W. * * *
Cert 15 129 mins
That’s W. as in George Walker Bush, and if JFK was a murder mystery and Nixon a portrait of a tormented, conflicted soul, Oliver Stone’s third presidential movie is a study of father-son relationships.
Forever in the shadow of both his patrician father, George (a weighty turn from James Cromwell) and more admired brother Jeb (Jason Ritter), his status within the family reinforced by always being referred to as Junior, Stone offers George (Josh Brolin), the 60s college screw-up who drinks too much and regularly winds up behind bars, George the screw-up who can’t hold down a job, and, ultimately, George the screw-up President who led his country into a second Vietnam.
Through all this, he’s a man desperately seeking his father’s approval and constantly being kicked back. He gets into Harvard just to prove he has the capability to do so, only to be cruelly informed by dad that he was only accepted because strings were pulled.
When his father invites him to help run his 1988 Presidential campaign, he knows it’s only because Jeb is too busy carving his own political future. Booze renounced and Born Again, he runs for Governor of Texas to prove he’s the equal of Jeb, but even then dad asks him to delay his ambitions so his brother can get Florida first.
And, when, spurred by the voice of God, he finally becomes President himself, even his Vice President and most senior advisers are all inherited from Poppy. As the WMD disaster comes home to roost, he’s plagued by nightmares of his father in the Oval Office seat accusing him of ruining the family name.
A fine example of Philip Larkin’s oft quoted parental dictum, what you have is the most powerful man in the world making decisions and going to war on the basis of a massive inferiority complex and desire to prove himself to daddy. “This is my war, not his” he snaps.
It’s a selective biopic that skips over the disputed 2000 election and 9/11, and, given Stone’s own political leanings, appears surprisingly non-partisan and sympathetic towards the most unpopular White House incumbent ever.
Even the final scene, the humiliating press briefing where Bush fumbled for words when asked what had been his biggest mistakes since 9/11, is tinged more with pity for a man out of his depth than gleeful revelling in his fall.
And yet, there’s a clear strain of mockery running through the narrative, from freshman foul ups to presidential pissing contests, most notably in the ironic use of soundtrack to counterpoint scenes with Battle Hymn of the Republic, Yellow Rose of Texas and, wickedly, the 60s Robin Hood TV series theme.
Certainly, there’s a chill as machiavellian Dick Cheney (a superbly snakey Richard Dreyfuss) spells out his vision of draining ‘the swamp’ and establishing a new world order, sneeringly likening Bush’s inaction to Neville Chamberlain.
Likewise, footage from Iraq and discussions of manipulating the media (no coverage of military funerals) give a punchy edge.
But there’s a strong sense that this is a dark comedy. The opening bull session with Bush, advisers and speechwriters coming up with the Axis of Evil speech has a definite air of Dr Strangelove.
Of course, never the brightest bulb in the Bush chandelier, the grammatically challenged George is a comedic gift, and Stone happily slips in such howlers as his being ‘misundersestimated’ and the classic “rarely is the question asked ...is our children learning?” There’s no record of him referring to Guantanamero Bay, as he says here, but it’s easy to believe.
Unfortunately, such gaffs make it hard for Brolin, who does an otherwise excellent charismatic job, not to play some scenes close to parody, the meeting with Tony Blair (Ioan Gruffud) especially coming across like some sketch show skit.
Brolin isn’t a Bush lookalike, but he captures man and mannerisms perfectly in what is a brilliantly chosen cast. Scott Glenn may be underused as Rumsfeld and Thandie Newton over-egg things as Condi Rice, but Ellen Burstyn and Elizabeth Banks are solid as mother Barbara and wife Laura, Jeffrey Wright spot on as voice of reason Colin Powell with Toby Jones excellent as wily political strategist Karl Rove.
In 1989, Bush became a managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team and, his world crumbling, there’s several dream sequences of him, dressed in team uniform, standing in the stadium basking in imaginary cheers. It seems, Junior only ever really wanted to be a baseball star. Instead he became President, and the world struck out.
EASY VIRTUE * * * *
Cert PG 97 mins
Not enough laughs in Brideshead Revisited? Check out writer-director Stephan Elliott’s sparklingly reimagined adaptation of Noel Coward’s 1924 comedy about class and the decline of upper middle class British landed gentry with its Victorian-era morals following WWI.
When giddily naive John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) impulsively marries free-spirited American racing driver Larita (Jessica Biel) in Monaco, he whisks her home to meet the family.
Here she finds fierce disapproval from his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) who, struggling the keep things together in the face of declining fortunes, regards her as a floozy gold-digger and is horrified to learn John intends to relocate to London, abdicating his responsibility to family duty.
Relationships with her self-centred awful sisters-in-law, Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) and Marion (Katharine Parkinson) blow hot and cold, but it’s all out war with Veronica who, armed with revelations of Larita’s past, is determined to see her off.
Jack proving weak in her defence, the only moral support comes from his father (Colin Firth),who, traumatised and drained of life by wartime experiences, has withdrawn from the family frontline, content to observe and fire off sarcastic salvos. He sees in her the vitality he’s lost.
Scott Thomas does fine work to make Veronica more than a bitchy snob while Kris Marshall provides deadpan support as a cynical, dodgier version of Jeeves.
But the film belongs firmly to Firth, delivering a career high performance with his battered melancholia as a self-styled member of the “romantic lost generation”, and to Biel who proves an unexpectedly nuanced actress and sharp comedienne.
If, as Coward said, ‘wit ought to be a glorious treat like caviar,’ then this is a tastily modest Beluga.