“W.”: Looking Back on A Movie Presidency

Tomorrow morning they’ll announce the 2009 Academy Awards nominations, and at the moment the feeling here in the Chicago cold is mostly a frozen shrug. Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President yesterday and the mood is one of mostly a painful journey to begin, with a wise captain charting course through rough waters: the films of 2008 with their themes of fear and self-reflection seem as distant as the coastline. Looking back as George W. Bush’s helicopter touches down somewhere in Dallas, we hopefully will gain real redemption before the movies will be able to grant us some.

Striking, really, how in touch with the times this year’s crop of Oscar-bait flicks are, even the bad ones: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button presented a slack-jawed corncob standing for three hours in the segregated South looking like he had swallowed a bug, but ended beautifully by showing the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina destroying a nursing home housing a clock moving backwards, symbolizing…well, what it was I couldn’t say, but it showed that the human cost in life and emotional treasure plundered by the Bush administration is immeasurable.

Much more direct is Oliver Stone in W., which plays out as a racuous comedy about the failings of our 43rd, hated President: Josh Brolin’s performance finds the man from the inside, and his self-assurance is both his greatest asset and most repugnant.  The life of a silver-spoon loser, incredibly, is something that can be pitied, and pity the frat-boy president, in some ways, deserves. In Stone’s time-jumping farce, we see how a long string of failures and unimpressive life choices made the architect of the Iraq war the bumbler he was, and how the Presidency of the United States was just one more lousy part-time job that didn’t impress his father.  We see the emotional impact of a teenager in his fifties still controlled by his daddy’s men: Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney lurks in doorways and shadows like a snarling elder Iago, whose manipulative talents are oversuited to his sensitive ward.  The meetings of Bush’s rogue’s gallery of advisers and cabinet officials remind one of the generals and monarchies meeting before the Great War in August 1914, each rushing into a terrible maw for cheap individual reasons, some personal, some political, some idealistic, but all mad in different ways.  Bush is the blind and stupid boy-king, draping an “Operation Iraqi Freedom” t-shirt over a wounded soldier in a burn ward and unable to articulate the sense that things have gone wrong, horribly wrong.

Stone’s last shot is brilliance: Bush is shown as the hero of his own fantasy, going back–back!–in the outfield to make a game-winning catch, but as he reaches for that ball, the blinding lights seem to steal it away, and the ball never lands. The President of the United States of America stands with a quizzical, but familiar look on his face as he realizes that genes  don’t mean destiny; that  greatness isn’t  something you can charm your way into.

In a previous Oliver Stone film, he had Richard Nixon give an agonizing look at a portrait of the martyred John F. Kennedy, saying “They look at you, they see what they want to be. They look at me, they see who they are.” For the past eight years, George W. Bush has been who we thought we were, and we don’t avoid a lost game just because we were cheering in the bleachers. We lost that ball in the lights, and thousands of people around the world paid the price with their lives, their security, empty chairs around kitchen tables, and flowers put at the graves of young fathers and children who didn’t get a chance to see who they would be.

An inauguration doesn’t get us off the hook. Ballroom dances with a pretty first couple won’t make the clocks run backward, no matter who the best picture nominees are.

-Mark

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~ by mediametric on January 22, 2009.

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