Talking Movies

January 27, 2019

Notes on Vice

Postmodern Dick Cheney biopic Vice was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

Vice, perhaps fittingly, stands in relation to writer/director Adam McKay’s The Big Short as George Bush Jr stands in relation to Jeb Bush; not nearly as competent but more likely to be showered with unearned prizes. The Big Short was sprawling, but, despite following three storylines; Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling, Finn Wittrock and Brad Pitt, and Christian Bale; was surprisingly focused in explaining the housing bubble and credit crunch they were all betting on. You would think that following just one character, Dick Cheney, would make for a tighter movie. And you would be wrong. This is a ramshackle mess; exemplified by its opening in 1963, purposelessly jumping forward to 9/11, and then back to 1963 again, followed by opening credits that feel like they belong in an early 1970s crime movie, about 15 minutes in.  There’s another two hours to go after that conceit and McKay has here achieved the unenviable and baffling feat of making a film that is both far too long yet also doesn’t go into enough detail on anything.

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December 9, 2018

From the Archives: W

A penultimate dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up Oliver Stone’s forgotten and rather pointless George Bush Jr takedown.

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This George W Bush biopic reunites Oliver Stone with his Wall Street co-writer. It is thus very disappointing that there is no trace of that film’s searing indictment of American greed, but perhaps even more amazingly the man who directed JFK has lost his visual flair.

W is a very odd film, it’s not satire and it’s not a factual drama. It attempts to straddle, and falls short of, both genres. 13 Days made the Cuban Missile Crisis gripping simply by showing how Kennedy dealt with it blow by blow. Channel 4’s The Deal made the trade between Brown and Blair fascinating, even if it was largely speculative. BBC 4’s The Alan Clark Diaries made real politics hilarious. W hopelessly tries to combine all three approaches. We follow the run-up to and fall-out from the Iraq War, while flashing back to the pivotal moments in W’s life that led him to the White House. Stone though has nothing to say about these moments except that Bush has ‘daddy issues’, and that’s why he went to war. This insight isn’t profound or original but could have been heard in bars, on both the sides of the Atlantic, after too many drinks, for the last five years.

James Cromwell alone among the cast does not try to imitate his character and so nicely counterpoints Brolin’s Jr. Cromwell’s George Sr (or Poppy) appears cold and disapproving but we realise that his shepherding of his son Jeb rather than W towards the Presidency is because he wishes to shelter W from the strain of a job that does not suit his temperament. Josh Brolin is extraordinary as W. He perfectly captures the voice and mannerism of Bush Jr but also makes us care deeply for this uncomplicated jock. When W loses a 1980 run for Congress and storms into his backyard exclaiming “I’ll never be out-Texased or out-Christianed again!” we feel his pain more than the obvious satirical anticipation of his 2000 run for Presidency that Stone intends. W’s born-again Christianity is handled with surprising (and welcome) warmth, but while personally Bush saw the light, politically it led him to some dark places. However to expect that sort of complexity is to want a different, less obvious, film.

And Stone does get very obvious… Jeffrey Wright plays Saint Colin Powell while Richard Dreyfuss needs a moustache to twirl villainously as Dick Cheney. Characters say in private their most infamous public gaffes while Condoleeza Rice is written out of history, perhaps because Thandie Newton’s forced attempts to get Rice’s voice right make her screen presence too painful to dwell on. George Bush is not a bad man, he’s just a very bad president, the worst since Herbert Hoover, who also made way for a charismatic Democrat offering change, FDR. But, Oliver, we already knew that…

2/5

July 18, 2016

Re-Elect Calvin Coolidge as President

Rumours had been rife that an attempt would be made at the Republican National Convention to sideline Donald Trump in favour of an alternative Presidential nominee. Little did anyone suspect the man chosen would be the 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, writes B. Bradley Bradlee from Cleveland.

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Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan is shamelessly lifted from The Gipper, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise that his enemies in the GOP establishment have reached even further back to the precedent of Eisenhower and Goldwater. After all, elephants can remember. What does surprise is their decision to leave drafting an alternative candidate to thwart Trump so very late. Their choice of former President Coolidge as a unity candidate is proving controversial in the media at this particular moment of national tension for two reasons: because of his hard-line actions during the Boston Police Strike, and him being dead.

Kentucky Trump delegate Tom O’Shanter was outraged, “It’s a crying shame that a man who won so many votes in primaries can be thrown over for a multicultural advocatist like Coolidge.” On being pressed O’Shanter elaborated, “Coolidge signed that Act giving Injuns the rights to practice their culture. I mean, give me a break! This is ’Murica. You adopt the culture that’s already here!!” Asked whether Coolidge’s track record on tax cuts might sway his vote O’Shanter’s opposition faltered, “Well, I’ll allow he did cut taxes in ’24, ’26, and ’28. He’s got a track record, even if he’s dead.”

Stockton Crouse, a strategist for Jeb Bush’s failed primary campaign, was as surprised as anyone, “I know we were short on choice when it came to one-term Presidents, I myself ruled out drafting George HW, but Coolidge…” Crouse was in two minds on Coolidge’s platform, “On the one hand, I like that he tried to improve our strained relations with Mexico, that’s important after Trump’s rhetoric. On the other hand, signing the Immigration Act is just too like a 1920s piece of Trump demagoguery for my taste. And that’s to say nothing of his being dead, what about the debates?”

But according to Coolidge’s communications director, Broder Mackin, Crouse’s concerns are overplayed. “Don’t listen to his sour grapes. I think we’re all familiar with that Dorothy Parker quote, B. Bradley, Calvin is going to do just fine in the debates.” Pressed on how active a President Coolidge could reasonably be Mackin was firm, “The people have had enough of executive over-reach, B. Bradley. What they want is to be left alone. And Calvin will do that. First, he has form in this; this is a man who said National Education Week did not need his imprimatur. And second, he’s dead.”

B. Bradley Bradlee is fictional editor emeritus of The New York Times. He is currently covering the Republican Convention for the German weekly Die Emmerich-Zeitung.

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