Oliver Stone’s ‘W.’ Gives Empathy to an Unfortunate President of the United States

W movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

You really have to admire what Oliver Stone pulled off here as he himself has been a big critic of the Bush Administration (and who isn’t these days?). Like “Nixon,” Stone has given us an empathetic portrait of an infamous President and tears down the stereotypes we have about this particular person so we can see him up close for who he really is. It is not a Bush bashing piece, but that would have been pointless anyway because we bash George W. Bush on a regular basis. With “W.,” Stone has given us what is essentially a father-son story as George W. is a man who spent the majority of his life trying to get his father’s, President George H.W. Bush, respect. It is clear from the start Bush Sr. respects Jeb more than he who bears his first and last name, and this leads George W. to do things he would never have done otherwise, such as run for political office.

“W.” covers George W. Bush from his days at a Yale fraternity hazing to the end of his first term as President. His second term is not covered here which is just as well as we are deep in the muck when it comes to political and financial affairs. It flashes back and forth in time from when he is President to his days as a rootless young man who is unsure of what he wants to do with his life other than party and get drunk. The movie does have the feel of a comedy, but it gets more serious in other moments. The tone Stone sets here is not always clear, and it does take away from the movie a bit. Still. it kept me engrossed as it covered the life of a man I can’t wait to see leave the White House.

George W. Bush is played here by Josh Brolin, and he had a great streak last year with “Grindhouse,” “American Gangster” and of course “No Country for Old Men.” Christian Bale was originally cast in this role, but he dropped out at the last minute due to the makeup effects not working to his liking. It’s just as well because Brolin looks like a much better fit being from Texas and all. Playing Bush to a serious degree is a difficult challenge to say the least because we have long since gotten used to seeing him being lampooned on “Saturday Night Live,” and as a result, we cannot help but look at Brolin’s performance as a caricature of George W. But in the large scheme of things, Brolin manages to make the role his own, and it becomes more than a simple impersonation which was obviously not what he was going for in the first place.

In fact, Stone did a great job of casting as he got actors who don’t simply impersonate the people we know so well, but who instead embody and inhabit them. In the process, the actors force you to look at some of these personalities a bit differently than we have in the past. Getting past the preconceptions we have of people is always tough, but it is at times necessary in order for us to better understand how certain individuals, particularly those with the most power, tick.

One actor I was most impressed with here was Richard Dreyfuss who plays Vice President Dick Cheney. Dreyfuss has a great and frightening scene where, in a private conference with all the heads of state, he makes a case for attacking Iraq and Iran in order to get control over their vast oil supplies and keep dictators like Saddam Hussein from coming down on us ever again. The one moment which sent a chill down everyone’s spine is when someone asks Cheney what the exit strategy out of Iraq is, and he replies, “There is no exit strategy. We stay there forever.”

Everyone in the theater was frozen in silence as this is the one thing we keep begging future politicians to do, provide an exit strategy. Dreyfuss plays the scene not at all as a villain, but as a man who convinces the Commander in Chief of why he sees this path of action is the right one for the administration to take.

Another really good performance comes from Toby Jones (“The Mist”) who plays the master of smear campaigns, Karl Rove. Jones ends up making Rove seem both charismatic and likable, and he also subtly brings out the emotional manipulator in the man who succeeds in getting under George W.’s skin to make him the puppet he is today. I hate Rove for everything he has done, but Jones succeeds in making us admire him, begrudgingly so, for being so fiendishly clever. Rove’s powers of manipulation are ever so subtle to the point where we barely notice them, and Jones gets this across perfectly and with amazing subtlety.

As Bush Sr., James Cromwell makes us see that this particular U.S. President is fully aware of how his children are at a huge disadvantage. While he had to work hard to get to where he ended up at, his offspring had everything handed to them on a silver platter. Bush Sr. obviously wants the best for his children, but in seeing to his black sheep of a son’s needs and troubles, he comes to see he has done more harm than good.

As the movie goes on, Cromwell goes from presenting the elder Bush as being terribly disappointed in George W. to being deeply concerned over his son’s decisions about Iraq. We see Bush Sr. the end of the first Gulf War discussing his reasoning as to why they shouldn’t go after Saddam as it might make the dictator a hero in the eyes of many. Indeed, Stone makes us sympathize with the senior Bush in ways I never expected to. The moment where we see Bush lose the Presidential election to Bill Clinton, I actually found myself saddened as it comes across how there were many opportunities which would never be realized. This was shocking to me because I really wanted to see Clinton beat Bush, and I was thrilled he did.

In the end, however, the movie really belongs to Brolin who gives us a George W. Bush that is seemingly well intentioned and yet hopelessly naïve. You may not completely blame him for all the troubles going on in the world right now, but you can never excuse him for not taking more responsibility for his actions. We see Bush embrace God and become a born-again Christian, and while this helps him with his drinking problem, it also gives him blind faith which will prove to be his flaw as a person which will eventually undo him. Brolin makes Bush goofy yet well intentioned, and he makes clear the heartache he feels as he cannot escape the shadow of his famous father.

Stone’s “W.” is not the classic political movie “JFK” was, but it is effectively made and shows how we need to understand the human side of those we brand as criminals in order to get at what makes them act the way they do. This is an important lesson to remember as we go on in life.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘Where to Invade Next’ Proves the American Dream is Still a Reality, Just Not in America

Where to Invade Next poster

With his documentary “Where to Invade Next,” Michael Moore comes into it looking more run down than usual. It’s been a few years since “Capitalism: A Love Story” in which he railed against the economic order of America and the consequences of runaway greed, and since then he has weathered through numerous events including a divorce and a bout with pneumonia. However, he still has enough energy to continue his fight to make America a better place.

“Where to Invade Next” starts off with a brief history of America and the countries it has invaded, and it also makes clear how World War II was the last big war America ever won. Since then, America has been engaged in highly unpopular conflicts in Iraq and Vietnam, and it has suffered greatly in the wake of 2008 economic crash. In an effort to find ways to make America better, Moore decides to playfully invade other countries to steal their good ideas and bring them back stateside to be put to good use.

As always, Moore gives us a very entertaining time filled with unforgettable moments and laughs designed to stick in your throat when you realize how workers in other countries have it better than Americans. He interviews an Italian couple who describe in detail how they get eight weeks of paid vacation time, and they look utterly shocked when he tells them Americans only get two. There is a scene where he sits with a group of French children at lunch and sees how they are eating very healthy meals of the high-end restaurant quality, and none of them drink Coca-Cola. When those same kids look at the school lunches Americans have, they understandably recoil in disgust.

Yes, Moore is cherry picking facts here and all these countries seem to look rosier than they probably do outside of this documentary, but he admits early on he is there to “pick the flowers, not the weeds.” He’s not here to give us an in-depth overview of the places he visits, but instead to show how other countries treat their people and workers as compared to how they are treated in America. One country does not charge college students tuition, so the term “student debt,” a huge problem in America, has no real meaning. Another country offers its citizens a yearlong maternity leave as they feel the bond between a parent and their child must be formed as soon as possible. A lot of these ideas are frowned upon in the United States, and the documentary leaves you wondering why this is the case.

In some ways “Where to Invade Next” covers the same ground as “Sicko” as Moore talks with Americans who have since moved to other countries where they discover more opportunities than they ever had back home, and he talks with people of other cultures who react with horror as to how America handles education, health care and workers’ rights. It gets a little old after a while as he’s treading through familiar territory, but you have to applaud those educators who say America should do away with standardized testing.

The documentary does have one pivotal moment, however, when Moore visits Norway and talks with a father whose son was murdered. The man who committed the crime is about to be sentenced, but the father doesn’t wish him dead or yearn for revenge. His reasoning is it will not make his or anybody else’s life any better and will just crush his spirit. Now there are many people in America who think like this, but the whole “eye for an eye” saying in the Bible seems to be more preferable to the most vocal of its citizens.

Many prefer to label Moore as being “anti-American” among other things, but he’s still living in America and looking for ways to improve life for its inhabitants whether they are immigrants or natural-born citizens. Why doesn’t he just move to another country if he finds so many others to be better, you ask? Because he loves America and continues to speak out against those who greedily take away from the middle and lower classes just because they can.

Seriously, who in America thinks two weeks of vacation time is more than enough? There are many who work 40 hours a week and yet still live in poverty. Despite the advances of the Affordable Care Act, many in America cannot afford health insurance. Those who lost their jobs and savings have ended up taking jobs offering no benefits of any kind because they have little choice. If none of this bothers you, then you need to take a much more observant look of the country you live in. Many say America is still the greatest country in the world, but there’s more than enough evidence to suggest it is not even close.

More importantly, “Where to Invade Next” shows Moore at his most hopeful. He doesn’t have an axe to grind this time around and does not lash at anyone in particular. Considering how he comes to use the words of our last few Presidents against them, this never comes across as a liberal or a conservative documentary. This is one any audience can and should be able to appreciate even though it will mainly appeal to his base and not those outside of it.

But what’s especially invigorating about “Where to Invade Next” is it shows the American dream is still alive and well. Looking closely at other countries, Moore shows how their ideas have been shaped by ones which originated in America. Now if we could only make that dream a reality again in America, things would be much better.

“Where to Invade Next” may not be one of Moore’s best documentaries, but it is still very entertaining and will have you laughing as well as informed about the world around you. Moore does look beaten down after all these years, but he’s still there fighting for his home country and looking for ways to make it great again, unlike the current resident in the White House.

For those who still think this Oscar-winning filmmaker doth protest too much and should shut up, keep in mind this following quote from Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July:”

“People say that if you don’t love America, then get the hell out. Well, I love America.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Platoon’

Platoon movie poster

I think its use of “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber is one of the reasons I stayed away from watching “Platoon” for the longest time. It still is one of the saddest pieces of music I have ever heard, although it would later be eclipsed by the even more emotionally devastating “Symphony No. 3” (subtitled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”) by Henryk Górecki which Peter Weir used to powerful effect in “Fearless.” Plus, the way the violence in “Platoon” was described to me by friends at school, like when a soldier gets his arms blown off by a bomb, filled my mind with horrible images which had no business infecting my mind at such a young age.

It took buying the 25th anniversary edition of “Platoon” on Blu-ray for me to finally sit down and watch it. I hadn’t even seen the movie yet, and here I am buying it at Costco for $11.99 By then, I had seen many Oliver Stone movies like “Born On the Fourth of July,” “JFK,” and “Natural Born Killers,” so I was long overdue to give this Best Picture winner a look.

Before “Platoon,” I had seen “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Full Metal Jacket” which viewed the Vietnam War from different perspectives. The one thing they had in common was they were directed by filmmakers who had never served in Vietnam. Stone, however, had served there, so “Platoon” is largely autobiographical for him. As a result, this is probably the first truly realistic depiction of the Vietnam War anyone could have ever hoped to see in a movie.

Charlie Sheen stars as Chris Taylor, and it’s interesting watching him here as this was long before his days on “Two and a Half Men.” Taylor serves as the narrator and most relatable character as, like him, we are coming into this war fresh-faced, naïve and innocent. The first scene where Taylor comes off a plane with a bunch of newbies is an omen of what is to come. Seeing body bags filled with fallen soldiers and crossing paths with those men who have seen the war up close quickly gives you a good idea of what Taylor will probably end up looking like at the movie’s end.

Sheen is perfectly cast as he makes Taylor go from being a newbie to an experienced combat veteran in little time. It’s a shame Sheen has since pissed away a good portion of his talent to where he’s pretty much playing a version of himself as some drunken womanizer, be it on a television show or a movie. His work here is a strong reminder of how good he can be as he is utterly believable in a role no one would cast him in today.

Seeing Taylor struggle on through the Vietnamese jungle after the opening scene is a quick indication of how unprepared he is for combat. Like many wars Americans have fought, it was on the soil of another country they were completely unfamiliar with. We see how this puts them at an immediate disadvantage as they look completely exhausted and depleted even at the start of the day.

When it comes to Vietnam, Taylor makes it clear he is a unique case as he tells everyone he dropped out of college to volunteer and serve in the war. This makes him seem like part of a generation raised to believe fighting in a war is both noble and infinitely patriotic, something to be proud of. Taylor also feels that not only poor kids should be sent to fight instead of the rich, but he soon learns the truths about war, one of which is given to him by King (Keith David) who tells him something which resonates strongly even today: “You got to be rich in the first place to think like that. Everybody know, the poor are always being fucked over by the rich. Always have, always will.”

The other two performances worth noting are given by Willem Dafoe as Sergeant Elias and Tom Berenger as Sergeant Barnes. Both figure prominently in Taylor’s tour of duty, and even he says these two were fighting for his soul. Dafoe is mesmerizing as the idealistic soldier who sees America’s involvement in Vietnam ending badly. The Christ-like pose he gets in, whether its holding a machine gun over his shoulders or as he runs from the Vietnamese soldiers, is no mistake. Elias ends up dying for the sins of his fellow soldiers while doing his best to protect them.

Berenger’s performance as Barnes ranks among his best ever. He succeeds in getting inside the head of someone who has been shot at so many times to where they are forever psychologically altered. Having seen death up close, Barnes acts as if he has surpassed it. In some ways, Berenger doesn’t need those makeup scars to show you how many firefights his character has been in as watching him walk through the jungle, completely unaffected by explosions going off around him as if he were Colonel Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” is more than enough proof of this.

Stone makes you feel the blood, sweat, tears and exhaustion these soldiers experience, and it’s all so vivid to where we come out of “Platoon” feeling like war veterans ourselves. It leaves all those other movies which make war seem like fun to utter shame. Coming from a filmmaker who has seen this particular war up close, we cannot deny the authenticity he puts on display.

“Platoon” also captures how quickly people can lose their moral bearings in the face of war. The scene in the village is by far the movie’s most unnerving moment as we watch Taylor and the other soldiers get overcome by their boiling anger and hatred. What’s so horrifying is that while you would like to believe you would have acted differently than they did, there’s no way you can be sure if you haven’t been in combat. The line between soldier and killer gets seriously blurred here, and it’s not hard to understand why.

Before filming began, the cast was treated to an intensive military training course under the tutelage of former Marine Captain Dale Dye who also served in Vietnam. They were made to dig foxholes and subjected to forced marches and nighttime ambushes which utilized explosions. This succeeded in breaking them down, and you can see and feel the weariness in them throughout. It more than adds to the sheer realism we see here.

There’s no victory to be found in “Platoon,” only death and destruction on both sides of the conflict. The movie gets at the truth of war which Danny DeVito talked about in “The War of the Roses” when he said, “There is no winning! There’s only degrees of losing!”

The violence and death portrayed may not seem quite as visceral as it did when the movie first came out. There have been many other war movies since like “Saving Private Ryan” which featured scenes of such brutal violence that no other filmmaker could possibly match. Plus, we all know about the Vietnam War in general and big a mistake it was for America for many years now. Still, “Platoon” is nothing less than powerful as its vision of the craziness and insanity of war is impossible to shake once you have seen it.

The Vietnam War may be a thing of the past, but the lessons we learned from it still need to be taught over and over again. America keeps fighting wars which, whether necessary or not, continually overstay their welcome and leave a lot of people feeling angry and betrayed. Oliver Stone certainly understands that, and he makes “Platoon” into a movie which shows the damage of war and why we can’t just let the past be the past.

* * * * out of * * * *