Sunday, October 19, 2008

'W.' and the Bush Legacy

I was understandably skeptical when I first heard of Oliver Stone’s plans to make a George W. Bush biopic while the man was still in office, at first relieved that Stone had seemingly returned to making incisive movies about controversial political figures after the huge missteps that were World Trade Center (2006) and Alexander (2004), but doubtful that the notoriously left-leaning filmmaker would be able to say anything new and insightful that hasn’t been said elsewhere (however, I should say that I never feel that it’s “too soon” to make a movie about any given subject, and while this may contradict an argument I made on this blog a year ago, I think “too soon” arguments are total crap because they imply some identifiable future date in which a mass of people are collectively, simultaneously prepared to revisit a given subject). But once I saw W.’s inventive advertising campaign, it looked like a dark comedy or satire more in the vein of Dr. Strangelove rather than a continuation of Stone’s dark sagas (marked often by his characteristically overwhelming visual bombast) into the annals of corrupt American history. The film, however, turned out to be neither.

W. is a surprisingly straightforward, unpretentious biopic that operates mostly around a contentious family drama between father and son, and Stone accomplishes here the last thing I ever expected him to—he actually gets into the psyche of a fascinatingly humanized interpretation of George W. Bush.

Having grown up in an area of Texas only twenty minutes away from Bush’s Crawford ranch, I was always under the impression that the cowboy iconography and fake-sounding accent Bush appropriated was more of a means to fool voters into thinking this Ivy League-educated political royalty was an average American simpleton rather than any accurate reflection of his actual life and values. W. argues instead that it is Bush’s presidency that is the façade, and his simple love for the easygoing times of rural Texas culture is where he genuinely feels most at home. Stone and Josh Brolin’s Bush is presented here, unlike Stone’s Nixon, as about as far from evil as one could get. Bush here isn’t depicted as stupid, just in way over his head. The occupational and generational conflict between W. and his father could have been substituted for many other contexts had these characters been fictional and with different last names—Bush here just so happens to have been born into a political family, and with his connections just so happens to become Governor of Texas without having ever held office before, and just so happens to become President of the United States.

Bush’s presidency is depicted as circumstantial and serendipitous—he simply jumped in with the right friends at the right time, but ultimately found himself in one of the last places he’d ever feel comfortable being in. At one point Laura tells him, “One day this war will be over and our lives can go back to normal,” and you can’t help but think that this is exactly what’s going through his mind in the last three months of his miserably long two terms.

Bush is an undeniably unique personality in an absurd situation. Despite his privileged upbringing, he’s a man of simple tastes and pleasures (in one of the film’s funniest moments, Laura reveals that W.’s favorite play is Cats). The film, once again, doesn’t portray Bush as stupid, just the last person anybody (including his own family) would ever expect to become President of the United States—twice. If Stone wanted to portray Bush as an unforgivable ignoramus, he’d have plenty of material to work with. But here we don’t see Bush continuing to read My Pet Goat several minutes after hearing about the attack on the World Trade Center, nor do we see his entrance into the White House paved by a stolen election, his daily flubs that have been fodder for late-night comedy, or his many embarrassing public moments with foreign leaders. Stone knows how easy it is just to ridicule Bush, and furthermore that the “idiot Bush” is how we already know him best. The filmmaker thankfully instead gives us a protagonist we can actually care about. When Bush stumbles at a press conference, we, for the first time, get inside his head rather than laugh at him from the safety of the seats in front of the podium.

This is not to say, of course, that the film forgives a Bush presidency—it’s simply a character study chronicling how his institutionalization of fear, his politicization of the Supreme Court, his pushing forward of dishonest motives for an unjust war, and his culture of paranoia dividing America in two could have happened. And what’s so refreshing about W. is that it allows us to find humor within what has panned out to be one of the darkest chapters in American history. The humor is hardly ironic or cynical—instead it’s surprisingly rather genuine. Stone allows us to see the absurdity of our given situation, and laugh at how incredibly ludicrous—and how undeniably American—it is that such a man could find his destiny in the seat of the most powerful person in the world.

It is the man’s environment that is posited here as what determines his political career, and Bush’s relationship with Karl Rove (played by Toby Jones) takes a straightforward look at these particular circumstances. Bush here is portrayed as authentically “southern” and sincerely religious; it is Rove who sees the character traits already there as political opportunism ripe for his type of propaganda, rather than creating Bush into something he is obviously not (after all, W., as we all know, is not good at faking anything). Bush knows what he wants to say, Rove simply tells him how to say it (even when he’s around his own cabinet).

And the connection between neo- conservatism and religion is presented here as tenuous. The neoconservative domestic and foreign policies characteristic of the Bush administration are depicted as result of the collective political ideologies of Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney, played by Richard Dreyfuss as exactly how we perceive him to be—an impenetrable mastermind of government bureaucracy and the real power behind the throne. Yet Bush and Rove are the ones who have utilized religion to support these policies—the real government power meanwhile seem turned off by Bush’s insistence on prayer after meetings (after all, we never think of Cheney, the ultimate neo-con, as a fundamental Christian). The connection between religion and politics so seemingly inherent to neo-conservatism are instead presented here as a coalition between the desires of those members of the cabinet with a hunger for power and the (seemingly) genuine but misguided religious spirit of the Commander-in-Chief, in which he believes it’s God’s will that he be President and invade Iraq (W. at one point tells his religious adviser that he doesn’t even want to be President, but he’s heard the calling and must follow, which could explain quite a bit of Bush’s disassociated behavior at press conferences and such).

Most of the cast approach their characters within varying degrees of basic imitation and actually attempting a three-dimensional embodiment of the given person. Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright, and Rob Cordry seem to present half-impression, half-character interpretations of the real-life counterparts they portray, with varying degrees of success (as W., Laura Bush, Colin Powell, and Ari Fleischer, respectively—and Powell is thankfully presented as the lone voice of dissent in Cheney’s war room, overcome and compromised by the coalition of the willing working against him). Meanwhile, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Scott Glenn, and Ioan Gruffudd seem to be making no attempt whatsoever to physically resemble George H.W. Bush, Barbara Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Tony Blair respectively, choosing instead to approach the roles as characters on their own, once again with varying levels of success (you really have to stretch your imagination for Glenn and Gruffudd). However, Thandie Newton’s shockingly spot-on portrayal of Condoleeza Rice seems to suggest a different film entirely, one that could have been completely embedded in biting satire, one with a serious actors articulating perfect impersonations of the many eccentric quirks of those mysterious figures running this country, without approaching the psychology of several of these truly impenetrable figures.

The film feels as hurriedly jumbled together as was, transposing some of the more famous Bushisms into different contexts in an economy of effort and a condensation of time. It is not, by any means, one of Stone’s more carefully envisioned works, nor does it seem to achieve any convincing cohesion regarding the events portrayed with how they panned out in reality. But Brolin’s W. is Brolin’s W., and his face is not so much substituted for the President’s as it is used as a vessel for a character study all its own, thereby forming a jumping-off point with which to attempt approaching the man himself and his confounding place within our nation's history.

I never voted for George W. Bush, and since I started giving a damn about politics around 2003 (I turned eighteen right when we started bombing Baghdad), he’s come to represent the opposite of everything I stand for politically, ideologically, and even spiritually. Yet, three months before he’s left office, I find myself at Union Square on opening night paying $25 for two tickets to see a biopic about him. Even knowing that it’s a film made by a notoriously leftist filmmaker, why should I have cared to spend the money if I despise the man so much? Because W., flaws and all, is without denial a figure of continuing fascination—I believe, left or right, most of the nation feels this way. Even when we’ve got him pegged, even when we can’t fathom him making one more gaffe, he continues to surprise us.

Whether I like it or not, W. the real-life President has defined a very significant part of my life. He took office in an election that brought to light the futility of the electoral process when I was a sophomore in high school, was reelected my sophomore year in college, and will leave office around the time I’ve finished grad school, with his face being inseparable from the destruction of almost every major governmental system that the function of our nation depends on. It’s tough to say quite yet what Bush’s legacy will be like, but I (with a straight face) doubt he’ll go down as one of the most hated men in American history. I think his legacy will be more akin to how he is portrayed in W.: the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, and all the absurdity therein.

Honestly, I’m going to miss Bush when he leaves because, while we do live in undeniably harsh times attributed largely to him, he was such a singularly unique, appallingly odd President during an equally strange political era. I do not doubt his legacy will continue to be reinterpreted long after he leaves office, and W. may not prove to be the definitive work of art preserving the President’s unprecedented place in history, but I think it’s a good place to start.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Nixons of Cinema

A lot of people have made comparisons between Bush Jr. and Nixon regarding who the worst president of the modern era is, citing parallel abuses of power between Nixon’s handling of Vietnam and Watergate with Bush’s war on terror and use of executive privilege. With Ron Howard’s adaptation of Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon coming out in December, and with Oliver Stone’s much anticipated biopic of our current president coming out next weekend, I think it’s high time to take a look at how several actors have attempted to embody one of Hollywood’s favorite presidents to put onscreen, Richard Millhouse Nixon.


Like with many careers of great directors from the seventies, the eighties were not a good time for Robert Altman. Between the fiasco that was Popeye and his early nineties comeback with The Player, Altman’s eighties career was littered with largely forgettable films, save for this underrated one-man show featuring Philip Baker Hall (probably most recognized for his work with P.T. Anderson) as a disgraced, post-presidency Nixon who recalls, with great brooding anger and resentment, the trials of his life and career in what is basically a 90-minute monologue.

Altman is perhaps best known for his overlapping dialogue, and while Secret Honor takes a 180 degree turn from the ensembles that defined Altman’s seventies career, Hall allows Nixon’s solitary dialogue to overlap itself, preventing the finishing of one thought or frustration to suddenly move on to another, as if Nixon’s life and character were so complex that not even he could articulate who he is or what he believes in. Nixon here is armed with a revolver, a tape recorder, and a bottle of scotch, wavering between fond recollection of his humble beginnings gone awry and unmitigated anger at those who he believes sought to destroy him at his every move. While the minimalist restraints in such an approach can be claustrophobic (one man, one room), this intimacy allows us to watch a man fall apart as he purges his many demons.

Nixon’s paranoia while in office extends here to his private, secluded post-presidency career, as his study is littered with surveillance material. Nixon narcissistically continues to record every thing he says and does (despite that such self-surveillance is what got him expelled from office in the first place), presuming that all of his ideas are important enough to be recorded, thereby naïvely refusing to admit he now exists alone in a nation that wants so badly to forget him. When Secret Honor ends, the surveillance cameras turn on Nixon himself, suggesting that the person Nixon fears most is the one staring at him in the mirror.

NIXON (1995)

Released not long after Nixon’s death in 1994, Oliver Stone’s elephantine biopic attempts to cover every possible territory in the man’s life and presidency, positing his rise and fall as Shakespearean tragedy. While the film attempts to humanize Nixon, his lust for power is presented as always stemming from an inherent narcissistic God complex that has driven him tooth-and-nail since birth to prove his own innate superiority over all other men. Nixon constantly refers to himself in the third person, and anytime he and Haldeman (James Woods) discuss the myth of the American Dream in respect to their many abuses of executive privilege, neither Haldeman nor Nixon ever seem to believe any of that crap beyond which of their actions it can justify. Nixon’s constituents act as cheerleaders (especially when his presidency begins to fall apart), constantly massaging the president's inflated sense of self while expressing their very sincere doubts as soon as they step into the hallway of the oval office, reflecting the “community of consent” Nixon developed in the White House which only further divided him from the ideology of the growing population that wanted him out of office.

Nixon’s community of consent:

Stone’s biggest attempts at humanization are his use of flashbacks, but these only present Nixon’s habit of altering the truth as having been constant since childhood, and suggest that his self-destructive lust for power was the result of a disappointing performance as a college football player. Still, Stone makes little connection between the younger Nixons and the one who would become president, never showing how his “humble Quaker upbringing” (often his most potent political tool) led to a soulless state of power. This implausible, nuance-free scene (as only Oliver Stone can do it) portrays how Nixon’s presidency had never attempted to reflect the will or enforce the best interest of the American people, with the shadow of Lincoln forever echoing in the background:

However, Hopkins’ and Stone’s Nixon is undeniably smart, presented as having had the rhetorical ability to squash the voices of dissent by his intimidating sheer force of personality. Nixon’s Nixon is made to be the type of slimy politician who could weasel his way into virtually any place of power, who could manipulate even the loudest of dissenters to vote for him against any aspect of their will, while somehow being able to separate himself from the most radical of the right wing. In other words, Stone sees Nixon as one of the greatest politicians in American history.

DICK (1999)

Although the tone of both Secret Honor and Nixon may refuse to admit it, there’s something funny to be found even in a nation’s most troubling hour. Dick asks what it would be like if a pair of airheaded high school girls had an unknowing, unintended role in the Watergate scandal and Nixon being shoved out of office. This film was a hard sell in 1999, a nostalgic political satire disguised as a teen comedy aimed at an audience far too young to know or care about the political history structuring its narrative. But for anybody willing to appreciate either type of film, Dick cleverly uses its protagonists to fill in every gap of the Watergate scandal, from the missing eighteen minutes on the tape to the identity of Deep Throat.

Dan Hedaya, who played a small role as a Nixon constituent in Nixon, here plays the titular president—and I must say, more so than anybody else who has embodied Tricky Dick, Hedaya actually appears somewhat in tandem with the president’s inimitable, cartoonish physical features with relatively little makeup. But Dick’s best surprise is its take on Woodward and Bernstein, which is about as far as one can get from Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men (1976). Berstein is played by The Kids in the Hall’s Bruce McCulloch and Woodward by a SNL-era Will Ferrell, and they’re hilariously interpreted as egotistical, immature, conceited man-children who seek to implicate Nixon in Watergate not for social justice, but in order to reign victor in a childish pissing contest between themselves.

But perhaps Dick’s smartest move is the very presence of the oblivious high school girls, who are still in the patriotic public school history class mode of treating the President of the United States as an a man of uncontested honor and dignity while being completely unaware of his questionable policies. We first meet these characters on a field trip to the White House, where the students are portrayed as equally ignorant of any protest going on outside as they are of the history on display within (and, in a great jab at the American state of mind, never showing excitement until they take a break at McDonald’s). Nixon’s presidency emboldened a new kind of skepticism amongst American voters, where the men of power are no longer seen as innocent until proven guilty, where America stopped believing that the White House always worked in the best interests of those outside rather than the personal interests of those inside.

Nixon destroyed the myth of the American President—a myth our current President has done nothing to restore—by proving that the righteous, moral, honest, decent, virtuous, noble, trustworthy role the Commander-in-Chief played in the stories learned in our first history classes is never the same as the man himself.

Manufacturing Consent Continued: Gay Marriage

I’m sure I’m not the only one to say this, so I’ll keep it brief. This was a pretty astounding moment at last week’s Vice Presidential debate. Compared to the droning repetition of economic and foreign policy talking points and sound bites in the first two of three Obama/McCain debates (what exactly was the difference between the first and second debate besides the setting?), we got to hear talking points and sound bites regarding just about every election-deciding issue from Biden and Palin. While this is definitely a result in part of the McCain campaign’s attempt to deliver a gaffe-free Palin by instituting a strict debate format (notice her disdain for "nuance" as articulated in this clip), both Biden and Palin came prepared to talk about all issues briefly and, in terms of political language, thoroughly. These are still televised soundbites, which as I argued before prevents progressive discourse in recorded media. But where the relative freedom offered in the Obama-McCain debate style resulted only in time-wasting compliments to the opponent or thank-yous to the questioner and a clearly flustered Tom Brokaw, Biden and Palin very quickly delivered their stump rhetoric. They even had time to talk about Darfur! (Biden, in one of the debate’s greatest moments, was even able to challenge the dominant opposing rhetoric, calling out McCain’s self-ordained maverick status.)

But the same-sex marriage moment was so revealing, because it really illustrated the emptiness of campaign rhetoric. Each candidate revealed what was ultimately the exact same position on the issue, but with rhetoric characteristic to each of their alleged political viewpoints. Biden delivered a clearly-articulated a common-sense stance on same-sex marriage that certainly appeals to voters who consider themselves progressive, while Palin played to the homophobia of her conservative base while balancing an appeal to voters who might take a more moderate stance (she seems to think that “tolerance” is a more progressive word than it sounds), but their rhetoric lost all its worth as soon as they realized their concurrence on the issue. This illuminates the very important role that rhetoric and spin play in this election (especially with an arguably moderate Democratic ticket), where politicians remain astute in delivering campaign talking points that may sound like a breath of fresh air, but, out of fear of upsetting the status quo (i.e., more voters), are probably not so different from current policies.

Notice how frequently in the debates the candidates have stumbled over their words, almost saying other obvious words. They aren't thinking about the issue when they answer a question, they're thinking about finishing their sentence in the best way possible. Notice how quickly Obama's once-inspiring rhetoric has gotten so tired. This is why the years-long presidential campaign process can hardly contain radical vessels of proposed change (byebye, Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich), because anything signifying drastic change gets normalized and reconstituted into the political mainstream in order for the candidate to have any hope of becoming elected. And this ridiculously long process can't help but cause any unique, elevated language to eventually resonate as empty rhetoric.

The words you have seen so far, and will once again see on Wednesday night, have been thoroughly prepared and cleansed for unthreatening television viewing. So sit back, enjoy, and watch the democratic process at work.