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Tragic Fool, Foolish Tragedy

By Shawn Stone

W.

Directed by Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone’s W. is pretty far along by the time Rob Corddry first appears in a cameo as former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher. Even having enjoyed a number of famous actors enjoying themselves (a lot) impersonating members of the current administration up to this point, this was a shock. Corddry is playing Fleisher in 2003, when Corddry was a Daily Show correspondent making fun of Fleisher four nights a week. Kaboom! My consciousness exploded right there, as the immediacy of YouTube nation invaded the movie house.

W. is a lot of fun on this level—up to a point.

Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser use Bush’s life as a window into much of what’s wrong with our national political culture. This includes the sense of entitlement possessed by a political dynasty like the Bush family, who feel that it’s their “right” to rule, and our vacuous political campaigns (and venality of the people who run them). It’s also an enjoyable look at a privileged, drunken libertine who finds religion, reforms and becomes the most powerful man in the world. But Stone is after something deeper.

Josh Brolin is spot-on as W, from the young Yalie who knows every frat brother’s nickname to the mature president seemingly putting an aggressive Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) in his place. Director Stone and Brolin lampoon the man’s well-known foibles, but treat Bush’s personal struggles and religiousness with respect (remember, Stone took Jim Morrison’s spirituality seriously). They also highlight how both sobriety and faith in Jesus play into Bush’s character flaws. When Bush tells his spiritual advisor, played beautifully by Stacy Keach, that he’s been called by God to run for president, the preacher is clearly blindsided.

Stone the entertainer has assembled a dream cast. For the family drama, James Cromwell is excellent (though almost too sympathetic) as W’s nemesis and dad, George H.W. Bush, and Ellen Burstyn is a dead ringer for the aristocratically nasty Barbara Bush. At the White House, Dreyfuss is a comically grimacing Cheney; Scott Glenn is a bluntly dismissive Don Rumsfeld; Jeffrey Wright is a conflicted Colin Powell; and Bruce McGill is a crafty George Tenet. Hilariously, Thandie Newton plays Condoleezza Rice as a simpering gargoyle. (Sadly, Elizabeth Banks is a poor Laura Bush. She lacks that frighteningly impassive mask the First Lady always seems to be wearing.)

The film’s longest, most important scene knits everything together. At the meeting at which the decision to go to war in Iraq is finalized, everyone has an agenda. For Rumsfeld, it’s a chance to show off his new vision for warfare. For Powell, it’s a last chance to pull back from invasion. For Cheney, it’s oil and empire. For the decider, Bush, it’s payback. Stone connects the personal and political motives, and makes a convincing case for why we went to war. And it’s devastating to watch.

That’s where the film stops being a comedy, and sympathy for its protagonist, “George W. Bush,” dries up. As you know, the war goes well—Mission Accomplished!—before it doesn’t. You can argue that it’s unfair for Stone to incorporate bloody images of dead and wounded Americans and Iraqis, but these were the consequences of the president’s “deciding.” Also: While George W. Bush may be Commander-in-Chief, Oliver Stone is an actual combat veteran.

The only bit of wishful thinking comes at the end, when the director can’t resist carrying the father-and-son conflict to its logical conclusion: George W. Bush dreams that his father physically attacks him in the Oval Office. While it would be nice to think that he’s plagued by nightmares, W. makes it abundantly clear that this unreflective man will sleep peacefully every night of his life.

Zzzz, Not Bzzz

The Secret Life of Bees

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

The Secret Life of Bees begins promising us something gothic and dark and emotionally chewy, like the narrative love child of William Faulkner and Carson McCullers. We see a chubby toddler’s hand playing with a marble, intercut with jumbled images of a pretty young mother frantically packing a bag, the brutal introduction of a young man intent on keeping the mother in her place, and, finally, a savage accidental consequence. Fast-forward 10 years, to Lily (Dakota Fanning), calmly narrating the fact that she had, earlier, killed her mother, who she thinks did not return her love. Mean daddy T-Ray (Paul Bettany) doles out comforting tidbits (“Your mother left you”) about his dead wife to Lily on the rare occasion when he isn’t making her work the family peach stand or kneel on grits to punish a childhood misdemeanor. When Lily’s beloved housekeeper and only friend Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) is beaten by racists when she tries to register to vote, the young girl snaps. She “rescues” Rosaleen from the county lockup and the two head toward the town of Tiburon, heretofore just a name scribbled on the back of a picture of the Virgin Mary that had belonged to Lily’s mother. Lily feels that the key to unlock her past is in that community.

At this point, the movie goes to that place Hollywood loves so, where black folk are wise beyond white people’s limited imaginations. The Virgin Mary picture happens to be the label from a family bee farm headed by a trio of sisters, August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys), and May (Sophie Okonedo). August, the main beekeeper, welcomes Lily and the injured Rosaleen into her home and, despite June’s clear misgivings, seems to buy their story of heading toward Virginia to live with Lily’s aunt. Before long, Lily is helping August with the hives, which entails a lot of the older women huskily intoning things about how bees, like people, need love and understanding and warmth. (And, if this kept on, perhaps Maalox or Alka-Seltzer.) August’s home is also a worship center for a number of the community’s black matrons, who sit enthralled while their hostess talks about a black Mary of folklore who helped a nation of slaves toward freedom.

The home is its own hive of contentment and tolerance, extending a welcoming hand to all, and never, except for June’s cynicism, revealing any deep worry or resentment about the times, which aren’t really changing fast enough. More than once, Lily’s close association with her black friends puts them in danger, such as when she and a black male teen sit together in a segregated movie theater. That none of August’s family or friends ever betray even the slightest frustration or anger at the changes that Lily’s presence has brought upon them robs the movie of much-needed tension. The overall softness that director Gina Prince-Bythewood brings to the already soft original material, a novel by Sue Monk Kidd, makes for pretty, Hallmarkian images and prose, but little in the way of emotional drama. The quasi-Color Purple message of black sisterhood and universal motherhood has a been-there-done-that feeling. The Secret Life of Bees is the kind of movie that has many audience members cheering at the end, but, given the utter lack of serious meat in the narrative, the cheering came off as the sound of one hand clapping.

—Laura Leon


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