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W

Directed by Oliver Stone

Review by Malcolm Maclachlan

This is a very strange film. It fails spectacularly on some levels and succeeds quite well on others. All of which may already be implied when you have Oliver Stone as a director.

First the bad. Don't go here expecting a credible drama or a deep explanation of the Bush years. The film jumps around, concerning itself mainly with Bush's conflicts with his father, rise to power and road to war, without giving much new insight into any of them. Even a casual observer of the Bush presidency will know that some of the events could not have occurred the way they are depicted. Multiple threads are compressed into single scenes, to an extent unusual even for bio-pics. Many of Bush's more embarrassing statements are taken out of the speeches where they actually occurred and put into private conversation, as if he said them over and over.

At times Stone twists the truth to make Bush look bad. In a pivotal press conference near the end of the film, he's asked about his legacy and gives a mangled answer about how we won't know because we'll all be dead. In real life, the quote was actually one of the more articulate, if oddly existential, things he's about his time in office.

Now the good. In terms of providing catharsis for those troubled by the past 8 years, it succeeds wonderfully. At times it's extremely funny. Releasing it three weeks before the election seems like a desperate plea for attention-but dropping it into this Tina Fey election season suddenly seems prescient, because the last third plays like an extremely dry Saturday Night Live episode.

Josh Brolin jumps into a crowded field of Bush impersonators and bests them all. His physical resemblance is mild, but he nails W's body language like no one I've seen-the stiff athletic swagger, the squint. This is the W as an amiable simpleton we have seen so many times before, but taken to a new skill level. He steals the scenes he plays with James Cromwell, a far more established actor who fails to nail the voice and mannerisms of the elder George H. W. Bush.

An all-star cast comes in to play the W's first-term cabinet, highlighted by Richard Dreyfus as Dick Cheney and Toby Jones as Karl Rove. Some of the depictions seem exaggerated or changed, but within the movie, this often works. Scott Glenn entertains while playing Donald Rumsfeld as a combination of Timothy Leary and Attila the Hun. Thandie Newton's Condoleezza Rice exhibits a mousy intensity that devolves into over-done caricature. Jeffrey Wright is always a strong performer, but he plays a very whitewashed version of Colin Powell.

I left the theater thinking this film didn't know what it wanted to be-drama or farce. But maybe an all-over-the-map movie is appropriate for the subject matter. And one thing you were probably already thinking is true: many liberals will like it, most conservatives will hate it.

Body of Lies

Directed by Ridley Scott

Teaming Director Ridley Scott with superstar leading men Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe would seem like a recipe for success. Yet "Body of Lies" is languishing somewhat at the box office, falling victim to (amongst others) "Beverly Hills Chihuahua."

This may be as good an indication as any that audiences have had their fill, for the moment at least, of films about war in the Middle East – although it is outperforming some recent films on that topic. For example, "Lions for Lambs" struggled despite the equally stellar involvement of Robert Redford, Tom Cruise, and Meryl Streep.

"Body of Lies" is a well made and engaging film. But it suffers the same fate of others that have gone before it. When you show we haven't been successful in our current conflicts, you have half of the audience who doesn't especially want to hear the message, while the other half doesn't especially need to hear the message. Using "Lions for Lambs" as an example again, in terms of the folks who were likely to show up and watch it, it was simply preaching to the choir.

But "Body of Lies" has another theme that is quite interesting and well expressed. DiCaprio plays Roger Ferris, a young but very able CIA field agent, while Crowe plays Ed Hoffman, his string-pulling boss back at Langley. Hoffman has all of the technology that the world has to offer available to him. In scenes reminiscent of news footage and movies that dwell on ubiquitous surveillance (the recent "Eagle Eye" comes to mind), he follows Ferris' movements via satellites that appear to be able to zoom in to nose hair levels of detail. But he is almost always detached from the action, the eye in the sky that calls the shots from a macro level of intelligence analysis, without ever staring the adversary in the face.

Meanwhile, Ferris as the man on the ground is frustrated by Hoffman's detachment. He finds himself in dealings with the head of Jordanian security, who operates a much more traditional intelligence gathering operation based on human assets and frank brutality. If the film has a message of value, especially following our own experiences in entering the war in Iraq, it is that all of the electronic and distant surveillance imaginable is liable to lose out against simple, old school assets on the ground. Satellites are great for sunny daylight action and tracking cell phones, but sometimes you simply need to have somebody on the inside.


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