A Paler Shade of Nixonby Melina Neet
W., Dir. Oliver Stone, Now Playing
Call Oliver Stone what you will—conspiracy theorist, provocateur, ’60s refugee with rose-colored editing—but his films once possessed visual daring. Without longtime cinematographer Robert Richardson, now directing on his own, the dazzling camera work of films like Natural Born Killers and Nixon has been replaced by the stalwart, if stultifying, images from World Trade Center, or a campier version of Ridley Scott in Alexander. Without Richardson’s unconventional lighting and multiple camera angles on one scene, W. is as dry in style as it is in substance.
Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser chose to bypass the political travesties surrounding Bush’s administration. They veer between dramatizing the buildup to Iraq and the Dubya of legend, the rabble-rousing near-do-well whose hard drinking was matched only by his ability to assign nicknames to new acquaintances.
In interviews for the film, Stone has been careful to clarify that he is empathizing, not sympathizing, with Bush. As a Vietnam Vet, Stone’s justly critical of how Bush misspent over 4,000 American lives in Iraq. As a director, and one never afraid to air polemical arguments, he errs here on the side of restraint. Stone may be on his way to becoming a Faustian auteur; his W is discreet to a fault.
The film opens with Bush (Josh Brolin) in an empty baseball field in one of several fantasy sequences the director poses as an analogy for Bush’s inadequacy as the Commander-in-Chief. The sly humor of the first fantasy scene, in which Bush bows to applause (even though the stands are empty) accelerates to something suggestive of a Bushian twist on No Exit: Hell is other people who speak above your comprehension span. Stone’s W. invokes a Walter Mitty in the Oval Office, a man who zones out of cabinet meetings in which men and women who outrank him in intelligence and education are stumped on what descriptive to give the new axis of their enemies.
After being roused from his fantasy, Bush focuses on the assembled group —Thandie Newton’s prim caricature of Condaleeza Rice, Scott Glenn’s smug Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Dreyfuss’ reptilian Dick Cheney and Jeffrey Wright’s scrupulously out-of-his-element Colin Powell—as they come to agreement on the word: Evil. Stone lets the moment of the group’s decision hang just long enough for us to realize the absurd somberness of the meeting, which ends with a prayer by the Commander-in-Chief. Stone’s characters look as though they're caught by surprise as they listen to Bush. A laugh might be expected when Bush summons the reverend whose Bible Study groups he attends when he gives up drinking. Bush informs the reverend that God has told him to run for president. Serious as Hell, the two pray together.
If everyone else submits, Bush, Sr., (James Cromwell) remains the lone skeptic regarding his son’s conversion and serves as a welcome presence in the all-too-insular narrative. From the family scenes, we learn that W inherited his mother Barbara’s (Ellen Burstyn) impulsive, gregarious nature. As the runt of the litter, Bush craves the respect of his father, who appears in his nightmares to taunt him in a barren, brightly lit Oval Office that resembles a torture chamber.
What’s remarkable about Stone’s approach is he seems to have forgiven Bush his trespasses by depicting Bush as less accountable than fallible for his fundamental lack of real authority.
This Bush is a puppet, conscious enough of his flaws to be tragic, but so inherently convinced of his right to command as to be ridiculous. Albeit for a scene in which Cheney delivers a report to Bush on "enhanced interrogation" techniques, Stone steps back from portraying Bush as "the darkness reaching out for the darkness," Watergate burglar Howard Hunt’s insightful description of Nixon. Bush makes a joke, and one motivated by a profound lack of comprehension of how outsized he is by Vice, his nickname for Cheney, and Rummy, neither of whom come across even remotely as malevolent as they should.
Jeffrey Wright’s Powell is the lone conscience of the film, pressured to play along as the cabinet plans its invasion of Iraq. Stone flashes back to Bush '41 basking in the success of the first Iraq War. Powell and Cheney congratulate each other. Then Stone jumps back to the present, in which Cheney taunts Powell, insinuating that, had the latter run for president, he would have gotten his way on the second Iraq war, too. The implication being that a Powell candidacy would have canceled out Bush even running. The moment is all too brief, like a hushed rumor that might pass in a D.C. dinner party.
In his effort to play it straight with Bush, possibly for fear of the same backlash that greeted him with JFK and Nixon, Stone mutes W. of the moral imperative that infused those films. Cinematically, he’s genuinely lost without Richardson. Sans one attempt at a telling moment—in which Bush’s sister steps on a corncob dropped in a backyard barbecue to introduce him to Laura (Elizabeth Banks, giving a performance of grace and ease, the very qualities Bush, so lacking, realized he could rely upon in her)—Stone has no visual tricks up his sleeve. Since he always used risk-taking visual style to explore character dynamics, Weiser’s bone-dry script has nothing to budge a laugh but for Stone’s pacing, which does work.
The music in the trailer for W., most notably Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime," might convince filmgoers on the fence to pony up. Stone’s musical choices were never more inspired than they were in Natural Born Killers, and it is that film’s subversiveness that the Talking Heads song conjures.
It’s easy to look at Stone’s W. and be wistful for his Nixon. The former delivers a deadly earnest biopic of a man-child who, in Stone’s parting fantasy shot, is waiting to catch a ball that never arrives; the latter explored the psychology of Tricky Dick, a man whose character Kissinger (Paul Sorvino) eulogizes, "Can you imagine what this man would have been had he ever been loved? It’s a tragedy because he had greatness in his grasp."
What’s disconcerting about W. isn't merely that Bush did not have greatness in his grasp but that Stone’s film doesn't even get close to examining whether Bush ever aspired to greatness. Stone seems to want us to accept, but be duly ready to vote against, the mendacity and utter mediocrity of the past eight years.
Melina Neet wants to sleep until November 5.