Michael Wolraich's picture

    Film Review: W.

    I tend to avoid political cinema because it's usually unbalanced and heavy-handed, and the art inevitably suffers from the attempt to communicate an unambiguous message. But W. received some decent reviews, has been a box office success, and concerns a subject dear to my heart. I should have stuck to my principles. The best thing about the experience of watching it was the half-hour nap I slipped in between Dubya's decision to invade Iraq because of the alleged WMD's and his shocked realization that there were no WMD's in Iraq. Dubya, whom director Oliver Stone renders as incapable of abstract thought, expresses the realization in simple poker terms: Saddam was bluffing on a low-pair. This film is part character study, part historical reenactment, part polemic, and part satire. It successfully captures the essence of the Bush Administration by mimicking it: the film fails miserably in everything it attempts.

    The character study aspect of the film has been most notable for presenting Dubya (Josh Brolin) as a sympathetic character for whom you wish success--as long as that does not involve actual responsibilities. He is a lovable ne'er-do-well dolt whose only objective in life is to win the approval of his successful father. But as a character study, there's nothing new here. Maureen Dowd has been plowing these fields for the past eight years. Impressively, W. manages to pursue this shallow, pop-psychological interpretation more simplistically and singlemindedly than Dowd and with less humor to boot. George Bush Sr. (James Cromwell) makes only one appearance (during my waking moments) in which he does not castigate his son, who struggles with addiction, for his failures and compare him unfavorably to brother Jeb. Sound familiar? This movie might have been more aptly titled, "Walk the Line II: the Oval Office."

    The historical reenactment was not fit for television, with cheesy impersonations by famous actors who should stick to fictional characters. Brolin's impersonation of Bush only stands out from those of the supporting cast because on rare occasions, he seems a little bit like the guy he portrays. In imagined Oval Office scenes, a motley crew of Dubya's advisors and cabinet members take turns caricaturing themselves and morphing into megaphones for the good and the true (Jeffrey Wright as a weirdly boyish Colin Powell) and the evil and the false (Richard Dreyfuss as a villainous Dick Cheney). The moment in which I gave up on the movie was Wright's sleep-inducing Jimmy Stewart moment as Colin Powell passionately arguing against invading Iraq before meekly, inexplicably acquiescing to Dubya without evidence of disappointment or concern other than a slight sag of the shoulders.

    Which brings me to the polemic bit. Megaphone-Powell recycles tired, obvious criticisms of the Iraq War which should be well known to anyone who has read a newspaper or blog in the past four years or knows someone who has. Megaphone-Dubya and megaphone-Cheney do a good-executive/bad-executive routine, in which Dubya recites strawman "spread Democracy" propaganda while Cheney reveals sinister strawman plans for taking over the world. A number of death and maim-victim scenes are thrown in for members of the audience who don't understand words.

    And finally, the satire. Satire may be either funny or dark or both, but good satire always involve wit and subtlety, two qualities notably lacking in W. There were people laughing in the audience, but the laughter was a derisive sort which I call "political" laughter--that is, when you laugh at anything that has the trappings of a joke as long as it supports your strongly held opinions. Take Bush's infamous "fool me once" line, which Stone re-contextualizes along with other infamous gaffes in private meetings between Dubya and his advisors. That line, for which the screenwriter Stanley Weiser can't even take credit, was genuinely funny when Bush first spoke it, but I find it difficult to believe that a theater full of laughing Bush-hating New Yorkers have not heard it many times before and that, bereft of the political context, it would provoke more than an embarrassed titter. As for wit and subtlety, one can't prove a negative, but to take one example, the most emphasized gag of the film was a number of extended scenes in which Dubya talks with his mouth full. If you want to see exquisite satire featuring engorgement, I recommend The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. If you want to see hilarious Bush parody, I recommend The Daily Show. If you just want cheap gags used to ridicule a President you hate and you've had enough coffee to stay awake for two-and-a-half hours of it, see W.


    Yeah.. yeah.  I saw this on opening night.  I really wanted to like it, but it sucked.  Brolin did as much as I think he could with what was there, but ultimately it just failed.  I'm not surprised that you fell asleep.  I've rarely seen films as plodding.  Seriously, I've seen Friday the 13th sequels that had more regard for story structure.  I say that as a fan of Oliver Stone's work.  I was pondering writing a review of it myself, but you've handled that task deftly.

    If you just want cheap gags used to ridicule a President you hate and you've had enough coffee to stay awake for two-and-a-half hours of it, see W.

    So would this be a good movie to watch on DVD with a bunch of rowdy fellow Bush-haters?  And, if so, is there a particular drinking game you'd recommend?

    This is not a good movie to watch in any context, except perhaps as a sleep aid. If you must watch it, heavy drinking will probably help. For that reason, I recommend Power Hour.

    I'd say a "Drink every time Dubya drinks or eats" would be a good rule.

    Not recommended for gastronomical reasons.

    Thanks, Genghis. What with scoping out the Guggenheim, that's the second bullet you've taken for us.

    funny review, g. saved me from using up one of my rare jaunts to the moviehouse. tho to be honest, the movie looked like crap in the trailers.

    I was reading DF's comment, and I was like, yeah, it's a shame cause I like Oliver Stone movies as well. But then i started to think about it and I was like, what was the last good oliver stone movie? I checked out IMDB and I was surprised at how paltry his output has been recently. The last thing of his I liked was Natural Born Killers, but I admit I never saw World Trade Center and Nixon, which I think got decent reviews.

    May have to reconsider my longheld favorable opinion of Mr. Stone.

    I think that he needs to take a break from politics. (He's not the only one.)

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