Thursday, February 26, 2009

The only thing missing

There is a group of filmmakers whose work I never pass up, no matter the reviews or subject: Quinton Tarantino, Spike Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Cronenberg, Gus VanSandt, Oliver Stone and a few others I'm forgetting.
They make films that are engrossing on many levels, thanks to provocative camera work, interesting editing, strong performances and great dialogue. They allow supporting actors to go way over the top and get lost in the creation. They can make three hour films that aren't overly long.
However, none of them except Lee has ever made what I consider to be a masterpiece (X was just spot on). There is always something missing, or too much of something. Not enough to ruin the movie, mind you, but just enough to keep it out of that Top 10 list.
My case in point today is W., Stone's take on our 43rd president. The supporting performances are wonderfully entertaining, especially Thandie Newton's Condi Rice and Richard Dreyfuss's Dick Cheney. While Jeffrey Wright plays Colin Powell fairly straight and well, Newton, Dreyfuss, Scott Glenn (Rumsfeld) and the others make worthy choices with their characters.
Josh Brolin is terrific as W., despite a big hole in the script. He gets the mediocre nature of George W. Bush without turning him into a clown. He wants to be a great man, but even all the advantages of aristocracy can't quite put him over the top in his own mind (or his dad's). Brolin's physical manifestation is so good that you forget what the real Bush looks and sounds like.
And that hole? Bush's mean streak. Stone gives us an average guy who gets repeatedly overwhelmed. He ignores the former president's well documented pettiness and willful ignorance. This is the guy who spent over one-third of his days in power on vacation, who joked to the Gridiron Club about WMD's while snipers and suicide bombers were picking off our young men in the streets of Iraq, who let New Orleans drown for three days after Katrina, etc. None of that is reflected anywhere in the film.
This film is not as ambitious or serious as Stone's Nixon, despite some superficial similarities. Of course, Bush is not as ambitious or serious as Nixon was in real life. In Nixon, Stone gave the man a fair shake without skimping too much on the essential darkness and disconnect of the main character. And, to be fair, Nixon had a much more interesting political life than Bush.
The film was more than worth my time. And I think Stone was about three-quarters right about Bush and his flunkies. I just wish the normally provocative auteur behind JFK, Wall Street and the aforementioned Nixon would have held W.'s feet a little closer to the fire.

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