Friday, October 24, 2008

London Film Festival Day 10 - W.

W. is a frustrating movie. It features a strong central performance from Josh Brolin (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) as George W. Bush, but this biopic plays like an afternoon TV drama. Writer Stanley Weiser and director Oliver Stone have given us a conventional biopic wherein a bunch of stuff happens to W. He goes to Yale, he drinks a lot, he fails at a bunch of jobs, he gets born again, and somehow, just to prove he can, he gets elected, he takes us into Iraq....Nowhere do the film-makers show the kind of intelligence in shaping the material that Paolo Sorrentino lent to his Giuilio Andreotti biopic, IL DIVO. There are no big ideas. Okay - there's one big idea. That W. was always trying to prove his worth to his "poppy" H.W. But frankly, this is treated in such a ham-fisted, cursory manner it hardly passes for an over-riding theme. And the dream-sequence in a baseball stadium is so crude and so ill-pursued that it wouldn't look out of place in a rookie feature. Oliver Stone seems to be regressing from a work of labyrinthine brilliance and daring - JFK - to this superficial, paint-by-numbers narrative.

Directorial clumsiness aside, biographers of W. have a problem, and it's not a problem that Oliver Stone resolves. You have to make a choice on how you view W. If you assume that he really is as dumb as he looks - that he can barely string a sentence together and that he's been manipulated by the neo-cons - then you reduce him to a buffoon. And if you reduce him to a buffoon, but you're dealing with serious issues like Iraq, then what the audience wants is actually a film about Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and how those guys got what they wanted. In other words, you want a movie in which W. is not the lead character. On the other hand, if you argue that W. was actually more intelligent and active than that - that it takes more than a famous name to become POTUS - then you have to work hard to argue your case and to make W. a nuanced and interesting character worthy of a biopic. Oliver Stone simply doesn't do this. He doesn't try to get underneath the skin of W. in the way that he got underneath the skin of Nixon. Stone goes for the easy laughs in mocking W. As a result, he undermines his own case for making the film.

Accordingly, we get a sporadically entertaining but largely dull film that strings together famous phrases, a series of vignettes and some piss-poor caricatures of cabinet members. This film is not worthy of Oliver Stone. And it's certainly not worthy of an American president that took his country into a three-front war; tore down constitutional protections; and was at the helm at the start of an economic clusterfuck.

W. played London 2008. It was released earlier this month in the US and opens next weekend in Belgium and France. W opens in the UK on November 7th, in Turkey on November 14th, in Sweden on December 5th, in Finland on January 2nd and in the Netherlands on January 8th.

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