Talking Movies

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

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February 10, 2010

A Single Man

Fashion designer Tom Ford makes a stunning directorial debut with a film whose unsurprisingly impeccable tailoring and gorgeous visuals are matched by surprising depth of characterisation and emotional maturity.

Colin Firth stars as George Falconer, a very English professor of literature in a small college in Los Angeles who we follow over the course of one day, November 30 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis has the world on edge but for the suicidal George the world already ended 8 months previously when his partner Jim died in a car accident. This being 1962 George has no public outlet for his crushing grief, indeed, in the most upsetting scene you will see all year, George only finds out about Jim’s death because one of Jim’s cousins defies Jim’s parents and rings from Colorado to inform George, before telling him that he can’t come to the funeral – which is for family only…

George outwardly appears to be exactly who is supposed to be, as he informs us in the opening voiceover but he is pretending on two levels, and the more important deception is not the pretence that he is straight but the pretence that he is okay. In fact he struggles to find any compelling reason to get out of bed every day as the one person who anchored his existence in the world is gone. Ford makes great use of suddenly varying the colour saturation within shots to show the bleakness of the world from George’s point of view, with occasional surges of colour when he is momentarily aroused or excited, or when he is overtaken by a sudden flood of memories.

Matthew Goode is wonderfully warm in these flashbacks as Jim, George’s partner of 16 years. What’s most refreshing is that Ford’s depiction of this gay couple prioritises the latter element over the former as we see them in scenes of cosy domesticity trading barbed insults alongside serious musings. A scene where they discuss women is marvellous for mapping changing gay mores as George remembers his youthful sexual relationship with his best friend Charley (Julianne Moore), an alcoholic divorced fellow English exile who is now his most tangible link with the world. Charley and an enigmatic young student (Nicholas Hoult) who is apparently stalking him might be the only forces able to stop George from killing himself, other than his endless inability to find a comfortable enough position in his bed in which to pull the trigger – a sequence of jet-black hilarity.

Ford, who financed the film as well as co-writing and directing, has managed to transform a forgotten Christopher Isherwood novel into a compassionate meditation on human relationships which is also sprinkled with hilarious lines. Firth’s performance which is full of dry wit beside the expressive grief is a career highlight in an early contender for film of the year. Highly Recommended.

4/5

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