The Hollow Man


It’s probably a sign
of our uncertain and anxious moment in time that we could be confronted by a
movie that is at once topical and irrelevant. Such is the position of W.,
Oliver Stone’s latest foray into a genre he has pretty much to himself: the
expressionist biopic. From the moment this project was green-lighted both Stone
and his producers willfully ignored our waning interest in the current occupant
of the Oval Office. Why make a movie about a president we’d all wish to
forget–even Republicans?

Stone’s Oedipal
story about the rise and excruciatingly drawn out fall of Bush features name
actors in political drag: Josh Brolin reproducing Bush’s vacant smirk, Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney brooding over
doomsday scenarios, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice nodding endlessly, and
Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld flaunting his contempt for presidential power by
savoring a piece of pie–all performances by serious actors portraying
Republican apparatchiks operating under a cover of piety.

The piety starts
with that most sacred of sports, baseball, with Bush standing on a baseball
field in an otherwise empty stadium. When the off-screen announcer introduces
him — “the 43rd president of the United States!” — he looks around for the
crowd that isn’t there. Already, though, Stone’s film has fallen off the rails.
The image is a clear reference to Bush’s vainglorious spirit, but it’s a
standard cinematic image. Besides, it can’t compare to the image we already
have: Bush’s notorious "Mission Accomplished" stunt in 2003. The
unimaginative irony of the opening scene is followed by more predictable biopic
vignettes: the lesser Bus as partying student, imperfect son, feckless oilman,
serial flirt, attentive husband, sports guy, born-again Christian, newly born
politician — before becoming the merry slayer of Saddam Hussein and pious
enabler of Wall Street’s pyramid schemes.

W. isn’t as visually
baroque as JFK (his j’accuse film) and Nixon (his sober, winter film), dark
and pessimistic, reflections of his own (and much of his generation’s)
disillusionment with American politics and power. But with W. Stone seems
flummoxed by the contradiction between Bush’s own sunny view of his own
political fate and the popular image of him as the most reviled president in
American history. We’re supposed to make the connection between the image of
the young Bush sloppily downing drinks to the chief executive with a visceral
hatred of Social Security and Medicare. What’s missing is a grasp of Bush’s
distinctive way of making mistakes. One of his first breaks from Cheney was his
nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. The choice was impulsive and
intellectually lazy–incidentally, exactly the same kind of choice John McCain made when he
chose Sarah Palin.

Arguably, Stone
isn’t altogether wrong in his guess that we’re ready to sympathize with Bush,
at least a little. The problem is that Bush still doesn’t show any evidence
that he has an inner life. Stone never asks the questions I, for one, would like
to ask George Bush as his moment in history draws to a close: Where is the disappointment? Where is the rage?


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  1. On “Mission Accomplished”: Is this another movie title? I wonder if you could fill it out a bit.
    On Rage and Disappointment, there is none, evidently. And it is not even a reflection of his character as such, but a sign of the times; people seem to be keeping or kept more and more away from politics, to the extent that the politicians are perhaps wondering if their job isn’t just like any other, a 9 to 5 affair, and whether there is a public out there at all.


  2. “Mission Accomplished” refers to the event in May, 2003 in which Bush stood on the deck of the USS Lincoln and declared the hostilities in Iraq over with. The moment stands next to the “heckuva job, Brownie” moment as an exemplar of Bush’s delusional management style.
    In the accounts I’ve read of the closing days of the Bush administration I’ve been struck by how Bush seems completely untroubled by his unpopularity–except for invoking the name of Harry Truman, the patron saint of despised politicians. Even his closest associates are wondering what’s going on deep down inside of him–if anything.


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