Saturday, August 15, 2009

Low Presidential Approval Ratings on Film

W. | dir. Oliver Stone | rel. 2008 | 4/5
Nixon | dir. Oliver Stone | rel. 1995 | 5/5

I've always found tragic figures to be the most fascinating people of all. Winners have always bore me and always will. It's probably because I'm cynical product of an adolescence shadowed by unjust wars and a corrupt government where "winners" and "heroes" seem more relevant in fairy tales, not in Washington D.C.

Failures, at one point or another, wanted to be great, even heroic; they have been easily captivated by the heroic storybook image of the knight in the shining armor or the prince charming on his glorious white horse. Those images are often sold--a product, shamelessly marketed--that represents an almost unreachable dream that America has once promised. But these tragedies are truly provoked enormous ambitions, which usually provokes the final downfall.

Throughout the years, my disappointments and failures have easily eclipsed what many would consider moderate achievements. In a world of flaws, we have been taught that it is okay to be worth less than we really are; being the loser once in a while is only human. Failure builds characters; losers are the more complex characters in literature, anyway.

In director Oliver Stone's presidential biopics, W. and Nixon, Stone delves into the lives of two disgraced American presidents who couldn't be any more different from each other. Richard Nixon would have hated George W. Bush; Bush completely epitomized the silver spoon mentality that Nixon detested.

Being someone who lived through the fear, insecurity, and economic uncertainty of the Bush presidency, I was able to understand W. more than I did Nixon. Although Stone could have given the Bush presidency a more proper biopic treatment, W. is a fair attempt at portraying an unpopular president. It's a breezy, entertaining, and sympathetic look at a clueless, ex-frat bro POTUS, who really belonged on a living room couch, sipping beer and watching ESPN, not in the White House. Stone emphasized Bush's desire to impress his father as a motivation for his political ambitions, despite Bush's disinterest in the career, which does make Bush a more sympathetic, even tragic, figure in the film's context.

But no matter how great a performance Josh Brolin gives as a sympathetic Bush (the voice, the mannerisms--all spot-on), this does not excuse what Americans had to go through in the eight years of the Bush presidency. Unlike so many, I've never been under the impression that Bush was "stupid" or "clueless" about what was happening to his country. Yes, Bush may have been slightly manipulated by those around him--this film hints that Bush was just another pawn in VP Dick Cheney's (Richard Dreyfuss, delivering a terrific impersonatnion) empirical ambitions--but that never stopped him from doing what was beneficial to him and those who were close to him. Bush is not a brilliant politician by any means, but he barely blinked as his country crumbled.

On the surface, especially in interviews, Bush has given me an impression of a potentially fun uncle, a family man, a guy who enjoys a cold beer, football, and backyard barbeques. Brolin's performance and Stone's script almost embraces that idea; too often, we're convinced that Bush is just a regular Joe, not one of the worst presidents Americans have ever elected into office (and even that is questionable). But these are precisely the reasons that make Bush a fascinating subject for a biopic--he seems too much like the good guy to ever be the bad guy. Maybe he genuinely thought God wanted him to be president--who knows? I can't fall for every single bit of sympathy Stone wants his audience to feel, but I can understand where everything is coming from.

It's too early in the post-Bush Administration phase to fully care for W., but this film has the potential to have more worth over time. We'll just have to wait and see.

Since Stone's Nixon was released more than twenty years after disgraced president Richard Nixon resigned, the film was able to allow more time for history to reflect itself than W. allowed (W. was released when Bush was still in office). While watching Nixon, I was reminded what Roger Ebert wrote in his Frost/Nixon review: "Nixon was thought to have been destroyed by Watergate and interred by the Frost interviews. But wouldn't you trade him in a second for Bush?" My sentiments, exactly.

It seems like Nixon will never be forgiven for Watergate. At the time, he was the only president who has ever been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Presidents before him have performed even more outrageous tactics, but they had more charm, charisma, and magnetism than Nixon ever possessed. Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Nixon insists that the president was a decent man who was hated by his people. And once again, Stone plays the sympathy card.

I was born long after Nixon's presidency ended. This lessens my ability to have strong opinions on Nixon. I don't really know anything about Nixon, other than what I've learned from history class and what I've seen in short news footage. There are people who think Nixon did an excellent job with foreign policy (with help from Henry Kissinger, here played magnificently by Paul Sorvino) and there are people who could never forgive him for the cover-ups that led to the inevitable Watergate scandal.

But since I did not live through Nixon's presidency, I was allowed to view Nixon the way Stone wants his audience to see his subject: I saw Nixon as a tragic Shakespearean figure that nearly equals the sympathy I had for the fictional Michael Corleone. He only wanted his family to be proud of him and his wife (Joan Allen) to support him. It made me wonder: Would a viewer who has never lived through the Bush presidency feel the same way about W. and Bush himself?

I tend to have the same sympathies for fallen greatness as Stone does for Bush and Nixon. I feel a great amount of compassion for those who have been disgraced by the public and have been labeled legitimate failures by the media. It is with this attitude that I find Bush, Nixon, Pierce, and other presidential failures far more intriguing than Kennedy, Washington, Clinton or Jefferson ever will be--maybe with the exception of Lincoln because that's a "winner" with multitudes of complexities and contradictions.

Second chances aren't easily attained. Most publicly humiliated failures evaporate forever. What also evaporates is their shot at greatness. Instead, things unfold differently. Tragedies often happen to people who have the potential to be great.

W. is a flawed film. It has choppy editing. It falls into the annoyingly shaky camera pitfall. The film feels a little incomplete at times, like it's missing several scenes. Sometimes the film wants to be a satire, sometimes it want to be a serious biopic. There are moments where I feel like I was watching a SNL skit with a higher budget. But I enjoyed the film immensely; I was finally watching a film that highlighted a period of history that I lived through.

In comparison, Nixon is the far more ambitious film and the better-made film, by miles. Stone returns to black-and-white flashbacks technique that he used in the Oswald flashbacks in JFK. Hopkins doesn't look like the Nixon I remember from the photographs, but he brings a certain warmth to the man, which many seem to find inaccurate to the former president's character--I found it all too appropriate. If I had to sit through a three-hour film about any character, I have to feel a connection to the character. So if that means Hopkins had to soften Nixon a bit, I'm all for it. Hopkins' delivery of Nixon's farewell speech may be the most touching moment I've ever seen in any film and I do not think if that moment would be as effective if Hopkins portrayed Nixon as a calculating, heartless crook throughout.

Because Stone and I seem to be kindred spirits on the subject of tragic public figures, I gladly applaud the director's ambitious visions to capture what may have occurred behind closed doors and to find the missing pieces of the puzzles to these somewhat misunderstood men.


  1. Oliver Stone loves presenting good men becoming corrupted by the power of office and stature, as also demonstrated in "Alexander".

    I don't doubt Nixon and Bush alike wanted to improve things to their liking and from the calling of the electorate - but the high offices of high power are seductive, and can torment any man with problems of egocentrism and overwhelming hubris - I fear Obama may be of this type because he's exhibited sociopathic tendencies as past Presidents have, and in addition, I've never witnessed a leader in American history with such a devoted, creepy cult following - to me, this makes him just as dangerous as Bush and his Bible Belt base of the South. Thank goodness for the separation of powers, and the concept of checks and balances.

    Reagan and Clinton were more level-headed personalities, so they didn't make the heavy-handed power grabs like Nixon and Bush did, but they were no less capable, so they went down in history as the more successful and more boring Presidencies that no-one would ever want a make a movie about.

    One of my favourite scenes in "Nixon" is when he's confronted by the hippie girl, who makes it clear to him that he's not in control of the system, because the system is too big for one man to work with. Which is true because the President is really only supposed to have limited power to his own branch of government anyway - he really can't change anything. Perhaps Stone tries to illustrate the tragedy of these men they all came to change the system, but the system backfired and changed them instead.

  2. @James - The power of the presidency is extraordinarily seductive. But I think what Stone ultimately wanted to show that Nixon and Bush had preconceived notions that the presidency contained all the power in the world, and found out later that the presidency seems relatively powerless.

    I also liked the scene in Nixon when he's confronted by the hippie girl. Nixon likens the system to a wild animal that needs to be tamed. But the president can't tame the system anyway because he has become a part of the system. It doens't seem like things have been changed since the seventies.

    I think your description of Obama is too harsh. It's too early in Obama's presidency to tell his place in history. But during Obama's campaign, I was sort of shocked by the enormous, mostly liberal, following Obama had, but I didn't think it was creepy, though. We all had such high hopes for an idealist who promoted "hope" and "change," ingredients the nation needed.

    The problem I've always had with Obama is that he's a man with ideas without plans. I didn't know how he was going to pay for health care reform last year and I still don't know he's going to pay for it now.

    I actually wouldn't mind seeing a biopic about Clinton or Reagan. Clinton's impeachment has the potential be very dramatic on film.

    Politics is a subject that I definitely want to learn more about and I thank you for your insight, James.

  3. Well, Nixon was a well-informed intellectual who knew and wrote articulately about the decentralization of power in the federal system, so he was no slouch. His personality just wasn't suited to the presidency.

    I'm actually doing US Studies at the University of Sydney, so this subject matter is of particular interest to me. Despite my cautious view of Obama (suspicion of authority has always been the American way afterall), I hope he does well at least, because I want to see America succeed, regardless of who's in office.

    As for health care, even the most libertarian commentators would argue for universal health care if the system would give up the American Empire project, in terms of foreign military ventures, bases, etc. and other expenses that can be sacrificed, as well as paying off the enormous $10 trillion-plus national debt, so that universal health care can be afforded.

    I wish the US all the luck it can get.

  4. Interesting thoughts Marcy, I've never seen Nixon, but I heard it was really good. I thought W. was pretty good. It felt alittle dull at times and the editing was choppy, but I think Brolin brought a certain charm to the character that I enjoyed.

  5. @James - I don't know a lot about Nixon. I took an Advanced Placement U.S. History course and our class had to rush through the book so we can be ready to take the test in May (we spent much too long on the Revolutionary War). So, my dose of Nixon (and the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s for that matter) came from Power Point presentations created by some lazy teenagers who just wanted to get it done.

    But it's interesting to read more about Nixon--even if it is through Wikipedia. Nixon seemed to be some sort of political mastermind, something Bush never was and never will be. But despite Nixon's political knowledge, you make an interesting observation on which kind of presidents are fit for the presidency and which are not. I've never thought about that but it's an interesting point.

    There are so many programs in the U.S. that are being unnecessarily funded. But even if we weren't in debt, health care would still be a controversial subject. The nation seems divided on the issue and so many people seem convinced that the U.S. has the best health care in the world, which is far from the truth. The U.S. definitely has the potential for that, but the system that might allow for health care reform is a corrupted system.

    But I also wish the U.S. the best...

    If you don't mind, I was just wondering what triggered your interest in U.S. Studies..?

    @Farzan - Watch Nixon. Definitely watch it...

    I really enjoyed Brolin's performance, but he only provoked sympathy for the Movie Version Bush (the one Stone has created), not the man himself. It made me wonder whether or not anyone from Nixon's era felt that way about Anthony Hopkins' portrayal.

  6. I recommend "The Invincible Quest" by Conrad Black if you want a thorough biography on Richard Nixon.

    I think most people who say that the US has the best health care in the world are the ones who have guaranteed health insurance packages from their employers, and have reasonably stable job security. In that sense, they most likely have it pretty good.

    It's the poor who suffer greatly from the lack of universal healthcare, but Americans simply won't go for it because they don't want the government having total control over it, which comes from their principles of individualism, freedom from government, and anti-welfare state attitudes - there's a mountain of stuff written about the American stigma of having to be dependent on government. They hate it when the government says "you want it, whether you like it or not".

    I've always been an admirer of this bold attitude of libertarianism even if it does go against your economic means. But really, at the end of the day, it's their problem.

    I've been interested in the US for a long time, and I just couldn't resist the course being offered! Not much more to it than that.

  7. Great reviews. They remind me that I need to see W.