Unlike the Dixie Chicks, director Oliver Stone appears ready to make nice with those who don't hold his political beliefs.
The liberal lion seems toothless, judging by his kid-gloves treatment of President George W. Bush in the new movie, W.
Anyone expecting Stone to cast the Bush era as Natural Born Republicans will be surprised or even disappointed. That is, unless they paid attention to the Academy Award winner's past decade of barely consequential work and his comments about W. before it was released Friday.
Stone, 62, recently told reporters that W. wouldn't appeal to "that radical 15 percent that hate Bush, or the 15-20 percent who love Bush. I'm interested in that 60 percent in the American middle who at least have a little more open mind."
Yet in going for that middle, Stone rejects what has made his career so provocative. He's better at prying minds open than filling them. This nation is divided into two groups of people with an interest in Stone's movies: those who believe them and those who don't, usually split down political party lines. When he made the inarguably patriotic World Trade Center both sides resisted, knowing tempers wouldn't be stoked.
Neither side gets what they want - or want to rail against - in W.
Stone refuses to play rabble-rouser with W., even when themes call for it. The Vietnam veteran celebrated soldiers and castigated politicians in Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. Yet here Stone never broaches the subject of Bush's National Guard service that was famously called into question.
Claims of a stolen 2000 presidential election are dismissed with one line of dialogue. Bush is portrayed as a heavy drinker but Stone ignores reports of drug abuse before born-again Christianity. Bush's conversion is respectfully handled, with barely raised eyebrows when faith and Oval Office responsibilities are entwined.
Clearly the filmmaker likes Bush personally, if not politically. So much that he seeks to present a portrait as bright as Nixon was dark. But this story doesn't contain the King Lear pathos of Richard Nixon's career. We get only a tempered impression of Bush as both cagey king and a court jester prone to malapropisms.
Visually, W. doesn't buck the status quo like a classic Stone movie, minimizing the insinuating edits, shifting film stocks and garish lighting effects of earlier celluloid soapboxes such as JFK, Nixon and Natural Born Killers.
The absence is especially glaring in a scene depicting the president (Josh Brolin) and advisers listening to Vice President Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) detail post-9/11 plans to build an American empire in the oil-rich Middle East. You might expect the fiercely liberal Stone to shoot the scene like a megalomaniac's feverish dream, evoking ambition run amok and hindsight horror.
Instead, the scene plays like a Sunday morning TV panel discussion, talky and dull. Like everything political in W., Stone resists the urge to demonize or accuse, although Gen. Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) presents a strong case for restraint that everyone ignores. Stone cast fine actors bearing close resemblances to real-life counterparts, mostly to offer glum expressions of agreement with an urban cowboy-in-chief.
W. isn't bold enough for dissent, or funny enough for Strangelovian satire, although Brolin's yeehaw impersonation is ripe. Half of the movie is devoted to Bush's pre-presidency: drunken college days, honky tonk nights and bristling against George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell) nagging "Junior" to hold a steady job like brother Jeb.
The father-son dynamic weighs down W., nearly sinking the movie. Like his shockingly sympathetic portrait of Richard Nixon, Stone plays armchair psychologist, again blaming father issues for a president's blind ambition. Everything that's happened in the United States since 2000 is designed to please "Poppy." If that's truly the reason for the world situation today, W. should be a harsher indictment.
One of the movie's problems is Stone's rush to judgment. He insisted upon completing W. so it could be released before the election. He started production a mere five months ago. Now we have a lame-duck president and movie.
Working so rapidly on a story that hasn't yet ended dulled Stone's creative and liberal instincts. In the past, the filmmaker has spent decades parsing conspiracies and corruptions before making them movies. He seems not to have had time to become retrospective about the Bush era, or to devise volatile ways of expressing it. Stone was our best hope for an early read on cloaked history. Yet W. feels like a quickie TV movie, not the autopsy of a divisive legacy.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.