Before the 2000 election, The Nation depicted him as Alfred E. Neuman, the Mad kid. Political cartoonist Pat Oliphant long ago settled on the image of him as a little boy, forever quizzically tagging along after his "Uncle Dick" Cheney. All over the undeveloped world, a caricature of his face decorates the ubiquitous Uncle Sam effigy, right before they burn it. Scores of comedians have imitated his curiously halting, almost studiedly inarticulate Texas drawl. His malapropisms are notorious — Slate has been collecting "Bushisms of the Day" for years.
But to his remaining few true believers, he's an old boy much like the plain-spoken old boys back home. That's what they like about him, that he doesn't talk like a multi-millionaire oil man from a family of Yankee mandarins. When someone tries to explain to his admirers that their hero is an alcoholic, golf-playing legacy Yalie, the spoiled son of the epitome of the Eastern establishment, they just laugh and say, "You don't know him the way we do."
Oliver Stone's stated reason for making W. is that no one really knows anything about George Walker Bush — the 43rd and many would argue the very worst president of the United States — other than what has been released in carefully controlled doses for public consumption.
In Stone's overlooked but masterful 1995 biopic Nixon, the director performed head-shrinking services for that similarly reviled national leader by revealing the deep insecurities at work in Richard M. Nixon's much discussed "outsider's" point of view. Director Stone, working with screenwriter Stanley Weiser (Wall Street), does the same for Bush the Younger (Josh Brolin) — digging through the personal backstory details to fashion a portrait of the man as the precursor to the political animal.
In stark contrast to the self-made Nixon, W. — aka "Geo" and "Bushy" — is the ultimate insider, a C student nevertheless coddled and protected by his more accomplished father George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell), who set up Junior in a string of make-work jobs (oil field roughneck, financial exec, baseball team owner, etc.) before young George found the winning combination of killer-pol strategist Karl "The Little Fairy" Rove plus church-drenched rightwing politics ("I'll never be out-Texaned or out-Christianed again") and rode it all the way to the White House.
As etched in Stone's well-chosen flashbacks, W.'s achilles heel is his relationship with his father, whom the son resents while simultaneously seeking approval from him. By that reasoning, it's W's "top that" competitiveness with his father we have to blame for the ongoing Iraq war. For the numerous other debacles of the past eight years, W. shares the blame with his cabinet and advisors, portrayed wonderfully by a tag team of well-cast actors: Rove (Toby Jones), Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), CIA director George Tenet (Bruce McGill), and neo-con warhawk Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris).
But it's the people closest to W. who shaped him, for better or worse. His mother Barbara (Ellen Burstyn) is depicted as the family's Lady Macbeth, constantly goading on her menfolk in their quest for power. W.'s wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks), on the other hand, gets off pretty lightly — she's an LBJ Texas Democrat charmed by Junior's brash self-confidence. Poppy Bush, of course, has a story worthy of his own movie — photogenic, articulate son of Connecticut senator Prescott Bush; Yale baseball star; WWII combat hero; career bureaucrat including CIA director; and, to his everlasting chagrin, one-term president of the US. As drawn by Weiser and Stone and memorably played by Cromwell, Poppy is the consummate patrician patriarch, one moment indulging his son, the next moment challenging him to a fistfight, and always with a dollop of paternal condescension. No wonder the kid's got a complex.
Unfortunately, we're the ones who have to suffer for Junior's personal insecurities. Stone returns often to the film's "dream" set piece, in which W. finds solace roaming center field at the Texas Rangers stadium alone, glove in hand, fielding imaginary fly balls that never seem to come down. After a magnificent 2007 (American Gangster, No Country for Old Men, In the Valley of Elah), Brolin outdoes himself in the title role. In the first half, W. is never without a drink in hand — massive Jack Daniel's product placement. In the second half, he prays and reflects, in vain. When he gets religion, it's not so much a testament to his inner faith as it is the discovery of another, stronger father in the figure of Texas preacher Earle Hudd (beautifully played by Stacey Keach). The unsatisfyingly inconclusive ending will have to suffice for now. In spite of his well-founded inferiority complex, W. talked himself into Leadership of the Free World, and we followed.
About the same time George W. Bush was having his way with the state of Texas, filmmaker Ning Ying was beginning a remarkable series of closely observed narrative features set in her native Beijing. The 49-year-old Chinese international writer-director, who went to film school in Italy and served as Bernardo Bertolucci's assistant director on The Last Emperor, evidently gained a new appreciation for her hometown's hutong courtyards and the feisty individualism flourishing amidst the collective rank and file. That organic understanding of ordinary Chinese people threads through all five of Ms. Ning's movies, on display Thursday through Sunday at the Pacific Film Archive in a retrospective titled "I Love Beijing: The Films of Ning Ying" (BAMPFA.berkeley.edu).
For Fun (1992) follows the antics of a newly retired Peking Opera stage manager named Old Han, the very picture of a Type A personality, who commandeers an amateur opera company and butts heads with the male divas. In the wry police comedy On the Beat (1995), an old-cop/young-cop duo tangles with rabid dogs and combative residents. That same peripatetic impulse carries on in 2001's I Love Beijing, in which a newly divorced taxi driver collides with "the New China" — a Travis Bickle for the emerging capitalist class. Upscale modernity fully arrives in Perpetual Motion (2005), the chronicle of an afternoon tea party among four female ex-classmates, full of forced laughter and hidden heartaches.
The anomaly in the series is Ning's 2001 documentary Railroad of Hope. It tells of the mass migration of farm hands from Sichuan to the cotton fields of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in far Western China — a 3,000 km, fifty-hour trip for which hordes of people jam in line for two days, then cram into trains (many ride the whole journey standing up) for the chance to earn 600-800 yuan (US$ 87-117) per month, minus expenses. As one woman explains to the camera, the ideogram for the Chinese word for "peasant" is a yoke.
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