Fool, Foolish Tragedy
by Oliver Stone
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.
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
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.
Secret Life of Bees
by Gina Prince-Bythewood
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.