Oliver Stone's Bush biopic has nothing new to say about its subject - and further reveals its director as a false provocateur, writes Mark Lotto.
The president of the United States has vanished on us, like a lost set of keys. He is missing and unmissed on the front pages of our newspapers and, most evenings, he goes unmentioned on the network news. Out on the campaign trail, he was discussed as though he were a bout of bad weather everybody hoped would break. The man was so absent he voted absentee. And yet in the election's final months, he was also everywhere, all the time: George W Bush, or some version of him, in movie trailers and print ads, on the sides of buses and posters on the subways; and appearing multiple times a day at every American multiplex, the subject of Oliver Stone's W.
The two men are a match set: Stone these days is as diminished a filmmaker as Bush is a president. And just as Bush reassures voters that the secrets he withheld also validated his every decision, Stone has spent his career trying to convince critics and audiences he knew things the rest of us couldn't and said things the rest of us wouldn't - about what doomed JFK in Dealey Plaza and Jim Morrison in his Paris bathtub, about the nasty killing fields in 'Nam and the nastier football fields of the NFL, about the depravities of stockbrokers and the hostile takeover of our culture by serial killers. He courted certain adjectives - "incendiary", say, or "controversial" - like someone eager for compliments about a new haircut.
Then came World Trade Center, a film about two cops jigsawed in the ruins of the twin towers, which felt like a penitent act, a loyalty oath, and turned out to be as anonymous and weepy as any made-for-TV movie. And his Bush biopic is really just a reenactment of the recent public record, with better cinematography than C-SPAN and better-known actors than Unsolved Mysteries. If Stone has some secrets here, he's not sharing; in W., he is the bearer of no news at all.
Political reporters, after all, have already written enough mash notes about George W Bush's wasted Prince Hal youth, his slightly less wasted middle age and his come-to-Jesus comeback. Everyone who survived these past eight years already knows the president never matured into a Henry V, that the St Crispin Day speeches he delivered sent all of us unto the breach, never to return. Half the dialogue in the film has already been spoken, in a more meaningful context, on Meet the Press or to Bob Woodward. Stone's W. website features a "footnoted" narrative - but look at it and you realise his bid for credibility is an admission of shallowness: more than a few citations point to Wikipedia.
Of course, Stone has always been less interested in history than his conspiracy theorising and occasional FOIA request would have us believe. What he really does is make comic book movies, gaudy and grand, self-seriously silly, starring, instead of superheroes, historical icons or inspired-by-true-events anti-heroes he's overdosed with his own gamma radiation. (Expect, whatever the period and whoever the subject, a lot of Oedipus and a little of Carlos Castaneda's phoney shamanism.) He wrote recently in Slate, "I'm a dramatist who is interested in people, and I have empathy for Bush as a human being, much the same as I did for Castro, Nixon, Jim Morrison, Jim Garrison and Alexander the Great."
Let's not pretend that humanising the man was all that hard to do. President Bush is already so publicly and blatantly human, so very committed to his own messianic averageness, always in over his head, out of his league. From the very start, Bush has been the recipient of the most forgiving and gentle satire: in Saturday Night Live sketches, Daily Show jabs and especially in the now-forgotten pre-September 11 sitcom That's My Bush. He's always portrayed as a likeable goof, a bystander, Rosencrantz or Guildenstern in somebody else's Hamlet. The jokes these past eight years haven't ever been withering or savage; instead, they've helped inoculate Bush against responsibility: for his administration, his own failures, our crumbling world. It's parody as a pre-emptive pardon.
So Stone's generous treatment of Bush isn't a radical or difficult departure; it's merely a dramatic continuation of the way the president has been portrayed since he first arrived on the national scene. Sure, Josh Brolin's 43 is less winking and less funny than Will Ferrell's, but it's also an imitation that doesn't cover any new ground, doesn't find any novel way in, just offers up those same shrugs and pursing lips and tiny laughing eyes. Brolin's Junior, ages 18 to 50, is freer of tics and fuller of motive. He is as earnest and affably manipulative as a big dog. Stone roots for him to make something of himself, even though the country might have been better off if he hadn't.
The real problem with Stone is that he's exactly wrong about himself. He purports to be an incisive, unflinching critic of American swagger and bombast, but his own swagger and bombast establish an affinity more convincing than his condemnations. Nobody, after all, watches Wall Street for the moment when Martin Sheen, the erudite baggage handler, implores his rotten stock broker son, "Create, instead of living off the buying and selling of others." People don't quote and overquote Sheen declaring that "What you see is a guy who never measured a man's success by the size of his wallet!" We forget too that Gordon Gekko ends the movie rained on, wiretapped, indicted and debased; no, we remember him circling through a shareholder's meeting, his silvery suit and resplendent suspenders like the plumage of a mating bird, holding seductively forth on the goodness of greed. Stone is the opposite of a fifth columnist: he's a loyalist who feigns subversion.
It's no wonder then that Stone throws prankish snowballs instead of wielding satire like a scalpel. Consider the grotesque caricatures of Bush's retinue: Condoleeza Rice is made to seem like a Martian doing a minstrel show. Donald Rumsfeld is either senile or semi-psychotic. Karl Rove, like a schoolgirl with a long-standing crush, blushes and flutters in most every scene. It's the most bungling cartoon cabinet since the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup. Groucho and his team of rivals did suck Freedonia into an unnecessary war, but for the record, they won.
In the real world, these were serious people, with resumes as thick as briefing books. And in the spooky, unsettled year after September 11, they seemed heroes enough that Vanity Fair sat them down for portraits, all of them looking resolute, unyielding, burnished as if these were pictures of the statues in their likeness that would someday be erected in bronze. But the ideas that made them stars in think-tank lecture halls and White House hallways were rather less successful on the streets of Baghdad. Their blind spots would prove calamitous; their certainty catastrophic. There are jokes worth making about the mess we're in, jokes that could clarify rather than obscure, indict rather than insulate, but Stone does not tell them. He's too busy filming scenes like the one where Bush and his cabinet, out on a walk in Texas, discussing post-war plans for Iraq, find themselves totally lost - as if this was good slapstick or damning insight.
I'll say this: If Oliver Stone wanted so badly to make a Bush film, he might have zeroed in on Dick Cheney, that black hole of American government, emanating such powerful gravity he bends clauses of the Constitution around him. He's the cipher a movie could help us understand, the hulk some subtle dramatist should shrink back down into a man. That's what we need: an act of imagination as generous and cutting and complete as the reporting in Barton Gellman's Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.
Instead we get W. and Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney, a performance unbearable even by Richard Dreyfuss standards: sinister, simplistic, too smug. This Cheney stands up in the situation room in order to cue the overhead projector to a Middle East map festooned with stars and stripes, to declare his lust for Iraqi oil and then monologue his master plan, like he's some sort of Bond villain. "Empire. Real empire. Nobody'll f*** with us ever again," is a line he actually delivers.
On second thought, maybe what we need is no more biopics. We already watch campaigns that privilege personality over issues; already have cable pundits and newspaper columnists who deflate politics into psychodrama; already read Newsweek to learn about John McCain the insomniac and Barack Obama the night owl, their eating habits and irritations and quickies with their first ladies, about which candidate loves Herman Wouk novels and which sang Disco Inferno during debate prep. And Oliver Stone still thinks he's the one artist able to see great men as men.
The elation these days isn't easy to describe. The night Barack Obama was elected, my Brooklyn neighbourhood was full of people dancing in the streets, cars honking, stereos blasting, huge happy crowds gathering, like this was some banana republic whose dictator had finally died. A mustachioed, middle-aged black man grabbed me, embraced me, kissed me hard on the cheek, and told me that he and I were "both America".
And 60-some days from now, the president will really and truly vanish, like a movie whose long theatrical run has finally ended. He'll climb inside that helicopter and then disappear onto his Crawford ranch, into seats on corporate boards, paid appearances, the impassable archives of his library. George Bush's departure won't refill the 401ks, or sow peace in the Middle East. We know this. Of course we do. But our reptilian brains can't help but feel - sigh, hope - that a new president means a new day, that the nation gets a mulligan inside history, a do-over.
This is what happens when we reduce global cause-and-effect to biography, like pagans mistaking thunder for the rage of angry gods. But the well-documented personal pathologies and executive misdeeds that Stone pretends to unearth are the least of our woes. We should fret over, well, everything else, all that was too complicated, too dull, too massive, to fit into W: our actions and inaction, the labyrinths of signing statements and executive orders and classified commands, the deregulations still chomping through financial systems and conservation protections, the thousands of well-intentioned Bush appointees who every day for eight years sat dutifully down at their executive branch desks and made the world worse, about whom no biopics will ever be made.
Mark Lotto is on the staff of The New York Times.