I saw Oliver Stone's new movie, W., last weekend with a friend of mine. While reactions to this film will obviously be mixed based on your particular political leanings and opinion of our current president (he's still in office, right? It's just that I haven't really seen him lately...), I think that overall it was pretty well done, and I must admit it left me thinking a lot about the man himself, as well as some broader issues.
First let’s cover some points about the movie in general. Because most period pieces are typically done well after the actual time in focus, the director and casting folks usually benefit from the poor historical memory of the masses ("Did JFK really look just like Collin Ferrell? Oh well, close enough.") Because Stone had the stones (sorry, had to do it...) to do this movie while all the integral characters of this administration are still very much alive and kickin', he didn't benefit from this selective American amnesia. The result is that if you're not focused you find yourself terribly preoccupied with judging the characters on how convincing they are with their roles and if their hair is right, as opposed to following the plot and narrative of the movie. Fortunately, this is a luxury you as the viewer can pretty easily afford because the story is a familiar one.
Having said all that, I will say that Josh Brolin gave a spot-on performance as George W. Bush. As far as "impersonations" go, appearance is definitely important, and for that I'm sure most of the credit goes to make-up, costume, lighting people, etc. Most of the time I was reasonably convinced that I was watching W himself in action. I've always thought, though, that when an actor tries to assume the persona of someone else that body language, mannerisms, inflection and tone are what really make or break a performance. On these, Brolin again delivered like an overzealous UPS carrier. Other remarkable performances were Richard Dreyfuss as “Shotgun” Dick Cheney and Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush. Thandie Newton as Conoleezza Rice was by far the worst, and was literally painful to watch. My friend and I both agreed that she should have been dragged off the set and thrown down the nearest flight of concrete stairs.
So that's pretty much my critique of the movie itself. However, a topic such as this paints with such a broad geo-political brush, that there are sure to be strong reactions of all sorts. Sitting in the theater it was very clear that there was a very strong anti-Bush undercurrent (surprise, surprise). I should probably mention that the film, while done objectively, was not overly gentle with our 43rd president. It was fairly clear where writer/director Oliver Stone stood with regards to his personal opinion on Bush’s intelligence and ability. I will say though that I didn’t feel W was portrayed as the evil, draconian empiricist that so many like to believe he is.
However, surrounded by my fellow movie-goers I couldn't help but notice that the audience seemed to me like a pack of hyenas, poised to strike and tear at the next morsel of raw beef that was thrown to them in the form of a Bush grammatical misstep or his use of a non-word such as "mis-imperception". The laughter I was hearing wasn't the normal, light-hearted cinema laughter that you might expect to hear from contented weekenders with buckets of warm popcorn nestled in their laps. The tone in this theater was one of malice. People are angry with George W. Bush. They want to see him fall and skin his knees. They get the same kind of enjoyment out of it that one might get from seeing a rival coworker get scolded by the boss, or maybe witnessing a rude, ornery cashier get reprimanded by his or her manager. It's the type of satisfaction that comes with vindication.
But is George W. Bush really such a bad guy? Is the man really deserving of such burning hatred? Sure, he’s not going to win any Toastmaster competitions, and I think we all agree that he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. I imagine he’s probably just about exactly as arrogant and pompous as he appears to be when you see him slouched over the presidential podium or landing on an Air Force carrier. As a proud American, I’ll be the first to admit that his presidency has been frustrating to watch.
With all these strikes against him and with the pent-up animosity and resentment that many of us feel towards this man, it’s easy to view George W. as some sort of evil tyrant: One man on a mission from his own personal Almighty to single-handedly submerge this country’s reputation, financial system, and economy to the same depths to which he sank his approval ratings. But what if, as the tone of Stone’s W. suggests, this perception of the man is not quite right?
George W. Bush was born with a silver spoon, there’s no denying that. He was given every opportunity, the majority of which he either squandered or mucked up. The one thing he strived for his entire life was the one thing that always evaded him: the recognition and pride of his father. It’s obvious he felt that following in his father’s footsteps would provide him this acceptance. In a country where we’re all raised to believe that “you can be anything you want to be, as long as you put your mind to it,” one certainly can’t fault the man for applying some good old fashioned ambition towards his goal of becoming President. The fact of the matter is that this is a guy who simply bit off “more‘n he could chew.” And hasn’t each of us found ourselves in situations where we had to admit that we were in way over our heads? What was your reaction, to throw your hands in the air, sling your MacBook across Starbucks and declare that the rough draft of your first Pulitzer Prize-destined novel was nothing but a crap sandwich? No. As Americans, this is not how we have been raised. We have a certain stick-to-it-ness that is a source not only of individual pride, but of envy to all countries around the globe (no matter what they may want you to think). We will finish said novel even if it means churning out some low grade, unimaginative waste of paper and time. I mean it works for Tom Clancy, right?
The point is that if we’re unhappy with the man’s presidency, maybe we should take a look at the system that allows a man like this to rise to these ranks within our government. We live in a world of political sound-bytes and simpleton-speak. The voting public expects to be spoon-fed all the key points which will allow them to vote to their liking. Our election process has morphed into something very passive and repugnant. Gone are the days when people made an effort to understand each candidate’s position with regards to economic issues, foreign policy, voting records, etc. Americans now expect to be able to catch 15 minutes of CNN Headline News election coverage or the highlights of one or two presidential debates and then have all the information they’ll need when they step into that ballot box on Election Day. Any additional time spent researching the issues would cut into our Dancing with the Stars time.
The problem with this is that Presidential elections – especially very monumental ones – are complicated. The candidates are very well aware that the vast majority of voters out there are voting more on gut perception than on actual knowledge. Why do you think they put so much time and energy into stump speeches and debates as opposed to any type of written literature outlining their particular “presidential” goals? Raise your hand if you’ve laid eyes on a written outline of administration plans and policies for either of our current candidates. No? Why? Because these campaigns are not about knowledge and facts. They’re about emotion. I’m not going to drift any further down the tributary of our current election, suffice to say that it’s not all that much different than either of the two elections which George W. Bush won. He was folksy and down-home and people responded to that. It wasn’t until he was truly tested that we all began to question whether or not he possessed the necessary equipment for the job.
As Americans living in one of the wealthiest countries to ever exist on our planet, we simply have no excuse for not being informed enough to make an EDUCATED decision when it comes to casting our vote for the leader of the free world. The internet makes it easier than ever to find out anything you could possibly want to know about anything you can possibly think of. I’m sitting at my computer right now. I guarantee you that within two minutes I could find details of not only both our current candidates health care policies, but also an outline of the Geneva Convention, blueprints to the building I’m sitting in right now, and a top-ten list of German scat porn websites. Information is literally the most valuable resource in the world, and we are literally swimming in it every time we grab a mouse and start clicking.
I truly believe that if every American made an honest effort to educate him or herself, it would elevate the knowledge base of our current voter pool to a level that would have to be addressed by the candidates. No longer would it suffice to spout empty buzz-words like “change” and “hope”, regardless of what sort of elegant speech was wrapped around them. And maybe future candidates would think twice before selecting an absurdly unqualified, unsophisticated running mate on the sole basis that they will appeal to the small-town hockey moms out there in middle-America. If you think for a minute that these actions by both parties are not a blatant insult to the intelligence of Americans en masse, you are wrong.
I guess to summarize, I agree with Oliver Stone’s interpretation of George W. Bush as that of a man who has done the best job he knows how to do. Through it all, his main objective has always been to preserve the well-being and success of this great nation. Although you may disagree with his policies, procedures, and stance on presidential slouching, I think it’s wrong to demonize the man simply for trying to do what he thinks is right. Don’t hate the playa’, hate the game, ya’ll.