Review of Oliver Stone’s “W”

October 17, 2008

I’m at the Austin Film Festival this week, and I had the pleasure of seeing what I believe is one of the first ever screenings of Oliver Stone’s new film, “W.”

The short version of this review: as long as you go into it with the understanding that it is a work of fiction, it’s a very entertaining and interesting movie. If you go into it thinking it’s an accurate representation of history, you’re screwed.

I believe Oliver Stone has created his own genre over the past few decades. Let’s call it “modern historical fiction.” Or, as a friend of mine referred to it, “instant nostalgia.” Many believed, at the time, that what he did to Nixon and JFK – fictionalizing historical events and passing it off as fact – was cold and unethical. And viewed from that perspective, they’d be right.

But the thing is he’s done it so much – not just with Nixon and JFK but with the Doors, World Trade Center (I’m making an assumption on that one – haven’t actually seen that movie) and now our soon-to-be-ex-President – that there’s no way it can just be an accident.

If this were a work of complete fiction about characters we never knew, then “W.” would be marvelous. You see what makes a guy like this go after the top job in the country. You see all the trials and tribulations of a silver-spoon-fed boy who’s never lived up to the expectations of his father or the success of his brother, desperately seeking approval from someone, anyone. You see how a real human being lives his life before and during his presidency, the mistakes he makes and his successes and failures.

You see into the soul of his father’s presidency, and how that plays into the decision to go take out “the enemy” and “do it right this time.” You see a group of people first convince themselves that a war in Iraq is the right move, and then go after the evidence to prove their ill-formed hypothesis.

And you see the way that the miserable failure of that war crushes the spirit of this bumbling fool, whom we’ve come to love in the same way we love Forrest Gump or The Joker.

But on the other side of this story is a disturbing fact: it’s all bullshit.

Every one of Bush’s cabinet members received a laugh at their first appearance, and the actors playing Karl Rove and Condaleeza Rice are nothing but caricatures of the people they’re meant to represent – particularly the latter. We see fights that may or may not have happened and relationships that may or may not bear any resemblance to the truth. The President is shamelessly mocked in every conceivable fashion: every “Bushism” you know and love is said, but in a venue we know he didn’t say them; we see him waking up in his underwear and wiping his ass in the toilet; we get to delve into his fantasies, in which he stands in an empty baseball field, soaks in imagined cheers, and catches an imagined fly ball to deep center field.

In short, we get to see propaganda that shows Bush, Jr as the bumbling fool we and the media have always pictured him to be.

(Keep in mind, I’m not trying to defend the President, his administration, or any decisions there made. I’m simply criticizing a movie for what it is. Though the message of this propaganda will no doubt prove popular, given the scapegoat’s approval ratings, keep in mind that Jews were no more popular when Nazi propaganda was circulating. Judge the presidency on its own merits, not on the public portrayal of him.)

If we step back again and return to my initial hypothesis – that Stone has created his own genre – we can reconcile the dichotomy between these two very distinct aspects of the film. It is fiction, based on actual historical events. Always know that Stone’s job, first and foremost, is to put butts in seats. In order to do that, his job is to entertain, and if we can step back and recognize the film as entertainment, we can look at it for the exercise this film is in how a character carries out his motivations. Failing to look at it from this perspective is, I hope, to misunderstand the artistic vision of the director, who, let’s face it, has done this enough times and drawn enough criticism to have corrected the problem now, if he wanted to.

“W.” is a controversial film, and with good reason. It’s definitely worth watching. Just take care not to get sucked into the machine.


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