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 * * * *

Advertisements

‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ Still Leaves Us in Awe 40 Years Later

Close Encounters of the Third Kind 40th poster

On this week’s edition of yes, this movie really is that old, we have Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Released back in 1977, it is now being re-released in a new 4K remastered version in honor of its 40th anniversary. I first watched it on laserdisc at a friend’s house back in the 80’s, and I remember being somewhat traumatized by it as there were scenes which proved to be quite scary. I have since watched the film several times, but this 40th anniversary re-release allowed me to see it on the big screen for the first time. Suffice to say, this is the way you should view this particular Spielberg classic.

The film begins with strange discoveries being made in various parts of the world which include the appearance of Army airplanes reported to have gone missing back in the 1940’s, a lost cargo ship which has reappeared in the Gobi Desert for no discernable reason, and witnesses living in India are found singing a five-tone musical phrase which is revealed to be the distinctive sounds of UFO’s. Meanwhile, out in Indiana, Ray Neary a blue-collar worker, husband and father to three very loud kids, is working late at night after a large-scale power outage takes place, and he finds himself having a very close encounter with a UFO, one which lightly burns his face with its bright lights. From there, he becomes obsessed with finding out more about these alien visitors to where he gets left with subliminal messages he is desperate to find answers for.

Throughout the decades, there have been countless movies dealing with human beings and their first contact with extra-terrestrials, many of which feature the last remnants of humanity fighting off an alien invasion determined to wipe them out with extreme prejudice. As I got older, I came to realize how rare it is to have a science fiction movie which deals with aliens in a highly intelligent way. Among them are Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact,” Spielberg’s “E.T.,” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” which was one of the very best movies of 2016. Even rarer these days is the motion picture which leaves you in an extended state of wonder and awe from start to finish and even after you leave the theater.

Even 40 years after its release, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” still has an immense power to enthrall us as its characters come into contact with something they have longed to see. There is nothing about it which comes across as unintentionally laughable, and while technology has evolved to a whole other level since the 1970’s, this movie feels timeless in its exploration of possibilities and discoveries. It also works on many different levels in that it is funny, scary, thrilling, and deeply emotional.

This film is especially unique on Spielberg’s resume as it is one he directed and also wrote the screenplay for. It would also mark the last time he would direct his own screenplay until he made “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” in 2001. As a result, there should be no doubt of just how personal this film is to him. It turns out he wanted to make this one before “Jaws,” but he didn’t have the commercial clout at the time to get the budget he wanted. Of course, when “Jaws” came out, this changed forever.

Spielberg has said “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is not actually a science fiction film, and watching it again has me agreeing with him completely. Yes, it does feature aliens and UFO’s, but they are not really the point. Also, this film takes place in a reality we all know and relate to. “Close Encounters” does not take place in some future dystopian world, but instead one we all inhabit as the main characters are regular people working regular jobs and supporting their families. They don’t want to see UFO’s, but they did, and now they cannot and will not deny their existence. Throughout this movie, we remain in the human universe and we never enter an alien one, and this is very important to point out here.

“Close Encounters” also deals with stories which would become a hallmark of future Spielberg films and productions such as “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” and “Poltergeist” among others. Seeing the government conspire to keep this alien visitation a secret is presented in a way which feels not only realistic, but also very possible to pull off back in the 1970’s. But he also shows how the truth of things cannot be kept a secret forever, and, like Ray Neary, we want to see this all the way to the end because we won’t stop and until we get answers to fulfill our curiosities.

When it comes to the actors, Spielberg really just lets them loose here. He doesn’t direct them as much as he lets them run wild, and I don’t just mean the kids who are a noisy bunch as presented here. Richard Dreyfuss is perfectly cast as Ray Neary as he brings a crazed and enthusiastic energy to the role of a man who has seen things he wasn’t supposed to see, and he is not in a position to unlearn what he has learned. Even as Ray’s actions increasingly alienate him from his wife and kids, Dreyfuss makes us empathize with his plight as he is caught up in something he cannot turn his back on.

Melinda Dillon is equally wonderful as Jillian Guiler, another character who, along with her fearless son Barry (Cary Guffey), experiences a close encounter of her own. She also suffers the indignity of her son being kidnapped by aliens, but she is eventually reunited with him in the movie’s last half. It may sound like I’m giving plot points away here, but I’m not because Dillon’s performance is such an emotionally fulfilling one to witness as she takes Jillian through the stages of fright, grief, desolation, and eventually joy and happiness. She makes you experience these emotions with her, and seeing her smile when Barry reappears is a moment of pure elation.

Spielberg’s casting of filmmaker Francois Truffaut as Claude Lacombe, a French government scientist, was truly inspired. Along with Bob Balaban who plays David Laughlin, Lacombe’s assistant and interpreter, he portrays a government official who brings sanity to a situation which has other government officials responding to in a panic to where the quick answer is cover everything up and keep the number of witnesses to a bare minimum. Truffaut brings a strong level of thoughtfulness and wonderment to his character as Lacombe shows an openness to first contact others would not be quick to embrace. While military officers are eager to keep Ray and Jillian out of the area, Lacombe tries to make them see they were invited to be here.

Many images from “Close Encounters” will forever remain burned into my consciousness. The most prominent image of all is when young Barry opens the front door where an alien ship hovers outside, waiting to make contact with someone, anyone. This is still the defining image of who he not just as a filmmaker, but as a human being. Spielberg’s eagerness to make contact with aliens from another galaxy is no secret, and here’s hoping a UFO does make contact with him in his lifetime. Better they meet him than a certain person who is currently occupying the White House.

I think people these days who are seeing “Close Encounters” for the first time might say it takes too long to get to the last half where humans finally get to communicate with aliens. But like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” this film is more about the journey than the final destination. Spielberg wants us to question what we believe and how far we will go to get answers to questions which have plagued us for an infinite amount of time, and we share the awe of the characters once those answers are delivered to us here. And it’s not just that the characters get answers here, they truly earn them as well.

This is also one of those films its director couldn’t stop tinkering with over the years. Ridley Scott couldn’t leave “Blade Runner” alone years after its release, and Oliver Stone continued to tinker with his dream project “Alexander” to where the final cut he gave us still doesn’t feel final. As Spielberg was finishing up “Close Encounters,” Columbia Pictures was in dire straits financially and begged the filmmaker to release his pet project sooner rather than later. What came out in 1977 wasn’t his complete vision, and he eventually got to make a special edition of the film which was released in 1980. The 4K restoration of “Close Encounters” is essentially a combination of both versions, but the scenes with Ray Neary exploring the inside of the mothership have been cut out. Spielberg has said over and over he never should have taken us inside the ship, and I completely agree. While Spielberg provides the characters with many answers, there are still some things better left to the imagination.

Seeing “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” at the Cinerama Dome afforded me the opportunity to see the movie in its most desirable format. The audience I saw it with was left spellbound at what unfolded, and this says so much about this movie’s staying power. Just when I think I have become so jaded and embittered a filmgoer as studios continue in their desperate search for the next big franchise, a motion picture like this comes along to remind us filmmakers still have the power to leave us in a state of sheer wonderment. It feels like we have had an overabundance of movie anniversaries lately to where these celebrations feel more like a ploy to get more money out of our pockets. But this particular anniversary is one worth acknowledging as it continually reaffirms the power of cinema to truly transport to another time and place and, in the process, rescue us from the real world even if it’s only for a temporary time.

The only thing which bugs me about “Close Encounters” these days is Ray’s decision to leave his family behind and travel with the aliens. Essentially, he is presented with the same question Captain Decker is faced with in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture;” Would you leave everything and everyone you have ever known behind just to explore another world and dimension? Seeing Ray getting on board the ship made me wonder how his family would have reacted to this decision, and it plagues my mind long after the end credits have finished. Then again, Spielberg did make this film before he had any kids of his own. Had he made it after he became a father, there’s no doubt Ray would have made a different decision. Still, one could not blame Spielberg or Ray for being tempted to go. I certainly would be tempted.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Jaws’ Remains a Thrilling Experience Decades After its Release

Jaws movie poster

Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” is one of those movies I thought I watched a few years after it came out, but in retrospect I had only seen bits and pieces before finally watching it all the way through. It came out in 1975 a couple of months before I was born, and I can still vividly remember people talking about it while in a carpool to school. One of my kindergarten buddies kept telling me about all the blood the great white shark ends up spilling, and what he said made me NOT want to see “Jaws” for the longest time.

I do remember seeing certain scenes from “Jaws” for the very first time, and those moments remain forever burned in my conscious mind. When ABC presented its network television premiere of the movie, I remember those giant red letters coming out at me from the TV screen, and it was enough to have my hair standing on end. It was also the first time I saw little Alex Kintner getting dragged down to his bloody death, a very frightening image to be featured in any movie, let alone one with a PG rating.

Years later, I was watching an episode of “At the Movies” with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert where they were talking about Spielberg’s movies in general. This was when I first saw the scene where Roy Scheider is throwing chum into the water, and the great white shark ends up rising out of the water which leads Scheider to tell Robert Shaw, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” This appearance of the shark scared me to death back then, and I felt exactly like Scheider’s character did as he slowly backed away from the boat’s rear.

A few years later, “Jaws” was again showing on television, and it was one of the few motion pictures shown unedited on television. Most movies, when they make their network television debut, are edited for content, but “Jaws” is so highly regarded to where it had to be shown with all the good parts intact. It was then I got my introduction to when Richard Dreyfuss was exploring Ben Gardner’s boat and Gardner’s head pops out of the hull. This proved to be another sequence which almost stopped my heart.

By the time I reached junior high school, I was already fully aware “Jaws” ended with the shark getting blown up. In fact, I had seen all the sequels by then and watched those other great white sharks bite the dust in their individual ways. Heck, I remember my brother renting “Jaws 3” on videotape, and we watched the shark getting blown up by a grenade and parts of his teeth getting thrust out at us with those 3D effects which never translated to the small screen.

While watching the last half of “Jaws” at a friend’s house all those years ago, I was truly astonished at how thrilling the movie was. I figured knowing the movie’s ending would rob it of any suspense or tension Spielberg managed to generate for audiences back in 1975, but man was I wrong. Seeing Dreyfuss trapped in the shark cage while the great white makes an effort to “reach out and touch someone” by attempting to smash through those metal bars had me begging for someone to kill it. Watching Scheider trying to keep his head above water as the boat sank had me wondering how the hell he was going to make it back to shore in one piece as his character hates the water.

I eventually rented “Jaws” on VHS in the days before Blockbuster Video became a dominant force in the video rental market. Seeing the movie in its entirety was a great experience, and it’s still one which I cannot ever get sick of watching. Even though I knew certain moments were coming, the anticipation of them still had me on the edge of my seat.

Having watched “Jaws” so many times before its Blu-ray release, the thing which keeps bringing me back to it is the human element. What Spielberg does best here is give us characters who are human and not mere clichés. Whether you’ve ever lived on an island like Amity or not, we know its inhabitants up close and why they depend on the summer months for their very lives.

Now while Spielberg did have problems with the mechanical shark which he named after his lawyer, he did have tremendous luck with his cast. What I love about Scheider, who plays Police Chief Martin Brody, is he doesn’t act the part as much as he becomes it. Those who read my reviews know I love talking about actors who inhabit their roles more than act, and Scheider proved to be one of those actors who did this very effectively. Brody is not out to be the hero, and he is like any other husband and father who just wants to keep his family safe. Scheider also makes you admire this ordinary police chief as he faces his fear of water so he can to put an end to the shark’s reign of terror.

Dreyfuss proves to be endlessly entertaining as Matt Hooper, a man whose love of the ocean and the animals inhabiting it keeps him from ever becoming a cynical bastard. Even after all these years, Dreyfuss is so much fun to watch as he shares his shark expertise with Scheider’s character and endures constant battles with Robert Shaw’s Quint who thinks this oceanographer is a little too domesticated to be sailing the ocean with him.

Speaking of Shaw, he has always struck me as one of those actors who proved to be as tough as the characters he played. This must be why he inhabits Quint so effectively, and his performance is one of the most unforgettable I have ever witnessed. Quint proves to be very hard to get along with, but then he goes into his long speech regarding his experiences on board the USS Indianapolis and of what happened after it sank. This monologue still gives us all chills every single time.

It’s the strong human element which makes “Jaws” work so phenomenally well as we come to care deeply about these characters and their hairy predicament. This could have been one of those pictures which lived or died on the quality of its special effects, and here they really could have been a detriment here more than anything else. The stories behind the making of this movie have long since become legendary as the filmmakers dealt with endless obstacles in making anything about the shark work.

But I also love how what worked against “Jaws” actually helped it in the long run. Dreyfuss loves to joke about how he kept hearing crew members saying “the shark is not working” on their walkie talkies, but it turned out the less we saw of the shark the better (something the sequels would quickly forget). “Jaws’” overall effectiveness came from the terror of what we didn’t see as opposed to what we did see. Many may prefer to see the monster, but the lack of its appearance forces our imaginations to go into overdrive, and this makes the monster so infinitely frightening.

“Jaws” is also aided tremendously by John Williams’ unforgettable music which still freaks us out whenever we hear those “dum-dum-dum-dum” sounds. So much attention is placed on this part of his score, however, to where other parts of it don’t get the praise they deserve. The music where Brody’s son mimics his dad’s every move at the dinner table is beautiful, and the same goes for the end theme which is mournful of what’s been lost and yet thankful this ordeal has finally come to an end.

This was the first movie to make $100 million at the box office, and that forever changed the way movies were made and distributed. As a result, many blame Spielberg for putting an end to the thoughtful, character-driven movies of the 1970’s, but that’s not fair. “Jaws’” success got Wall Street interested in the money which could be made from movies, and this proved to be the death knell to 70’s filmmaking. If Wall Street had looked more closely at the success of “Jaws,” they’d see how it focused as much on its characters as it did on the shark.

“Jaws” inspired a lot of filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith and Eli Roth, and it is bound to inspire many more in the future. Many have even gone on to name their companies after famous lines of dialogue like A Bigger Boat and Bad Hat Harry. It says a lot how “Jaws” is as powerful today as when it first came out in 1975, and I hope movie studios remember this if they ever foolishly decide to remake it, and heaven forbid this ever happens.

* * * * out of * * * *