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.