Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Banality of Empire

I feel like there is something missing from many of the reviews of W. I've read thus far. Yes, the film is a pastiche of quotations from the Bush years fit into a fairly short (for Oliver Stone) biopic. Yes, it is a farce, and doesn't always reflect reality. Thandie Newton as Condoleeza Rice is particularly terrible, mouthing about six lines in the entire movie and standing awkwardly close to foreign dignitaries (leading one to think that Oliver Stone and Stanley Weiser can't write women, unless they are arguing with someone). Yes, Oliver Stone's typical stylistic flare, replete with jump cuts and shots filtered through media, is missing. Admittedly, the film has a lot of bad moments.

But what is ignored is the central aim of the film. Many are disappointed that this film is not Nixon, with its paranoid rendering of a nation under siege. We're letting the nefariousness of the Bush Years off the hook, as the argument runs, by portraying them as the escapades of a formerly-alcoholic fraternity boy turned with a daddy issue. Yet something is being ignored. The film is not concerned with plumbing the secrets of the elite but with the "banality of evil." Every film is an argument, and this film is trying to make the case that destruction is not a heart of darkness. In Nixon, there is a scene in which Nixon meets with CIA Director Richard Helms, played by Sam Waterson, and at one point, Helms looks up, and his eyes are completely black, as though we are looking into the soul of the CIA. This is not the path that W. chooses to take. Instead, we see shot after shot of alcohol being imbibed, food being eaten, groups of old codgers waddling through the forest. Because Stone would never avoid pointing to the path of destruction behind the facade, we also see media footage of anti-war protests, of the shock-and-awe of both Gulf Wars, and of the turnaround in Baghdad, when people started protesting, fighting, and blowing one another up in the streets. Yet what we are supposed to understand is that the entire war unwound under Bush's eyes, and he remained clueless the entire time.

Stone does not include all of the Bush presidency. This seems to have bothered many, but I'm not exactly sure why. Watching it, it seems that it could end at any point and allude to the future: it could have ended with Bush first entering Iraq (although a couple of important scenes would have been lost), it could have ended with Bush declaring "Mission Accomplished," it could have ended with Rumsfeld eating pie. The end would have alluded to this future (which does beg the question of whether this film will make any sense to people twenty years down the road). It didn't go into Katrina, it didn't go into warrantless wiretapping and the erosion of the constitution, but it would seem that it's easy to read those things into it. The same buffoonery and arrogance that got us into Iraq also led to the entire edifice of power under Bush. In the end, we watch the bad men, and their actions strike us as absurd, but their results are all the more clear.

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