FILM DECEMBER 3, 2008
Oliver Stone is, for me, the most adventurous and exciting American director of his time. Struck by some of our era's soul-chilling events and forces, he has seized them with electrifying art. No other American director has so consistently explored large political and social ravages of the day. This is not a matter of civic duty. Stone's best films are, in complex and helpful ways, discomforts.
His new film, W., is about George W. Bush. Among his major films, two have also been on presidential subjects. JFK (1991) investigated the murder of that president and was attacked (not unjustly) for historical distortions. But the fact-checkers missed the motive for the picture. Stone believed, along with those who started the investigation, that JFK was killed because he wanted to curtail American involvement in Vietnam. Stone had served there (and had made the best film about it, Platoon). He wanted some sort of justice brought to enthusiasts for the Vietnam hell. In any case, his filmic treatment of the matter was breathtaking.
Nixon (1995) is most memorable for the man that Stone and the magnificent Anthony Hopkins created--a man cursed in his composition. With Stone's help, Hopkins fused marvelously Nixon's sullen ambition, foxy intelligence, hobbled abilities, and vindictive sleaze, and then packed the result into a body that seemed uncomfortable with itself. Stone and Hopkins took a thoroughly disliked character and eventually led us to some further understanding of his twisted being and even to a whisper of pity.
Now Stone turns to another generally disliked president. Curiously, there is another link between Nixon and Bush besides public dislike. I have always thought that the crucial Nixon tapes, which finally did him in and which could easily have been destroyed, were preserved because something in his Quaker background was asking for punishment, and thereby a kind of redemption. The story of W. is much more openly a story of religious redemption. All the world knows of Bush's born-again Christianity; but in Stanley Weiser's screenplay, it is the central transforming event. Before Bush's conversion, he is a gluttonous, horny, booze-guzzling rich playboy; after conversion, he stops indulging in food, women, and alcohol. He goes into politics and, electorally at least, he succeeds. The world may not think of Bush as an instance of heavenly enlightenment, but Weiser and Stone present him in such a way that, no matter how much we may despise the current presidency, its divine source is clear.
Politically and biographically, the film was of course doomed to meagerness. How could a two-hour picture include most of the really relevant material in Bush's earlier and later life, or all the mistakes, evasions, untruths of his administration? We simply cruise through the early life and the White House years with Stone deftly at the helm, latterly touching a number of issues but ending with a tourist's overall take, not with any new insight or even new outrage. What we see, after conversion, is a Bush who is no longer an overgrown college cut-up yet who is far from grave. He conducts the White House as if friendly regular-guy maneuvers with his staff--smiles seen and unseen--were the true stuff of office.
So there is no point in listing here the major political matters that are either ticked off quickly--the subject of torture, for instance--or omitted. The actors who do the deeds, or don't, vary in effect. In Josh Brolin, Stone has found the right actor to embody both the earlier wastrel and the post-conversion president, moderately energetic and resoundingly shallow. Brolin makes this man's presence in the White House seem a caprice of fate that may amuse historians five centuries hence. More troublesome is the treatment of the White House ensemble: these people are only superficially sketched. (Not Laura Bush, sweetly played by Elizabeth Banks.) Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, two men about whom frightful shadows have gathered, are hardly characterized. They might not have revealed at official meetings the matters that we now know about them, but neither could they have been as bland as they are here. Colin Powell is treated so carefully as to become stuffy. Condoleezza Rice just happens to be present at meetings, for no apparent reason.
Yet the film holds us, not just because we keep hoping for some inside peek but because we are watching our own lives being bandied about. Stone knew that if he simply used the skills that are easily his, we would be held because our lives are at stake. Nonetheless, when it is all over, we are left with a looming question. Two related versions of it, in fact. Why did Stone want to make the picture? After the White House tour, all we can think is that we have seen what we already knew, except that now it is strenuously arranged around a religious crux. Why, too, did Stone hasten to get the film released before Election Day? Voters were unlikely to make their choices or alter them, one way or another, because of W.
Then there is an important question about Stone himself. In some of his best films, JFK and Nixon and Natural Born Killers (which I consider an ignored masterpiece), Stone was not content with linear narrative. He consistently tried to sweep into every sequence matters that pertained but were not seen or heard on the surface. The immediate reminder was of later Joyce, who knew that every second in life contains immensities that cannot be uttered or shown but who kept trying to show them. To lift Stone next to Joyce takes a deep breath, but it is relevant because it scores an element missing in W. Yes, there are two fantasy shots of Bush standing on the diamond in a huge empty sports stadium, shots that convey the persistence of boyhood and the hunger for adoration. There is a quasi-Freudian dream scene in the Oval Office with his father, who once worked there, berating W., now the occupant. But generally the film is monodic, not polyphonic. Stone's three most recent pictures, Any Given Sunday, Alexander, and World Trade Center, were intended as mainstream merchandise and don't come under this textural scrutiny. W. does.
The last scene of the film is a presidential press conference, in 2004, where a reporter asks Bush what he thinks his greatest mistakes were. As he ponders a reply, the film fades away. Stone himself might face a similar question. One answer could be his abandonment of cinematic richness and possibility. For whatever reason--guesses are out of order--he has trimmed himself. The unique Stone, invaluable in some lasting films, is missing at the moment.
The press tells us that Hollywood is preparing a sequel to Wall Street (1987), Stone's probing account of a society that has greed as creed. A sequel? Isn't that superfluous? The sequel to what Stone had to say has come along in reality and is now distributed all around the globe.
A Dutch film called Stages consists of eight conversations in eight different restaurants interspersed with silent interludes. Those interludes follow a seventeen-year-old youth, Isaac, as he breaks into strangers' apartments, simply pushes around in them, steals nothing, and leaves; or else he is at home, his door locked, heedless of distant pleas from his mother to open up.
As for the conversations, three of them are between Isaac's parents, a divorced couple named Roos and Martin, and are often about the problem of their aloof son. Roos, with whom the boy lives, is upset; Martin urges her to let the boy work his way through his eremitic phase. The other five conversations are between Roos and a woman friend; Roos and a gay male friend; Roos and her mother, who is moving to Spain to be with her lover; Martin and the gay man, who is also his editor (Martin is a journalist writing a book); and Martin and a girlfriend. The world of Roos and Martin is vividly sketched.
The screenplay is by Jolein Laarman and Mijke de Jong, who directed. De Jong has designed her direction carefully. The table chats are not always friendly but are always animated. The intervals with Isaac are mute, so sound and silence alternate throughout. At those eight tables de Jong mostly focuses on one of the two speakers. In the first chat we become very familiar with Roos's face before we even glimpse Martin. In the two scenes with the gay man, we never really see his face, nor do we see the face of Roos's mother in her conversation about Spain.
The result is, to use a dread word, interesting. De Jong seems to have two ideas in mind. She hopes that by breaking cinematic patterns--of constantly shifting between faces in a conversation--she can bring freshness to familiar family troubles and personal problems. (Both Roos and Martin are dissatisfied with themselves.) Also, in her chatter-silence process, de Jong lays patterns on the usual untidy currents of people's lives. Of course this is what art often does, but de Jong wants us to see her doing it, and for the duration of this short feature--a Bergman-like eighty minutes--we want it, too.
The film's final two scenes contrast with each other. The first is the last talk between Roos and Martin, on a surprising subject, at the end of which she suggests that they say nothing for a few minutes--and they don't. They just sit there. (Though not for a few minutes.) What then happens and what happens in the very last scene, which is silent, reveal an admission by de Jong: an artist's designs are not always the end of the matter.
The whole film is economical, perhaps in budget terms but chiefly in state of mind. There is never too much of anything. De Jong is patently a director whose main drive is, in a valuable sense, understated novelty. Elsie de Brauw is attractively plain as Roos, her face a kaleidoscope of feelings. Marcel Musters as Martin plays a man who thinks he is being sensible and doesn't know that he is often impossible. As the youth Isaac, Stijn Koomen is meaningfully impassive. He isn't asked to do much more.
Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic.
This article originally ran in the December 3, 2008 issue of the magazine.