Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Starring: Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, RichardDreyfuss, Scott Glenn, Toby Jones, Bruce McGill, Thandie Newton, JeffreyWright.
UK Release date: 7 November 2008
Certificate: 15 (129 mins)
Another reviewer has called this the best party political broadcast since Shakespeare wrote Henry V. I wish I’d said that, partly because it sounds dead clever and partly because it's true. This is a film with one end in view, which is to persuade anyone willing to give it 129 minutes of their attention that it would be a really good idea to elect someone very different to George W. Bush as the next President of the USA. And so say all of us!
Someone once spent ages telling me that Gospels are not biographies, but "passion narratives with extended introductions explaining how He got into such a dreadful mess." Well this is not a biopic, but Stone's opinions on the war in Iraq with an extended introduction explaining how Bush the Younger got us all into such a dreadful mess. Apparently (wouldn't you know) it all goes back to Dubya's troubled childhood and conflictual relationship with his dad.
The point is simple: Anyone can grow up to be Republican President – so long as he has a real President as his father, the governor of Florida for a big brother, half a billion dollars in sponsorship and Karl Rove by his side to do the actual politicking.
Dubya begins as the star student, magnum cum laude, at the University of Jack Daniels - a "devil in a white hat", consuming huge quantities of drink and drugs, impregnating bar girls, incapable of holding down a job, calling his grieving father from jails and being such a stereotypical red-neck, he disgusts even his fellow oil rig workers. Over his shoulder looms his father - the perfect American Episcopalian patrician war hero, long, lean and saturnine, incapable of any show of emotion towards his son except his constant refrain throughout the film: "you disappoint me". So, having sown wild oats in industrial quantities, Dubya turns to Jesus, politics and sobriety. None of the three make him a nicer man. In fact, like so many alcoholics of my acquaintance, he becomes even less pleasant when sober. He simply becomes more dangerous, now that he is fuelled by faith and non-alcoholic beer.
To make his point, Stone uses that most successful of attack-advertising devices, the docu-drama - the portrayal of real events with fictional action & dialogue. This enables the audience with hindsight to see real historical figures saying and doing utterly unhistorical things that they neither said nor did at the time, nor would ever conceivably have wanted to say and do, but which now make them look utterly ridiculous.
Josh Brolin plays Dubya as a red-neck ignoramus incapable of original thought, or even basic syntax, flattered & manipulated by the clever & the corrupt. He is intimidated by the superior intelligence of Cheney, baffled by the cold logic of Rumsfeld, confused by the bitchy scheming of Condi Rice (or maybe just by Thandie Newton’s bizarre Midwest-Cockney accent) and wholly controlled by the electoral machinations of Karl Rove. The only one of Bush’s staff who is permitted the slightest intelligence, integrity or attractiveness is Colin Powell. And just to let us know who the really bad guy is, Dubya's evangelical pastor is given a hare-lip that would look unsubtle on the face of a Bond-villain.
In case you still haven’t got the point, Stone loads in some huge clunking symbolism. Out for a walk with his Cabinet and Tommy Franks to plan the deployment of troops in Iraq, Dubya leads the entire party astray with absolute confidence in his own God-given direction finding. As Dubya addresses Congress to announce the War, we see George Tenet, head of the CIA, sleeping, Hillary applauding enthusiastically (just in case you were thinking of voting for the wrong Democrat) and the elder George Bush sitting up at night worrying (Republican swing-voters, please note). Most hurtful and unhistorical is his depiction of Bush visiting wounded soldiers, misarticulating hopeless and insincere platitudes in various mangled languages. (Even from five thousand miles of clear blue water away from Bush’s position, I know that’s neither true nor fair.) And then when it all goes horribly wrong, the mother of all insurgencies in Baghdad is mirrored by the mother of all blame-games in Washington.
Stone then pauses to ask some simple questions of the narrative and gets some even simpler answers:
-Why did Dubya change from hell-raiser to bible-basher? Because he went for a run with a hangover, keeled over and saw Jesus. (Well, we’ve all been there.)
-Why did he get into politics? Because his pop told him to.
-Why did he stop drinking? Because his hare-lipped pastor told him to.
-Why did he run for President? Because Karl Rove told him to.
-Why did he believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Because Dick Cheney told him to.
-Why did he invade Iraq? Because a coalition of the corrupt, the incompetent, the cowardly & the British (who are all of the above) told him to.
And, erm, actually as far as narrative structure goes, that’s pretty much it.
Well, no, tell a lie. It wouldn't be a real Oliver Stone movie without a Conspiracy Theory: the "real" reason behind the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran-Contra, the first Gulf War, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq and most of the trouble in the world is that Dick Cheney wants to establish an American empire in the Middle East encompassing Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“What is our real exit strategy, Dick?” asks a bewildered Dubya in Cabinet.
“There isn't one! This is our time to build an empire!”
It’s an interesting theory but, sadly like so much else that is unhistorical in the film, it is simply asserted and neither further evidenced nor discussed.
So, in the end, it is just a 129-minute party political broadcast for an election that is now over. It has the same purpose and historicity as the WW1 posters in this country that depicted Huns eating Belgian babies and (we are told by the election watchers) had much the same success in motivating the population to decisive mass action.
But which of us can sincerely complain about the politics of ridicule? I still laugh at Have I got news for you. And I can still quote from Spitting Image sketches screened only once twenty years ago. The bitter truth is that this stuff works – David Steel, one-time leader of the Lib Dems, still ascribes the collapse of his political career to his depiction on Spitting Image. And Stone has admitted that this is belated revenge for the famous "Willie Horton" attack-advertising that did so much to elect George Bush senior and which gets a substantial mention in the film. So I am sure that somewhere, probably deep in the bowels of Fox News, the next Karl Rove is already shooting a sequel for four years time as another shooting star, whose approval ratings are currently nearly as high as Dubya’s own shortly after election, burns up on re-entry. But in the meantime, let us do what the real Dubya (with political generosity unthinkable in this country) has asked us to do – pray that the next President of the United States may lead his nation and the world into peace and prosperity.
Paul O'Reilly SJ
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