Monday, October 20, 2008

dir. Oliver Stone

"We're through the looking glass people. White is black and black is white."
- Jim Garrison, JFK

"Remember Ricky: if you're not first, you're last."
- Reese Bobby, Talladega Nights

"Oedipus is funny. That's the structure of funny."
- Lester, Crimes and Misdemeanors

At last we have, in the person and the president of George Walker Bush, a subject worthy of the talent and vision of Oliver Stone.

It's no small challenge to render a sitting president. Small wonder that this third rail of entertainment is left to Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central. The opportunities to offend are as numerous as the opportunities to please are scant, so I'll get the praise out of the way quickly: W. is a very entertaining film, with fantastic performances all around.

That said, it is also a film that is essentially lacking. It is a whitewash of a history that may be too painful at the moment to relive, but it is a whitewash.

This is the third of Oliver Stone's presidential films, along with JFK and Nixon. When pressed on the, uh, historical liberties he took in the other films, Stone dubiously but ultimately credibly argues that he is not a documentarian. He presents a countermyth, to sit alongside the myths we so readily accept. He doesn't do All The President's Men. He does George Washington and the cherry tree from the cherry tree's point of view. Fair enough.

But where the real stories Nixon and JFK beg us to dig to find the secret truth of assassination, conspiracy, illegal war and shadow government hidden beneath layers of secrecy, the real story of W is the story of a man, of an administration, that did such things openly and obviously. W begs us not to dig, rather dares us to watch while he gets away with it...again and again. In short, W renders conspiracy theory obsolete, so whither Oliver Stone?

In JFK, Jim Garrison compares America to Hamlet: sons of a slain father-leader crying out from beyond the grave for justice. Stone's W is a latter day Oepdius. As the Iraq war spirals out of control, W is haunted by the legacy of his more cautious (and not yet dead) father, both in person and through the proxies of Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft and the other impenetrable Sphinxes of old Washington, whose clear words of wisdom fall like riddles on poor W's addled brain.

In Nixon and JFK, the world is ruled by ruthless men who see history clearly. In W, the world is ruled by clueless men (and at least one woman) who read history with all the nuance of a Tom Clancy novel.

The advantage of this Oedipal construction is that it gives Stone a chance to present a George Bush we in the public have never seen: an insecure man, consumed with doubt and feelings inadequacy. It's a credible theory. A glimpse behind the curtain.

When the real Bush was asked to name a mistake he had made while in office, we all saw a man to whom the question itself lacked meaning. What, me make a mistake? The only mistake would be to answer the question. Stone takes this infuriating glibness and inverts it, brilliantly. Stone's W is a man who cannot seem to pick out a single tree in a vast forest of mistakes, a forest that has become so dense and undifferentiated that isolating even a single twig is impossible.

The problem with the Oedipal construction is that belies the truth of the man we do know.

It's easy to imagine the father issues that might impel George W. Bush to go after Saddam Hussein. It's harder to swallow this theory when its applied to Hurricane Katrina, the corruption of the Justice Department in the furtherance of election fraud, the nomination of Harriet Myers to the (God help us) Supreme Court, the wiretapping of American citizens, illegal detention, falsified intelligence, the stubborn pursuit of failed war strategies, prisoner abuse at Abu Gharib and officially sanctioned torture.

These crimes make little appearance in the film. Even major events like the yellow-cake memo and Colin Powell's shameful, borderline treasonous presentation to the UN are depicted as little more than instances of bureaucratic ass-covering and simple equivocation.

JFK conspiracy theories survive because, ultimately, we find it difficult to accept that a single, angry, crazy little man can derail history. This explanation does not suffice. We find it oddly more comforting to imagine that LBJ must have been in on it.

Here, on the other side of the looking glass, "daddy made me do it" does not suffice to explain the damage George Bush has done.

If Clay Shaw, a closeted New Orleans businessman with no connection whatsoever to Lee Harvey Oswald can be personally blamed for the death of a president, the escalation of Vietnam and the Cold War and the subjugation of our nation under the boot of shadow fascism, then surely George W. Bush can be held to just slightly more account for his offenses to the republic.

Two and a half stars. Jason W. Bush says, you can't get fooled again.


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