Leave it to film’s last agent provocateur to do what a sloppy stoner comedy couldn’t. A couple of weeks ago, when the lackluster lampoon Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay opened, audiences were treated to a last act exercise in paltry political commentary. Briefly, our Asian/Indian heroes try to reclaim their good patriotic name after being mistaken for terrorists. Through a series of stodgy misadventures, they somehow wind up in Crawford, Texas. There, they hook up with our current Commander In Chief, and after a few blunts, the supposed purple haze induced belly laughs begin.
Now, there is nothing new with painting our sitting President as a foolish frat headed party boy. It was a legacy that he carried across two elections (and two wins), and South Park savants Trey Parker and Matt Stone did something similar - and far funnier - with their 2001 sitcom That’s My Bush. Comedy Central cancelled that sage-like series, only to revive the leader as loser ideal with their Our Gang rip-off L’il Bush. Since the advent of humor, government officials have born the brunt of satire and comic criticism. The powerful have always found themselves in mirth’s machine gun sites.
Mostly, it’s viewed as harmless fun, a chance to knock down an elected official with the only weapon remaining inherent in the people - the freedom of speech. Of course, the current administration has used every post-9/11 tactic they can to curb such rights, but leave it to the jesters to maximize what few liberties are left. The portrait painting is also kind of lame. Bush is dumb. Bush is out of touch. Bush is controlled by advisers out to forward their own agenda, not that of the nation. None of this is new, and seldom is it clever. But it avoids the real problems with this presidency, so it’s also more or less ignored.
It’s well worn territory for the criminally underrated filmmaker. Even though he owns two Oscars (for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July) and has made several sizeable box office hits, including Wall Street, Natural Born Killers, and Any Given Sunday, it’s his political pictures that have raised (and equally reduced) his reputation. Many see JFK as a misguided masterpiece, a conspiracy theory tricked out as actual fact, while Salvador is too liberalized to explain the Central American crisis of the mid ‘80s. He’s taken on Fidel Castro (his 2003 documentary Comandate) and made one of the most jingoistic films about the terrorist attacks of seven years ago (World Trade Center).
Yet for anyone looking to gain some insight into what Stone might be attempting here, they need look no further than the brilliant deconstruction of the only US President ever to resign from office. 1995’s Nixon was seen, at the time, as the perfect combination of man and material, a subject that Stone could really sink his teeth into while exploring the post-Vietnam Watergate watershed that drove a decade into decadence and indecision. Yet, oddly enough, the famous burglary celebrated by the Washington Post and its pair of supercop journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein, was a minor part of the narrative. Instead, Stone looked for a big picture pronouncement, hoping to highlight the paranoia and pettiness that drove this leader to illegal acts of insane arrogance.
While some considered the hiring of Anthony Hopkins antithetical to the movie’s designs (how a British actor best known for playing a suave serial killer could take on one of the most American of political icons was frequently questioned), it turned out to be a masterstroke. Stone wasn’t looking for a mimic, or worse, a Rick Baker manufactured make-up version of Nixon. He wanted to showcase the human being inside. What Hopkins did was genius. By finding out what made this predatory political animal tick, he literally turned into the crooked Commander in Chief. It’s impossible to watch this film 13 years later and not see the media made images present in the UK thespian’s mannerisms.
Apparently, W. won’t be so broad in its scope. Nixon went from the leader’s days as a poor California boy to almost every electoral benchmark in his career. In recent interviews, Stone likened this latest project to The Queen, a narrative that takes seminal events from the subject’s life and shows how they add up to the man we see today. In comparison to Nixon’s “symphony” he says, W. will be more like “chamber music.” Of course, there are other hints at the approach within his comments. He calls Bush “an alcoholic bum”, pointing to his “conversion to Christianity” as the driving force in his professional and political decisions. For a director who never skirted scandal, embracing hot button concepts like addiction and religion seems par for the course.
Yet just like Nixon, one expects extensive dramatization in order to get to the essence of an area. One thing films can be faulted for is such a shorthand concept of truth. It’s impossible to cover all facets of an individual’s personality, even with the jaded judicial notice of an already clued-in audience. Composites have to be created both in characterization and circumstances. Stone is often raked over the coals for taking such a condescend view, but within the language of film, it’s literally impossible to deal with an entire lifetime in three hours. Of course, some might argue with the intent of those who try, but with all great art comes even greater ambition - and hubris.
Additionally, W. is planned for an Election 2008 release date. That means that Bush will still be President when the movie is in theaters - barring any production delays or problems (like the upcoming Actors Guild strike). How that will affect Stone, or his cast, remains to be seen. Additionally, movies like this usually strive to set the tone for someone’s legacy. Nixon wanted to humanize someone that was systematically demonized. It may have wound up doing a little of both. Similarly, W. has the potential for shedding some light on the current Commander’s often puzzling decision making process. It could also go Harold and Kumar all over his rationale.
No one expects Oliver Stone, a serious moviemaker, to have the President of the United States snorting coke off a stripper’s treasure trail, but it’s clear that a subject like George W. Bush places such a sequence in the realm of dramatic possibilities. Even early script reviews have argued that W. balances the administration’s tendency toward bumpkin burlesque with real insights into how the politics of fear work. Maybe Stone will settle for something in the middle. Or we could be seeing the unmaking of an already undone leader. One things for sure - this is one man who may be wishing the world saw him as a dope smoking stooge after all. The truth may be far more telling - and terrifying.