W.- The Psychoanalysis of a Commander-in-Chief

If one of the joys of cinema is to be surprised, to find your expectations were totally wrong, then Oliver Stone’s W. is a joyful experience. I’m not certain how the film will stand up over the years, but watching it as a possible explanation of what shaped our current president is an endlessly fascinating subject. Its representation of a current figure, combined with fantastic performances and a whopper of an ending, has me still mulling it over two weeks after I saw it—and that’s always what a filmmaker like Stone is hoping for.

The plot follows W. in the post-9/11 White House, with flashbacks from college to before his presidency spliced into the mix. There are critics of this film who will accuse Oliver Stone of not being critical enough of Bush, or those who will say the portrait is too simplistic in its Oedipal psychological depiction of Bush. I say those people are looking for a different film than the one Stone is upfront about giving us. From the very beginning image, Stone is letting us know that he wants to attempt to give an explanation as to how a normal guy becomes the worst president in modern times. The psychology of it does border on simple, but the overbearing pressure of a Kennedy-esque family lineage really must be impossible to imagine unless you’re there.

Performance-wise, up to this point, this is the best acted film of the year, bar none. Josh Brolin provides the first Oscar-caliber acting lead of the year, and I hope he gets the recognition he deserves after a monster year of terrific performances last year. A performance that makes the majority of the audience feel for a man with epically low approval ratings is no easy feat. Also especially noteworthy are Jeffrey Wright and Thandie Newton as dead ringers of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, giving dimension effectively to characters with very little actual screen time.

The final image still rattles around in my brain, and I’m about to discuss it—it’s not a spoiler in terms of the plot, but it might hurt some of the element of surprise. We end the film with W standing in an empty Rangers Stadium, wearing his presidential suit, hearing the roars of the crowd that isn’t there. This echoes the film’s beginning, where he’s in a Rangers jacket and ball cap in the roar-filled empty stadium. In the beginning of the film, he hears the crack of the bat, runs backward, looks up, and catches the pop fly. However, at the end, he hears the crack, runs backward, looks up… and there’s no ball. He looks toward home plate, no one’s there. He continues to look up, waiting for the ball. The film zooms in on his eyes and ends.

I’ve discussed this last image with my friends on both sides of the political fence. My conservative friend rolled his eyes and said it was an obvious symbol for Bush dropping the ball as a president—and I was quick to point out there never was a ball. My liberal friend said that the lack of a ball absolves him, since he couldn’t drop a ball that was never there. Absolution is extreme, plus it implies that Stone is attempting to make a final statement about a presidency that isn’t over. My personal interpretation is a failed dream—every man dreams of being the great player, the great president, the great leader. Bush didn’t take the presidency with the intention of being a failure, he wanted to make the big play for his team. At the end of the day, he’s still a man searching for that ball, beginning to have doubts that he can deliver but not willing to accept defeat. This portrait that Stone paints is at the centerpiece of a fascinating film, his best film in nearly a decade.


~ by russellhainline on November 10, 2008.

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