(2008)3.5Cammila CollarUsually, when the span of time surrounding a movie's release is relevant enough to be worth mentioning, it's because the film was born out of an artistic era or a creative period, like film noir or French New Wave. When a less than reverent presidential biopic comes out while said commander in chief is still in office, the context provided by the timing is a lot less obvious -- but make no mistake, it's still there. Making a distinctly historical film about a history that's still happening places W. simply and unmistakably in its own artistic context: postmodernism. After all, it's hard to get more self-referential than a movie that lets modern times reflect upon themselves.
However, this isn't totally apparent for the first 20 minutes of W., and it's hard to say if that's Oliver Stone's fault or ours. Watching the movie, it takes a little time to let go of all those pesky preexisting expectations, and adjust to what at first seems a tad lowbrow and simplistic. But by the same token, walking into W. expecting Natural Born Killers-esque manic black satire, or JFK-esque subtle, multifaceted subtext isn't going to help your viewing experience. In W., the story can't possibly be told in complex terms because the perspective is first person, and the person in question just doesn't have those kinds of perceptive tools. This is how Stone gets subtle: the hero doesn't narrate the story with a Texas-drawled "Dear Diary" voice-over, but the movie still effectively provides Dubya's experiences from his own perspective. It's obvious enough from the zillion super close-ups on his bewilderedly determined expression (and the fact that there's a dream sequence), but most of the time, the vantage point manifests itself in the way the events unfold -- and it works brilliantly once you get the hang of it.
After the period of adjustment is over, it makes perfect sense for the story to be so literal and straightforward -- or at least appear so on the surface. It alternates between two timelines: one that follows Dubya from college through the 2000 election, and one that follows him from 9/11 through the full-on nosedive of the Iraq War. There are no intricately woven metaphors, no mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma, just a direct narrative about a fairly unspecial guy with some daddy issues, who endeavors -- but usually fails -- to deserve the opportunities that family string-pulling allows him. When there's symbolism, it's painted in strokes broad enough to fit on an IMAX screen -- he bends over to pray in the War Room, for instance, and it cuts to an upward shot where a huge, hard-edged, blindly bright ring-shaped lighting fixture encircles his head.
Dubya's failures and shortcomings are readily apparent enough -- even to people who haven't seen the movie -- so Stone doesn't have to deviate from the main character's perspective for us to understand the disaster left in Dubya's wake. He trusts that we don't need the filmmaker to vilify or even mock Dubya from the third person, and despite the aforementioned halo (which, of course, is a depiction advocated by the character, not the filmmaker), he also doesn't paint devil horns on the members of the administration like Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton). They bear their share of guilt as exploiters, yes men, and even blinded ideologues, but Stone never resorts to portraying them as the evil power mongers who used this poor simpleton for their own nefarious ends. Well, maybe Cheney.
If anything, the supporting cast are just a hair over the line between character and caricature -- a choice that ends up being the cherry on top that first-person narrative. It provides inescapable novelty (who doesn't like to see a spot-on Colin Powell impression?), but it also illustrates Dubya's blunted and simplified image of everything around him, the way he sees every important figure and idea in slightly cartoonish opaqueness. Certainly this conceptual hub of the movie depends on star Josh Brolin, whose ability to overcome his own rugged, chiseled jaw and portray Dub's weakness so believably in this regard is pretty mind-blowing (and equally novel). In the end, it's clear that this basic weakness of both mind and confidence was at the root of all the president's epic failures, and while the character of Dubya himself doesn't appear totally self-aware about it, the audience has no trouble figuring it out -- a sure sign of the film's success.