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Thursday October 9, 2008 10:23 pm

How to Review Oliver Stone’s W.

Posted by Steve Woodhead Categories: Elections, Media,

Josh Brolin as George W. Bush
If you’ve been tooling around The Drudge Report at all the last couple of days, you may have noticed near the top, a handful of links to advance previews of Oliver Stone’s latest W., his third effort at biopic-ing an American president, and the only one to have received Mr. Stone’s esteemed treatment while its subject is still in office (the first two in his triptych were JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995).  The first review came from Variety‘s Todd McCarthy; the next day, The Hollywood Reporter was added to the list. 

Before I go any further, let me point out that I have not seen W., though I intend to as soon as the lowly among us movie-going public are graced with limited release screenings on October 17.  I don’t really have any interest in commenting on the film itself anyway.  It’s the critics I’m speaking to now: you guys, way over there in the expensive seats.

Film criticism, or any kind of criticism really, is an art form for which I have a tremendous amount of respect.  It’s immensely difficult to sum up the qualities and failures of a film in only a few hundred words, especially when most critics have to take into account a movie with as much buzz around it as W. has earned.  Those who do it, and do it well, do a great service to the folks who have a real passion for whatever media happens to be at issue, be it music or movies or dance or reality TV or World Beard and Mustache Championships.

But I think that being a critic means that you ultimately have a responsibility to come down on one side or another of an issue.  I might be wrong.  Maybe it’s enough to just further the conversation.  But isn’t the conversation made better by a critic that can not only review a film, but take a stance on it, give their opinion and back it up with the full strength of their experience and training?  Heck, I think so.

Want to see a critic abdicate that privilege?  Have a gander at McCarthy’s review from Variety (which I’ve linked to above).  I can’t remember the last time I read a review so carefully-worded, so intricately wrought, and so utterly gutless.  McCarthy has given himself away at the level of his sentences, which are choc-a-block with lots of interesting words carefully designed to keep him from telling us whether or not W. is, simply, a good movie or a bad one.  McCarthy is content to laud Stone for his “clear and plausible take on the current chief executive’s psychological makeup,” but later reveals that “Aspects of the man unknown to the public are put forward that may or may not be true, but are sufficiently believable to make one go with them in a movie.”

Huh?  Which is it, then?  Is the movie clear and “plausible” (boy, there’s a word that a director wants to hear describing a biopic), or is it pulling enough wool over our eyes to make us think that we’re seeing more than just a barely accurate approximation of Bush on the screen?  The problem with McCarthy’s review, quite simply, is that he seems afraid to really pass judgment on Stone’s film.  My view is that his real opinion of the film is pretty obvious to even a casual reader: the movie sucks.  Some of the character portrayals are “acceptable” (Richard Dreyfus as Dick Cheney), the film bounces from being a “pop-history pageant” to having a “docu-like feel” to entering “tv territory.”  Some people, myself included, might say it sounds like the film is aimless, wandering, and doesn’t have a strong directorial vision.  In other words, Stone, in his rush to have the film out before the election I would assume, dropped the ball.  He made a bad movie.  Can’t McCarthy just say it?

Have a look at The Hollywood Reporter version by Kirk Honeycutt.  This one, I think, gets a little closer to the mark; Honeycutt describes the film as a “gutsy movie, but not necessarily a good one.”  Okay, points for getting close to giving us an opinion.  But he admits that one scene in the White House war room “borders perilously close to a ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch.”  Well, can’t win ‘em all I guess.

I expect to see more reviews like these once W. actually opens - all largely deferential to Oliver Stone as a Hollywood landmark, and eager to gloss over the film’s apparent failings in an attempt to grab a little slice of anti-Bush sunshine before he leaves office, and W. leaves the public memory, which, in this case anyway, will likely be mercifully short-term.


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