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October 19, 2008

Review: W.

I had high hopes for Oliver Stone's George Bush biopic, W., but I came away disappointed. The movie had so much less pathos than the journalism it was based on.

W. fails because it flouts the cardinal storytelling maxim: Show, don't tell. There's no subtext in this movie. Stone doesn't trust us to figure out that George W. Bush is striving for his father's approval, or that Colin Powell is morally ambivalent about the invasion or Iraq, and so on. Every character states his or her motivations in clear declarative sentences.

By contrast, Bart Gellman's reported biography of Dick Cheney, The Angler, is much more emotionally compelling because Gellman is constantly showing, building a case by recounting dozens of small, concrete decisions. George W. Bush is a supporting character in Gellman's book, but he comes across as a far more interesting character.

Gellman's Bush is no affable bumber. He's shallow, unreflective, and completely convinced of his own righteousness. Gellman sees Bush as a manager who is so recklessly indifferent to the details of his operation that he really has no idea what's going on .

Stone's W. seems to have been purged of most of the petty meanness and political acumen of the real Bush.

Sometimes, Stone tries to show us the skills that set W. apart. He's not everyman. That's a Rove-scripted act, a propaganda ploy. In fact, Rove glommed onto Bush because he same something brilliant in him.

The opening scene of W. is fraternity hazing session where shirtless pledges are getting waterboarded in buckets of vodka-laced punch. One hapless pledge is asked to recite the name of every brother in the room. He can only name six of the forty brothers, so the hazers punish him by siphoning bourbon down his throat. Then it's George W.'s turn. 

W. gleefully rattles off the names and nicknames of every brother in the room, to the delight of all assembled. This episode illustrates Bush's phenomenal real-life talent for remembering names and faces. Stone never follows up on this revelation.

Early in the movie, Bush is a staggering drunk. Later on, he seems vacant. Nobody ever seems to like him much.

This is a weakness in the movie because W.'s social skills explain so much about his trajectory in life. He didn't get where he was just because he was the son of a president. His brother Jeb had the same background and a much more auspicious track record, but W. became president. Stone doesn't help us understand why.

As Amanda explains in her review, we Stone's W. is one of those privileged men who is obnoxious, but who continues to think of himself as charming and witty because other people scramble to stroke ego. Stone gives us a good take on this familiar archetype, but I don't think the self-deluded boor trope captures George W. Bush in full.

It’s hard to do a movie about the Bush presidency while the debacle is ongoing. We’ve all seen and read and speculated so much about this administration. How can Stone claim to know these people better than we do?

I found myself fighting the urge to judge every performance by how well the actor mimicked real people that I see on TV every day and whom I’ve been watching, studying, arguing at, and generally obsessing about for the last eight years.

But Stone invites that kind of scrutiny by sort of playing the characters for laughs, but not being consistently funny. He won't go full-on black comedy, but he won't dig deeper than hackneyed Oedipal cliches to explain why Bush acts the way he does.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Tina Fey, who just happens to be the spitting image of Sarah Palin in addition to being whip smart and funny as hell. But I found myself taken out of the story, spot-checking each performance as an impression.

I wanted at least one of two things from W.: really good popular history, and/or, an artist’s interpretation that used dramatic license to teach something over and above what journalists and historians have been able to say so far. Stone failed to deliver either one.

Maybe the problem is that Stone excels at embellishing conspiracy theories that have yet to be substantiated. Whereas, the crimes of the Bush administration would seem like flights of fancy if they hadn’t already been documented conclusively. There isn’t much further Stone’s imagination can take this story.


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I'm curious Ms.Beyerstein, what makes you think that Tina Fey is "whip smart"? Perhaps you know her? Or perhaps she writes her own material, and I don't know that. Which is eminently possible. Or perhaps she's written books/essays/articles that I don't know about. Again, eminently possible.

Yes, Fey has been writing her own material for years. She was a staff writer for SNL. She's also the head writer at 30 Rock, in addition to starring and producing the show.

She also wrote her own part in Mean Girls.

Tina Fey was the first female head writer of SNL.

Do you feel there's another Bush biography, on film or in writing, that does capture his character well?

On another note, do you have any reactions to Harper's reelection?

If there's a definitive biographical study of Bush, I haven't found it. I think Fortunate Son comes closest to describing Bush's personal style and character--FS has problems of its own, but I think the author had real insight into GWB the man. Ron Suskind seems to have a pretty good grasp of Bush, too.

Reaction to Harper's reelection: Disappointment, frustration.

Harper's reelection is kind of predictable and I'm actually just relieved that he didn't get a majority. If you had lived in Ontario under Mike Harris, you'd know what I mean when I said that this was just like the second election of Mike Harris. So many reasons not to vote for him, but ennui and complacency brought him to a second majority.

I thought Dion might be the national version of Dalton McGuinty, but maybe not.

God, that first comment illustrates exactly why pretty women don't exactly skate by in a sexist society. I fail to see any reason to question the assertion that Tina Fey is smart outside of a general doubt about the abilities of pretty women.

this is probably one of the best reviews I've ever read I just want to add this:
The 'simplicity' of the message was interesting to a younger person. (or one without the info we feed ourselves) My young son got every scene. And admitted being bored before he was caught up in the ... movie. He's not a w fan. Not sure why. LOL !!!! He asked to go see it so ... there you have it.
There's also the theory that just getting the cover out there is winning the battle. Even if people never read the book or see the movie, the idea is planted. The words are said etc.
Given all that I'd still rather read a good book or see a good movie.
Sorry I didn't get time to read your post thoroughly. I bet you liked some of the same things I did.
I was giving over MY money whether I sat in it or not. Misunderestimated life had me at mis.
Sometimes I buy several tix to a show that I want to boost. Because yahoo sure did have fun trashing W for some comedy or kidflick.
I think OS's ego can take it.

Thanks Ms me a better understanding of Fey.

I'd say that Amanda Marcotte's comment illustrates perfectly the argumentative style that makes obtuse guys like me uncomfortable with fervent feminists…

It assumes that, firstly, jonst comment was charged with a negative prejudice against Fey – which I think is the case, but it’s just a speculation, and secondly that the prejudice was a sexist one due to the fact that Tina Fey is a hottie; and here the assumption is quite unfounded. I can imagine many reasons that would lead some people to have negative feelings about Tina Fey, for example being a Palin-fan or whatever.

So my point is that, prejudices do exist, being a black person I know about them quite a bit, but the fact that a person who doesn’t know me could cast doubts on my aptitudes or personality does not mean that they are racially prejudiced about me. I think that seeing the prejudice everywhere and being defensive about it is not a good thing, it makes you appear as a whiner which is never a desirable reputation, and moreover it hurts the credibility for your cause when actual manifestations of prejudices occur.

"I'd say that Amanda Marcotte's comment illustrates perfectly the argumentative style that makes obtuse guys like me uncomfortable with fervent feminists…"

Indeed, the gall of Amanda, pointing out obtuse guy's obtuseness. Why, it must be her fervent feministness that makes her be such a shrill woman. When will she learn not to make an assumption that every obtuse comment is spoken by an obtuse guy?

So because I asked a question, a simple question, which I qualified by noting: " Which is eminently possible. Or perhaps she's written books/essays/articles that I don't know about. Again, eminently possible", I had a "negative prejudice"????


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