships between highly driven individuals, their heroic ideals, and their service to the nation-state. They amount to cinematic battlefields where sophisticated ideas and recreated events are intensified (or at times, blown away) by expressive camerawork and editing schemes. To bring histrionics into history may seem a dubious project, but in Stone's hands, it brings an urgency and vitality to his subjects that few filmmakers can match."

Updated through 10/21.

"W. may be less frenzied than the usual Oliver Stone sensory bombardment, but in revisiting the early 00s by way of the late 60s, this psycho-historical portrait of George W Bush has all the queasy appeal of a strychnine-laced acid flashback," writes J Hoberman in the Voice. "Hideous recreations of the shock-and-awful recent past merge with extravagant lowlights from the formative years and early career of America's most disastrous president (crudely played by Josh Brolin, often in tight close-up). Familiar faces seem to deliquesce before our eyes. It's unavoidably trippy, but does anyone, other than the perpetrators, really need to relive this particular purple haze?"

"W. is the sort of movie we can't help but evaluate in part by comparing its actors to the public figures they impersonate and trying to determine whether the performances transcend impersonation," notes Jonathan Kiefer. "On that score it's a mixed bag: from Thandie Newton, in a creaky, sketch-comedy-grade caricature of Condoleezza Rice; to Jeffrey Wright, so scene-stealingly good as a deeply concerned Colin Powell that you almost wish it was his movie (rather in the way you might once have almost wished it was his administration). James Cromwell imbues George Bush senior with dignity and humanity, and of course Josh Brolin does his own spot-on, mission accomplishing heckuva job as the titular Shrub."

"There are times when you've got to wonder if this young century that no longer feels young anymore, more specifically the eight years that have followed that famously fraudulent 2000 presidential election, hasn't been some sort of prolonged bad dream from which America and all the rest of us are about to wake from with one wicked-ass hangover," sighs Josef Braun. "W. arrives in theatres just in time to greet the appointment of a new American president - though the film might be best viewed as a melancholy parting gift for the outgoing one."

At the SpoutBlog, Christopher Campbell lists the "10 Best Political Passion Projects."

Updates: "Oliver Stone's sincere, willfully myopic portrait of our sitting president is a maddening experience that for many will be akin, on the what's-the-point scale, to Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake," writes Nicolas Rapold in the L Magazine. "Rather than revive his previous compulsion towards outré explanation and stylistic mood-setting, Stone maintains the straight-ahead mode of his last film, the family-centered, hero-worshipping melodrama World Trade Center."

"Brolin is almost as close to the original as the tremendous Tina Fey is to Sarah Palin," writes Andrew Sarris in the New York Observer. "He is the linchpin of what seems like a conscious effort to make the 43rd president something more than a Michael Moore caricature."

For the Vulture, Brent Simon talks with Jason Ritter about playing Jeb Bush.

Once again, Kevin and Matt at Moving Image Source: "If Born on the Fourth of July was Oliver Stone's retaliation against the mythography that governs the minds of Americans, JFK was an all-out offensive to reclaim the truth of one of America's most tragic events."

Updates, 10/16: "[E]ven though Stone can't resist the occasional lapse into cartoonishness, W. winds up being a thought-provoking examination of a crucial turning point in American history," writes Alonso Duralde at MSNBC. "Whatever your preconceived notions, W. manages to be both exactly what you thought it would be and something else entirely. Which, ultimately, makes it like every politician who ever existed."

"For an administration that initially was very tight-lipped and on-message, the Bush presidency has yielded an abundance of memoirs by insiders ranging from former White House aides to generals and diplomats. Each offers unique glimpses of the president." In the Washington Post, Carlos Lozada presents "An Extremely Abridged History of the George W Bush Presidency."

W. is "Stone's liveliest film in years," writes Scott Foundas, introducing his interview with the director for the LA Weekly.

"How is it that the least popular and possibly worst chief executive in American history has inspired no lasting impersonations?" asks Peter Keough in the Boston Phoenix. "Josh Brolin's performance... will have little competition for best imitation of the 43rd president. Even the innocuous Gerald Ford was better served by Chevy Chase's pratfalls. But as I survey the past eight years, not many funny, memorable, or pointed TV or movie parodies of George W. Bush come to mind."

"The hard work of Stone's new film about George Bush - that uses the synecdoche title W. - is to avoid impertinence and rebuild the concepts of fairness and empathy while examining the Bush enigma," argues Armond White in the New York Press. "Stone gives real suspense to this process: First, he surmounts the class snobbery implicit in Bush-bashing (the opening baseball stadium scene emanates from Bush's imagination of his own ambition and personal challenge). Then, he looks past the undeniable mistakes in Bush's life journey (time-shifting from Bush's college years to his presidency) in order to portray his soul."

Online viewing tip. "As the weight of his eight years becomes fully felt in the slumping present, the question needs to be asked: Is Bush the buffoon the best Hollywood can do?" At Slate, Elbert Ventura introduces a video slide show.

"Rightly or wrongly, one does expect an Oliver Stone film - especially an Oliver Stone film about an American president - to say something, to make an argument, to reveal something we didn't know or to advance a theory that's so out-of-nowhere that it seems to momentarily stun before it sparks a heated dialectic," writes Karina Longworth at the SpoutBlog. "W. doesn't. Its entertainment value (which is not inconsiderable) is based fully on a kind of laughter of recognition. 'Look,' it wants us to say. 'Josh Brolin is walking just like George W. Bush walks!' 'Look! Richard Dreyfuss is smirking, just like Dick Cheney smirks!' It all makes for a strangely shallow, self-congratulatory viewing experience: catching one reference after another makes you feel so smart that you only vaguely realize that the film isn't actually engaging your brain."

Scott Tobias talks with Stone for the AV Club.

"It's hard to know what went wrong with W.," blogs David Edelstein. "Maybe Stone wants to change his image as a rabble-rouser and show his critics he has become more reflective and responsible. (He had his own daddy issues, reportedly.) But his greatest attribute - and I say this as someone whose least favorite film of all time is Natural Born Killers - has always been a lusty, blowhard showmanship. In the midst of these tumultuous times, in the midst of this tumultuous election, Stone has delivered his most tepid film."

Kevin and Matt today at Moving Image Source: "A sprawling amalgam of Death of a Salesman, Citizen Kane, Freudian psychoanalysis, and 50 years' worth of headlines and transcripts, Nixon feels less like a biography than an autobiography, colored by Nixon's paranoia and self-loathing."

"What if, instead, Stone had made a movie about the administration of President John McCain?" wonders Scott Von Doviak at Screengrab. "Stone and his screenwriter Stanley Weiser could have cooked up a juicy, paranoid fantasia of a potential McCain Era in American history, supplemented by flashbacks from McCain's actual colorful past. It would be a similar movie in many ways; as Tom Dickinson writes in the fascinating Rolling Stone cover story 'Make-Believe Maverick,' McCain and Bush were both youthful fuck-ups with daddy issues, the major difference being that 'George W Bush was a much better pilot.'"

Updates, 10/17: "History is said to repeat itself as tragedy and farce, but here it registers as a full-blown burlesque," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. W. "says nothing new or insightful about the president, his triumphs and calamities. (As if anyone goes to an Oliver Stone movie for a reality check.) But it does something most journalism and even documentaries can't or won't do: it reminds us what a long, strange trip it's been to the Bush White House."

"Neither satire nor biopic, the film is a kind of secular pageant, enacting with dogged literality the well-known stations of the cross of Bush's life," writes Slate's Dana Stevens: "the 40th-birthday hangover-turned-religious-conversion! The near-asphyxiation by pretzel! Mission accomplished! "Is our children learning?" The moments scroll up the screen like the song titles on one of those greatest-hits collections advertised on TV. The movie is done in the broad strokes and primary colors that are Stone's trademark - lest you've forgotten JFK, this is not a filmmaker of nuance - but the net effect is both satisfying and strangely cathartic to watch." Also, Timothy Noah: "The life and presidency of George W Bush were an Oliver Stone movie well before the director of JFK and Wall Street arrived on the scene. W. merely records that unassailable fact."

The New Republic's Christopher Orr: "It's a film that seems pitched at an almost unimaginably thin cross-section of viewers: those who follow politics closely enough to catch its constant self-conscious references, but not closely enough to recognize it as a shallow, ham-fisted portrait."

"The grandeur of Stone's finest 90s efforts combined imposing aesthetic flair, exhaustive research, and a strong sense of myth, legacy and nation," writes Nick Schager in Slant. "Those qualities are in minimal supply throughout this misshapen film, which aside from a striking sequence in which the director cuts from the eyes of Dubya to those of a Jesus painting to those of Bush senior (James Cromwell) - thereby relating Dubya to the approving/disapproving gaze of competing paternal figures - employs a conventional aesthetic that furthers the impression that creative ingenuity was a casualty of release-schedule concerns."

"There's nothing overtly or even subtly disreputable about Oliver Stone's W., which is exactly what's wrong with it," argues Stephanie Zacharek in Salon. "I admit that my hopes were probably too high: In these twilight days of the George W Bush administration, I find my anger intensifying rather than abating, and I was hoping W. would be a more cathartic exercise than it is."

"Had Stone realized he was making Dr Strangelove, W. might have been an absurdist hoot, but that would require the sort of dramatic choice he stubbornly resists making," suggests Scott Tobias in the AV Club.

"One might feel sorry for George W at the end of this film, were it not for his legacy of a fraudulent war and a collapsed economy," writes Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. "The film portrays him as incompetent to be president, and shaped by the puppet masters Cheney and Rove to their own ends. If there is a saving grace, it may be that Bush will never fully realize how badly he did. How can he blame himself? He was only following God's will."

"There is a restraint about W. that is both pleasing and effective," writes Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. "There are reasons to smile in this film, but not nearly as many as you'd think. Instead the message is that what has happened to this country is no laughing matter."

"Stone hasn't been ambitious or exhaustive enough," argues Michael Wilmington. Also at Movie City News, Leonard Klady: "W. is, frankly, more Shakespeare than History Channel or Biography. Though the filmmakers are loath to paint the saga as tragedy, its hero is tragic."

"Stone searched for an inner life within a public figure who's only scrutinized in opinionated sound-bite punditry; endeavors this even-handed and entertaining shouldn't be misunderestimated," writes David Fear in Time Out New York.

"The story necessarily winds up without a natural ending, since the train wreck is still happening (and cleaning up the tracks is likely to take longer than either Bush's life span or my own)," writes Andy Klein in the LA CityBeat. "But Stone and Weiser suggest that somewhere in the shallow depths of Bush's consciousness lurks the knowledge of his abject failure... and worse."

James Rocchi in Cinematical:

Weiser's best contribution - which Stone and Brolin bring to life in a rich, haunting way - comes in the moments scattered through the film with George W Bush alone in a baseball stadium. At one point, he's reveling in the roars of a crowd that isn't there; in another, he races to the back wall to make a lucky catch; finally, in the film's final moments, Bush is ready in the outfield, hears the crack of the bat and races back to field the hit, even though it never comes. Perhaps Oliver Stone did rush this film; perhaps it could have benefited from a few years of perspective instead of a few weeks. But then we wouldn't have the perfect timing of that deftly turned closing image: W. opens in theaters as an election looms, as American mega-capitalism chokes on its own arrogance and greed, as dead American soldiers are still being offloaded from transports in flag-draped coffins far from the view of the press and the general public (and Iraqi civilians simply die far away). What started as parody and comedy builds to a haunting final moment thanks to Stone, Weiser and Brolin, and in W.'s final seconds it is not just George W Bush who's waiting for the ball to drop, it is all of us.

"My benchmark for shuffled iconography is, and may forever be, Robert Coover's dazzling novel about Vice President Richard Nixon called The Public Burning, a novel whose continued relevance would be depressing if the book weren't such a fun read," writes Robert Davis at Daily Plastic. "Coover's fictional Nixon spends much of his time thinking about the similarities between his life and Julius Rosenberg's, an inspired biographical braid that presumably required Coover to spend a year or two inside the heads of real people. How can we ever repay him? I don't think Oliver Stone has spent much time inside the head of George W Bush or the heads of his other characters.... On a good night, you'll find five minutes on The Daily Show with better intuition and funnier jokes than the whole of W."

Alison Willmore at IFC: "We're still too close for fictional takes on our two terms with number 43 to be anything more than knee-jerk - controversy-courting fantasies about assassination or limp lampoonery - but W., hurried pointlessly into theaters before the election, affects having distance and perspective that isn't there. In 20 years, it'll be just another mediocre biopic."

Kevin and Matt at Moving Image Source: "[I]f Nixon is about how one man tried and failed to impose his will upon history, Alexander is also a story of a failure. But in the words of Ptolemy, 'His failure towered over other men's successes.'"

The Austin-American Statesman's Chris Garcia talks with Cromwell.

"Abraham Lincoln is remembered as one of Griffith's worst films because of its stilted dawn-of-the-talkies dialogue and staging, but I found it to be at least as dynamic and diverting a political cartoon as Oliver Stone's latest historical tossed salad," writes Steven Boone at the SpoutBlog. "Kill the sound and you'll catch some signature Griffith moments of visual play, like the montage of marching boots, cavalry and cannons assembling for war in an insane rush. His whip pans to visual punchlines pack as much wit and electricity as John Ford's. Griffith's legacy lies in these scattered contributions to film grammar and the art of historical pageantry, not his politics or historical accuracy. Oliver Stone is staring at a similar, enviable fate."

Updates, 10/18: "With Bush's presidency drawing to a close, W. gets the first pop culture crack at judging his legacy - and lands a woefully soft punch," writes Michael Joshua Rowin at Reverse Shot. "What Stone and Weiser fail to recognize is that Bush's pratfall of power wouldn't be so remarkable if it didn't so conspicuously mirror America's increasing conformity, proud isolationism, and unashamed mediocrity."

"Instead of a hatchet job, Oliver Stone delivers a rush job," writes Scott Marks.

"[B]y taking real moments and reconfiguring them in artificial ways, Mr Stone has created something Texans who saw Mr Bush close-up will recognize as a remarkably accurate portrait," argues Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News. Via Nikki Finke.

Updates, 10/19: "American presidents make for fascinating, puzzling, infuriating characters," writes Jim Emerson. "We like to see them in Shakespearean dimensions: like Hamlet, Henry IV, Richard II... or maybe Bottom. But comparisons are often enlightening. The W. this country barely re-elected (if that's the proper term) in 2004 bears some terrible similarities to the Nixon re-elected (in a landslide) in 1972. Both were on the verge of being 'found out,' and both would suffer unprecedented public scorn and disapproval."

Craig Mclean profiles Brolin for the Independent.

"By far, the film's greatest asset is its cast, who for the most part truly embody the political celebrities they're playing," writes Ed Howard.

Update, 10/20: "[T]he expanded director's cut of Nixon (recently released on DVD) looks stronger than ever as a portrait of an intelligent, capable man (Anthony Hopkins) rotting from the inside," writes David Denby in the New Yorker. "In W., however, George W Bush (Josh Brolin) comes off as a grinning frat boy who covers his easily bruised feelings with swaggering bravado. Even if the real Bush is as simple as that (which I doubt), he's still a lousy movie character - an inadequate protagonist in his own life story."

Updates, 10/21: "This week, Slate is featuring a conversation about George Bush's presidency, prompted by Oliver Stone's film W. Participants are Oliver Stone; Bob Woodward, author of The War Within; Ron Suskind, author of The Way of the World; and Jacob Weisberg, author of The Bush Tragedy."

Writing for Time, S James Snyder finds Stone's Official Film Guide to be "a compelling companion piece to the film, suggesting that many of the behind-closed-doors moments in W. may not be that far-fetched after all."

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Posted by dwhudson at October 15, 2008 9:37 AM


Haven't seen W yet, but considering how so many reviews of Paolo Sorrentino's films cite Stone as a forebear, I can't help but wonder whether this might serve as a bizarro companion piece to Il Divo? We shall see.

Posted by: msic at October 15, 2008 11:13 AM

Andrew Sarris proclaiming his love for Tina Fey is some kind of cultural landmark moment.

Posted by: Brian at October 15, 2008 10:54 PM