I always thought Oliver Stone’s grim comedy noir U-Turn was his best film. About as far removed as one could get from his leaden, bloated, ham-fisted political epics, it played Sean Penn’s city-slicker outrage against the slow, stubborn cunning of a small town’s demented populace, and if it wasn’t particularly weighty, it kept me engaged and laughing for its (comparatively lean) two hours.
And with W., Stone again proves that his real strength is in comedy. Unlike Nixon, which I found an interesting fiction utterly divorced from reality, and JFK, which is preposterous even by the standards of make-believe, W. feels like a real attempt to come to grips with a man who is, frankly, not deep enough to be made the subject of high opera.
Sure, there are things to dislike about it — the daddy-didn’t-love-me trope is tiring from the outset, and Toby Jones’s Karl Rove comes across more like an awkward little accountant than the cocky mastermind of a permanently divided America. But Brolin’s Bush is a moving figure, a likeable enough fellow unfortunately born into a powerful and influential family, the kind of guy who doesn’t begin to have a clue what he wants to do until he’s 35 (I can relate), a guy whose frequent linguistic fumbles are actually endearing and mask a perceptive mind. He knows when he’s dealing with greater intellects and with charming humility never seems to mind being outgunned. He’s genuinely appreciative of an increasingly alarmed Colin Powell’s dissent on the Iraq War plan, even as he leans on the old soldier’s loyalty. Bush here never comes across as a man who comes into a meeting with his mind made up, and the Cheney-Powell battles in the Situation Room provide the film’s only really harrowing moments, as too-polite Powell (a spectacular Jeffrey Wright) slowly loses ground while Cheney (an equally good Richard Dreyfuss) lays out dire predictions about an impotent America in the oil-poor future. (Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Tommy Franks seem basically to be along for the ride, but they function as the “experts” who make Cheney’s grandiose empire-building seem plausible.)
I don’t know if Bush deserves this much benefit of the doubt, but I find it entirely plausible that he simply fell victim to his “advisers.” He has long seemed to be a man who would rather be Commissioner of Baseball than President, someone who took the job without really understanding how much it entails, someone who likes dogs and barbecue and running, a pretty straightforward guy who became president for the wrong reasons and is now, like the rest of us, stuck with it. It’s hard not to sympathize with him a little, even if you think his policies have been ruinous.
Of course, much the same could be said of Nicholas and Alexandra.
Ultimately, the lapses in judgement in Stone’s film are minor, because the film is minor. Several critics have heaped scorn on Thandie Newton’s Condoleezza; Nick Schager at Slant calls her performance “horridly over-the-top, sub-SNL grotesqueness.” I found it just about right, actually, and her mild exaggerations could be excused on comic grounds — what, I wonder, is Schager’s justification for Paul Sorvino’s equally mannered Kissinger in Nixon, a film he seems to revere? This is a film that makes a virtue out of being skewed slightly toward the frivolous (Bush’s favorite play is Cats?), and Newton’s performance is a part of that. Bush is not a serious man, and that’s part of the point. He’s not Barack Obama. He looks backward to Reagan — this point is actually made a little too often in the script — and he shares Reagan’s simple adherence to a few clear delineations of good and evil. The appropriate response to Bush the man — as opposed to Bush the President — is probably some sympathetic ribbing. And that’s what he gets here from Stone, who turns out to be much better at this than at high melodrama.
But in the process something a little sadder emerges — a portrait of a small man, a funny and human-sized man, who makes a bad choice and is punished for it in a manner worthy of Greek tragedy. He is not Oedipus or Agammemnon; he is not of sufficient stature, in the end, to bear the colossal vengeance we would like to see inflicted on a greater man (say, Nixon). His way of thinking, his simple, optimistic spirit, are not properly proportioned to the consequences of his actions. This is an odd movie to come out a couple of weeks before an election universally viewed as a repudiation of his presidency — a slightly cartoonish, but not mean-spirited, going-away card from a nation that no longer even cares enough about him to be mad.