Sunday, March 15, 2009
A Weekend of Two Bushes
This weekend, without any purposeful intention, became George W. Bush Weekend Chez Mel. Earlier this week, Netflix had ever-so-kindly sent me a copy of Oliver Stone's W. Last night, my DVR ever-so-kindly recorded Will Ferrell's Thank You America: A Final Evening with George W. Bush on HBO. While both looks at our former commander-in-chief offered some meaty food for thought, in the end one left me feeling a bit more satisfied than the other -- and it may not be the one you think it was.
My sis and I curled up with blankets last night to watch Stone's look at the former president. (Gosh, it feels good to type that!) Now, I should begin this with the admission that I am not a big fan of Oliver Stone. While there is often much to think about and admire about many of his films, most of them ultimately feel to me like an exercise in director ego than any real artistry. I also often feel like Stone doesn't trust his audience to be able to think through things alone, so he finds it necessary to beat us over the head with his thesis time and time again. Even his best work (which, to me, is Born on the Fourth of July) drowns in an excess of political philosophy at the expense of emotional connection to the stories and the characters. And that is exactly what happened for me with this film. To me, W. feels like a survey rather than the sort of in-depth analysis I was hoping for. Large chunks of what makes George W. Bush the man (and president) that he is seem to be lacking here. Looking for an inside glimpse of the 2000 election debacle? Look elsewhere because it's not here. Hoping for some sort of insight into what was going on on September 11 when Bush sat for seven plus minutes reading "My Pet Goat" rather than springing into action upon learning that the World Trade Center had been attacked? You're going to be sadly disappointed. Instead, we get these episodes spread out across Bush's life -- his initiation into a Yale fraternity, a college arrest, constant clashes with his father, meeting Laura at a barbecue, a lunch with Dick Cheney where he reminds Cheney which one of them is technically president. While these episodes are interesting and often humorous (Bush leading his staff through the field of his Crawford ranch in the Texas heat is a riot), their existence in a sort of vaccuum make them devoid of any real context. Stone also chooses to insert a couple dream/fantasy sequences, including a dream where W. is lambasted by his father for destroying the family reputation. Those scenes are intended to provide psychological insight, but they often become kind of jarring and heavy-handed. Again, Stone doesn't trust his audience to come up with his Oedipal thesis without spelling it out for us in big neon letters. The acting borders on little more than skilled impersonations, again leaving us feeling like we don't really know these people. It's impressive but empty when all is said and done. We are left with the notion of a man who was little more than a doltish rich boy who sought the highest office in the land as a joint way to gain his father's affection and also as a bit of a "f-you" to his brother, the one Dad always seemed to like best. It's a bit disturbing to think that the last eight years was basically the result of sibling rivalry taken to a ridiculous extreme.
This afternoon, we turned to Will Ferrell's ode to the outgoing president. I went into this expecting silliness, and I got a large dose of that whether it was the large penis purported to be Bush's flashed on the screens above the stage or the breakdancing Secret Service agent who covered for Ferrell during costume changes or the vaguely uncomfortable dirty dancing scene between Bush and Condoleeza Rice. This one-man show, though, was filled with cutting satire as Ferrell's Bush recounted Election Night 2000, discussed the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with former FEMA chief Michael Brown, and confessed that the Crawford ranch was merely a way to seem more down-to-earth, an idea cooked up by Karl Rove in 1999. Ferrell also found a way to reveal a little of Bush's humanity, particularly in a moment where Bush reveals that he cries often when he thinks of the Iraq War and the devastating effect it's had on soldiers and their families as well as the people of Iraq. For the most part, Ferrell spent the ninety or so minutes strutting across the stage ("In Texas, we call that walking.") and finding a way to both mock and embrace the former president in a far more tender and insightful way than Stone managed in his two hours of roasting.
When it was all said and done, I felt more satisfied by Ferrell's show. It was funny and moving. I felt like there was more compassion and empathy at play while still maintaining a strong sense of satire. It didn't pander or beat me over the head with a message. It just entertained, and sometimes, that's all a good piece of political satire really needs to do to accomplish it's mission.