I hadn’t planned to review any movies here, but the reviews of Oliver Stone’s “W.” are so maddeningly dense — raves and pans alike — that I can’t resist commenting.
Let’s begin with America’s Newspaper of Record. The New York Times’s Manohla Dargis eschews discussing the actual film in favor of waxing professiorial:
The story repeatedly shifts between scenes of the younger Bush meandering through his life, and the older Bush navigating through the early stages of the Iraq war. This shuttling across time and space undercuts the drama — the story doesn’t so much build as restlessly circle back — but it puts into visual terms Mr. Stone’s ideas about the present and past being mutually implicated.
You can hear Dargis puffing up her own — quite ordinary — response like a balloon here. The first sentence is clear as day, and the second sentence dissolves a clear enough idea into demented academicspeak. The movie does indeed “shuttle across time and space,” as do all movies except Edison one-reelers and all those Hitchcock films that take place in cramped apartments. God knows what “present and past being mutually implicated” means. It’s one of those things that film students write in caffeine-inspired final papers at 2 a.m. because they know it’s the sort of thing film teachers gobble up (or at least nod knowingly at).
Because the film spends so much time on the pre-presidential younger Bush — first glimpsed marinating in vodka in 1966 — and ends sometime in 2004, more than a year into Iraq, it can’t help feeling like a prologue to a more involved story.
Pop quiz: Who would you rather see a movie about, the George W. Bush of 1966-2004, or the George W. Bush of 2005-to-the-present? Thought so. (Incidentally, I think what Dargis meant to write was “no more than a year into Iraq,” which would have properly placed the emphasis for her point. Maybe it’s because they have to churn out their product in a hurry, but almost every critic I’ve read on this movie has garbled at least a sentence or two.)
On one of the movie’s most important scenes, the scene of Bush meeting with wounded soldiers in a hospital:
The intrusion of real horror is bluntly effective, though there is something at once morally and structurally suspect about the use of such images in any fiction entertainment, no matter how high-minded and well intended.
Let’s break this down. First, note that Dargis finds the scene nothing less than “morally suspect.” That’s the kind of charge they used to throw at, I don’t know, embezzlers. Did Dargis find the scenes of the Confederate wounded in “Gone With the Wind,” or the carnage in “Saving Private Ryan” or Stone’s own “Platoon” equally “morally suspect”? All of those movies were marketed as entertainment (except possibly “Ryan,” which was marketed as an affirmation of Steven Spielberg’s moral stature), despite the fact that real World War II and Vietnam veterans undoubtedly sat through them. (1) Does Dargis simply wish to parade her own superiority to Oliver Stone by suggesting that she, for one, would never be so gauche as to include wounded Iraqi soldiers in a movie about the Iraq War? (2)
Dargis tries to keep the reader from realizing the implications of that plainly ridiculous response by also calling the scene structurally suspect; that it is in the second, more important position is to remind you that she, as a Serious Film Critic, is more interested in the “structure” of Stone’s film than anything as insignificant as, say, the performances (none of which get a mention here, except for an offhand pan of James Cromwell’s wonderful performance as George H. W. Bush). But why in the world is it “structurally” suspect? How can a scene even be “structurally” suspect? Did it simply interfere with her notion of what she thought the movie should be like?
Enough. Let’s move on to a somewhat better critic, Stephanie Zacharek of Salon. Zacharek’s review is approximately twenty times better than Dargis’s. For one thing, she can write:
“W.” is more enjoyable and more effective when it’s crazier, more exaggerated, like a Christmas Pantomime. In casting and directing his actors, Stone seems to have followed his baser, truer instincts: He allows them plenty of wickedness, providing space for their performances to blossom in marvelous, insightful, almost expressionistically joyous ways. There’s Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell: The incredulousness on his face, as his cronies embark on engineering a war he knows can’t be won, says more than a hundred lines of dialogue could. Richard Dreyfuss doesn’t miss a single insidious detail in his portrayal of Dick Cheney, right down to the way he peels back his lower lip to reveal those tiny Chicklets of evil masquerading as lower teeth. Thandie Newton is frighteningly perfect as Condoleezza Rice; she wears a constant sneer, as if she were perpetually haunted by the smell of rotten eggs. Scott Glen doesn’t bear much physical resemblance to Donald Rumsfeld, and so he instead pulls the performance straight from inside. When he utters lines like “Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war,” they come from the heart — and that right there is terrifying.
This is good, physical writing — the way Zacharek shapes the last lines, talking about Glen “pulling the performance straight from inside,” as if she couldn’t help but associate Rumsfeld with the violent imagery of a horror movie, is poetry — and I wish the review itself stayed that good all the way through. But Zacharek is blinded by what can only be called liberal condescension. Halfway through her review, Zacharek pauses to remind us that she’s better than George and Laura Bush:
Because, as we all know — and as Stone reminds us — W has never been so hot in the book-learning department. Stone and Weiser use that fact to cut a small, fascinating window into the life of George and Laura Bush, maybe because, like many of us, they’ve often asked themselves, “Why?” That is, why would a seemingly intelligent woman, who’d worked as both a librarian and a teacher (and who, it appears, was far more politically liberal in her younger days), fall for a semi-literate Republican cowboy type? … But the scene is played in a way that underscores the joy and tragedy of so many human relationships: Sometimes sexual chemistry carries the day, even when the parties involved know better, which is perhaps, in real life, the case with W and Laura. (To those of you who may have lost your appetite after reading the words “W” and “sexual chemistry” in the same sentence, I apologize.)
As someone who opposed George W. Bush from the moment I heard of him, stayed suspicious when his speeches were getting compared to Churchill and Hemingway, and started calling him a “tyrant” around the time he started calling for Saddam’s head, I don’t feel much pleasure in saying this, but liberal condescension to Bush has resulted in some of the most nauseating, self-congratulatory writing there is. Calling Bush a “semi-literate Republican cowboy type” is, I suppose, just reflexive liberal condescension — it pops out of the writer the way words like “unholy” pop out of nerdy teenagers — but there’s something very ugly-sounding about that phrase “seemingly intelligent woman.” Ugly and bullying, in fact, in a way that we’re hearing from a lot of the McCain camp these days.
I’ve long wondered why everyone at the Village Voice feels compelled to write in this compressed, slangy, all but incomprehensible hipster-speak. I think I’ve figured it out: It gives you license to say anything you want, regardless of whether it makes any sense or not. That’s the only excuse I can think of for some of the articles I’ve read there. (3) And so J. Hoberman, in his mild pan of the movie, just babbles and babbles:
A simian slob, modeled on Andy Griffith’s raucous run-amok in A Face in the Crowd and given to bad-tempered pronouncements while stuffing his face, Brolin uses stupidity as a crucifix. He wards off sympathy as though it were a vampire. In directing Brolin, Stone is disinclined to give the devil his due.
This is so far from my own impression of Brolin’s performance that I have to presume Hoberman is reading his own dislike of the real-life Bush onto the movie. But even if I did agree, the paragraph is rife with other projections. How does Hoberman know that Brolin based his performance on Andy Griffith’s? (He doesn’t, and in fact the performances aren’t much alike at all, but talking about movies only in terms of other movies is a film hipster’s favorite disarm-the-audience trick.) As for using stupidity as a crucifix and warding off sympathy as though it were a vampire, that’s just VV-speak — the technique is to pile up metaphors and pseudo-points until they cover up the fact that you don’t have anything to say.
My favorite awful review, though, has to be this truly weird rave from Armond White of the New York Press. White comes off like a parody of a critic. His view of absolutely everything seems constructed entirely in response to some other view. In short, he’s literally a “reactionary.”
Striving for balance, Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser shape a narrative that aims for artistic justice—reclaiming the high ground that was forsaken by Michael Moore and the fashionable trend of unapologetic media bias. …
Wait, wait — what is “artistic justice”? Is it the same as, like, historical justice? Or does it just mean that Bush deserves to have a respectful fictional touch-up just ’cause he’s a president and all? Never mind; White moves on without explaining. There’s a po-faced madness to his method.
But Stone and Weiser don’t repeat the infamous New Yorker magazine Obama cover-cartoon transgression that confused satire, parody and mockery. …
Wait — so you’re supposed to keep those things separate? And does he think the “cover-cartoon” was a transgression? God, what the hell is he talking about?
Today’s political satire has distorted our sense of judgment. Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live are not high points of our culture—no matter how many viewers mistake showbiz temerity for political principle. … Presenting Bush as a paradox, not a fool, makes W. more complex than current political serio-comedies like the snide Charlie Wilson’s War.
Reading White is like trying to drink a Coke after chugging three shots of espresso. It’s kind of exciting and it eventually makes you feel kind of slimy and disgusting. It’s exciting, for example, to see him slam The Daily Show (if twenty-somethings had playgrounds, this sort of talk would get you beaten up), but grouping it with, of all things, SNL, makes you pause. Does he mean, like, all SNL? Since 1975? Is he sincerely dismissing the entirety of American television’s most famous long-running comedy show and expecting us not to blink? Does he talk like this in real life?
It gets worse once White gets around to discussing what he thinks the point of the movie is:
…instead of uselessly second-guessing Bush‘s doctrine, Stone lets Cheney point out: “Your presidency is a fulcrum point in history.” The discussion where the test-phrase “Axis of Hatred” becomes “Axis of Evil” is only ludicrous if you want it to be; just as Cheney’s take on Iraq as an oil resource (“the fertile choke point of civilization”) argues American interest and necessity convincingly—except maybe to green peaceniks. These cabinet meetings clarify how power and empire work. As the director of a large-scale social and heroic history like the majestic, underrated Alexander, Stone understands America’s historic place as empire—despite whoever finds that concept dismaying.
For sheer credulousness, this is hard to beat. Does White know anything about politics? Is he willing to take any stance as long as it contradicts those of artists he hates? What does it mean to “uselessly second-guess Bush’s doctrine”? And why does he keep slipping in atonal, blandly out-of-place phrases like “large-scale social and heroic history”? And what is “despite” doing in the last sentence? Does he mean, like, “no matter who”?
In his review of Albert Goldman’s “Elvis,” Greil Marcus made one of my favorite ever critical observations. Goldman, Marcus complained, wrote in the “addled syntax of someone who dictates rather than writes.” Anyone who’s made it all the way through Goldman’s inadvertently funny 600-page book — rich in insights like “Myth is what we believe naturally. Truth is what we must painfully learn and struggle to remember.” — will probably collapse with laughter on hearing that. Reviews like White’s make me wish I were reading Goldman again.
Only the great Roger Ebert — writing in his usual flat journalist’s voice, echoing not the mind of the film scholar but the ordinary moviegoer when he uses phrases like “you won’t find out here” and “the movie doesn’t show them…” — came up with a take that remotely resembled mine. Next to the vaunting theory-tossing and vapid phrase-making of the other critics, Ebert doesn’t say much at all in his review, really — but, as usual, he somehow includes everything of importance.
What Stone did with George W. Bush was so radical that almost no critic seems to have understood it, let alone approved of it. He approached him with a sense of awe and discovery, as if no one had ever tried to tell this guy’s story before. He didn’t quite pull this off — leaving Sept. 11 and Florida out of the George W. Bush story is like leaving miracles out of the Jesus story — but he made the story seem remarkably fresh. The most common response to the movie I’ve heard is melancholy. This is a sad story. When the historians come to write this one in 20 years, they’ll think so too.
1. While I doubt any Civil War veterans attended the premiere of GWTW, I don’t doubt there were a few at the premiere of “Birth of a Nation” (1915), which came out closer to the end of the Civil War than “Ryan” did to the end of WW2.
2. Since “JFK,” claiming one’s superiority to Oliver Stone has been every snob’s way of declaring oneself above the rabble. The NYT’s Michiko Kakutani — one of those critics of whom it might safely be said that no one is clamoring for the collected works — once gave us this rendering of that snobbery: “The conspiracy-minded, fact-warping movies of Oliver Stone are regarded by those who don’t know better as genuine history, as are the most sensationalistic of television docudramas.” Since Stone has only made three films I’m aware of that even pretend to be historical dramas, and only one that concerns itself with conspiracies (I’ve yet to see anyone doubt the veracity of “World Trade Center,” and the most common complaint about “Nixon” was that it was too nice to Nixon), this “critique” seems based more on parodies of Stone (not that there haven’t been some funny ones) than Stone himself. What’s really disgusting about this moronic cliche is the implication that anyone who thinks there was some funny business going on in the Kennedy assassination ought to “know better,” since official lying in the American government is nonexistent.
3. I think a large part of this is due to the lingering influence of longtime Village Voice rock critic “dean” Robert Christgau, whose super-compressed reviews pretty much invented the modern album review. Christgau, at his best, is laconic and clever, but some of his followers write like they’ve writing the loudspeaker announcements for some sort of indie-rock version of NASCAR.