October 16, 2008


Poppy Can You Hear Me?

Grade: B

Director: Oliver Stone

Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfuss, James Cromwell, Scott Glenn, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, Ellen Burstyn, and Bruce McGill

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hour, 13 minutes

Theaters: Spring Lane Cinemas in Sanford; Crossroads 20 in Cary

In speaking about the unending controversy surrounding his contemporary agitprops JFK and Nixon, Oliver Stone once lamented, “I should be making movies about the Dulles brothers; I should be making movies about Eisenhower. We should be free, [but] I’m hamstrung…It’s like they’re trying to keep me away from these areas.” What Stone does not grasp is that intellectual curiosity alone does not spin the turnstiles. For better or worse, the enduring fascination with John F. Kennedy sprouts from his assassination; for Nixon, it is Watergate and his resignation.

So, when the debate roars over whether today is the right time for Stone’s George W. Bush biopic W., the question is “If not now, when?” As the curtain slowly falls on the Bush presidency, it becomes increasingly certain that even the kindest historians will judge his administration with ambivalence, if not outright disregard. While many today will not want to stomach a 2-hour movie about the past 8 years, decades hence they simply might not care. After all, where is the clamor for an epic biopic about Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, or George H.W. Bush?

That said, W. necessarily suffers a lack of historical breadth that Stone compounds with the absence of an overarching denouement. Stone, working from a screenplay by Wall Street scribe Stanley Weiser, focuses on three distinct acts in Bush’s (Josh Brolin) personal and professional life: his restless youth, the run-up to the Iraq War, and his contentious, Freudian relationship with his father (James Cromwell). Far greater detail and insight are dedicated to Bush’s vivacious, carousing early years, when the Jack Daniels flowed as often as the abandoned menial jobs “Poppy” handpicks for his son. Yet, these are strongest portions of the film as they are free from the regurgitative quality that besets Stone’s recreation of contemporary events inside Bush’s White House.

Even as solace enters Dubya’s life in the form of a devoted wife (Elizabeth Banks) and his religious epiphany, which Stone treats with remarkable evenhandedness, he never enjoys his father’s approval. Stone parrots the pundits who posit that the Iraq War is the younger Bush’s (sub)conscious effort to outman Poppy, to demonstrate his alpha-manliness by finishing a job his father would not. The Shakespearean irony, of course, is that George W. eventually suffers much the same political fate as his father except to a greater cost for not only the country but also his family’s name.

Brolin’s meteoric career rise continues with a bravura performance that – when the screenplay affords it – surpasses mimicry in order to look into Bush’s eyes and see his soul. The portrayal of all the president’s men is more of a scattershot. Some – such as Thandie Newton’s Codi Rice and Scott Glenn’s Donald Rumsfield – are stepped in parody. Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) is overly cast as a plaster saint futilely trying to stem the encroaching neocon surge that ultimately wins the battle for the president’s heart and mind.

In one of the film’s most best sequences, Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Co. layout, in stark and cold-blooded detail, their folly for “draining the swamp” of greater Eurasia in order to drain their oilfields. When Powell asks about our exit strategy from Iraq, Cheney coldly replies, “We don’t exit; we stay.” Likewise, an earlier lunch scene effectively captures Cheney’s Svengalian hold on the president as he slithers into Bush’s psyche with reptilian precision, manipulating the president into doing his bidding while allowing W to delude himself into believing he’s still “the decider.”

Still, W. is not the sweeping political tome we normally expect from Stone. Filming began merely 5 months prior to the film’s release date. As a consequence, Stone could not craft his trademark editing and thematic flourishes – a recurring visual motif of Bush standing alone on a baseball field, soaking up the adoration of imaginary fans, feels like something concocted by a film school student. While Stone again utilizes his technique of chronological hopscotch, there is a little of the operatic bombast so vital to Stone’s power of persuasion, the lone notable exception being a dream sequence in which Poppy challenges his son to fisticuffs inside a barren Oval Office and then roils him for gutting the family name. [Never mind that without George W, the Bush family legacy might have ended with Poppy’s innocuous one-term presidency; the film’s promotes the notion that W pilfered and then squandered the political birthright reserved for his smarter, more temperate brother, Jeb.]

In contrast, the old Stone could have included a fantasy sequence in which waters breaching New Orleans’ levees literally flood into the White House as a metaphor for the rising tide of pressure and incompetence surrounding the Bush presidency. Instead, there is nary a mention of either Katrina of even Bush’s laudable Ground Zero appearance after Sept. 11. On the other hand, Stone finds time for the episode when Bush choked on a pretzel while watching sports on TV. I do not begrudge Stone’s effort at narrative building; in fact, it is what separates him from many lesser filmmakers. The problem is that W. is a film incomplete that, like the war it assails, was done quick, fast, and on the cheap.

Neil Morris

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Josh Brolin did a convincing Dubya, though he reminded me a lot of his cowboy character from No Country for Old Men... over all, i don't doubt that 'W.' will have the effect Oliver Stone desired