22
Nov 08

W. Was A Brolin Stone (Production)

Do You See + FT3 comments • 259 views

There are two great, if not stone cold classic, aspects to Oliver Stone’s W. Put aside the fact that Stone has somehow managed to wander back from the wilderness of his own self-indulgence and succeed in making entertaining a film no-one really wanted to see, there are two things which will make this seemingly ephemeral election stunt film linger in film history. The first is simply the central performance. Josh Brolin is mesmeric in the lead role. Is he playing George W. Bush? Not for a minute. Most of the time he seems to be channelling Dennis Quaid with a Bush accent at his most starry, perhaps Quaid was injected in his Inner Space capsule and is controlling Brolin. That might explain how Brolin has gone from shitty bitty parts and bad guys two years ago into this confident, bulletproof performer. But there is never a moment in this film you don’t want to watch him. He oozes unpredictability in a role which is all about the predictable. We know what happens, we know when it happens and we have pretty firm ideas how it happens (which the film is in no hurry to disagree with). And yet in making George W.Bush not necessarily sympathetic, but endlessly watchable Josh Brolin is really just saying how great he is. And I would rather watch a proper star play with an audience than an impersonation any day.

But this hints to the other area of greatness in W. When Oliver Stone announced the project, it was easy to imagine what he might turn out. Released a few weeks before the election to remind Americans of the terrible mistakes they had made in the previous elections, W. clearly had to be a partisan Democrat’s film bashing the Republicans. Except, as Michael Moore found with Fahrenheit 911, preaching to the converted and bashing your enemy just makes your enemy not listen even more. It makes them draw their wagons in and protect their man – even if they are getting pissed off. So instead we get this odd film, critical in places but also contextualising the decisions. Showing influence, manipulation, mistakes but also a very human President (and one which Josh Brolin makes so watchable). The two hour running time picks and chooses its incidents, there is no time for either of Bush’s election victories, but the pretzel gets a look in. No hagiograph, too selective a biography, toothless satire and no stylised fever dream of a nation: it nevertheless hints at all of these approaches (down to the Fox News salute). What I realised at the end was that W. is the sum of all of the films it isn’t. It’s a film designed to please absolutely no-one*. Democrats are annoyed that its too soft, Republicans will find it too critical. Americans will get enough shame and embarrassment out of it, the rest of the world will be baffled by the free ride so many aspects of the story gets. Brits would be appalled that Oliver Stone appears to have cast Prince William as Tony Blair, the French that Chirac is represented by a Clouseau voice-over down the phone. There is little of substance here for fans of political drama, but there is no closure or dramatic force for a narrative film. But its individual scenes and sequences belong in all of these films. And all of those films would be even less relevant than W. is. It is almost the opposite of Todd Haynes Dylan biopic I’m Not There which manages to paint a convincing portrait of Dylan without directly showing him once. All W. does is show George W.Bush, without ever really attempting to show him at all.

Stone is having more fun here than you would expect from him. Perhaps in trying to grapple with how to make this film he realised you can’t. No singular vision of W. would work, so just do them all. In some ways Brolin being so good almost spoils it for Stone, his W. is so watchable it almost feels like there is a narrative arc here worth pursuing. On the other hand Stone the entertainment filmmaker may have realised that it was exactly the trick he needed to pull. It is a film with one hundred views of nothing, pretending to be a film about someone important. Which, from whichever of the angles Stone tries to show him, is not a bad metaphor for the real George W.Bush.

*Except perhaps me, when I realised this fact.

Comments

  1. 1
    DV on 22 Nov 2008 #

    Is it in any sense like “Nixon”? I liked that. What you say about W sounds a bit similar – having an actor who is not really impersonating the character as such, and portraying a highly maligned figure somewhat sympathetically.

  2. 2

    it is surprisingly unlike nixon

  3. 3
    pete on 23 Nov 2008 #

    I think Nixon informs W a lot, in as much as Stone is trying to avoid making certain mistakes he felt he made in Nixon. In as much as Tony Hopkins isn’t in W he has successfully lept the biggest hurdle.

    Nixon wanted to be an important film and was thus weighed down by its attempts at importance. W is trying to be anything but important and therefore oddly seems to gain something. It is more akin to a rock biopic, than a political one (indeed has the same flashback type structure of Ray or Walk The Line (and thus Walk Hard)).

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