Video Vault: W.

2008- Oliver Stone
PG-13 : 131 minutes
Vault Rating: 8

There was a line at the Premier Theater in State College that was cordoned off on Friday night’s opening of Oliver Stone’s latest presidential psychodrama. A sign at the front of the rope line said, “The line for W. starts HERE.”

Walking in past the healthy crowd to the end of the line, strange thoughts began to percolate inside my head. Would someone want my name and social security number if I got in the line? Where did the line actually lead to? What was behind the closed doors to theater #6? Was an Oliver Stone movie about the current administration just a clever ploy to gather up all the lefties and ship ’em off to Gitmo?

None of that happened. We happily report it is safe to go and see the film. And a fine film it is. One of the better openings I’ve seen in a couple years.

It is a common misconception that the film is a comedy. It is not. Stone has produced a document that is fair to the current president and which tries to understand how the man ticks by jumping from his partying college days to his business and political career. The film’s humor, to this viewer, was tinged with darkness instead of ridicule. The crowd erupted in knowing laughter on many occasions, not belly laughs, which leads me to believe the viewer brings as much to this confessional as the director did.

The casting is impeccable. Indeed, the real life characters in play are a colorful lot to begin with. Josh Brolin is strong in the lead as an impetuous Dubya trying to make his way in one of the more powerful American families in the last hundred years. James Cromwell is a careworn, nearly milquetoast, George H.W. Bush. Ellen Burstyn is powerfully matriarchal as Barbara Bush. Laura bush makes out the best here in a sensitive and kindly performance by Elizabeth Banks.

While the film is supposed to be about this great family, it seems most interesting when observing its strange underlings. Richard Dreyfuss is nearly as Strangelovian as Dick Cheney must be in real life. He is a worm-tongue working just out of sight behind the throne and he ought to garner an Oscar nomination in such a juicy supporting role. Toby Jones is an odd little man – with giant ideas – in the shoes of Karl Rove, while Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) and Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton) tend toward the flatly comical.

There is almost too much phenomenal acting here to comment upon. The scri pt, we all have been living for the last decade or so. It is the Bush’s world and we just happen to live in it.

Meanwhile, Stone provides a kind of dream world in which George Bush moves. This is utter fantasy, but it is seeking some kind of context. Dubya has conflicts with his father which are both real and imagined, but Stone then adds artful fantasies played out in an empty baseball stadium. These seem editorial or poetic, thoughtful, and they do add needed weight.

Conservatives should not hesitate to see this film for it neither insults nor condescends. But do not expect to see a straight documentary. A few of #43’s more famous gaffes are included, but they are presented in fictional contexts. The oval office meeting over the Axis of Evil speech springs to mind as a sort of surreal advertising pitch, for example.

The idea isn’t that “W.” is 100% lifelike in every detail. The idea is that the portrait, when you step back from it, looks and feels right.

* * *

Some other features we’ve been enjoying of late include Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” and Buster Keaton’s “Go West” as we continue to dive into the Vault archives for old chestnuts. We also were quite favorable on M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening.”

“Rebecca” won two Oscars and was nominated for nine others back in 1940 but the film plays a little slow today. It is the story of a widower (Laurence Olivier) who marries again (to the lovely Joan Fontaine) even while the shadow of his first wife (the ever-present Rebecca of the title) threatens their future together.

The film has a decent aftertaste and is probably required viewing, perhaps even repeated viewings as Hitchcock rarely disappoints on the second go around. But for the best of the master of suspense, Vault strongly recommends 1972’s “Frenzy,” where a necktie murder is stalking the streets of London.

The DVD we got of “the great stone face,” Buster Keaton, included three films, the full length “Go West” and two shorts, “The Scarecrow” and “Paleface.”

We must say we like Keaton in small doses as “Go West” drags on and doesn’t play well. The included shorts are better (more slapstick, less setup) and “Paleface,” in which our hero assimilates into an indian tribe, is the best of the three. Sadly, the disc does not come with a menu option where you can choose any of the features. You must view them in order.

A recent look at Shyamalan’s latest creepshow, “The Happening,” went very well. Something is happening that causes people to commit suicide. An allegory is drawn between this happening and the real world disappearance of bees across 28 southern states. Vault will bring a full review on “The Happening” in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, please feel safe in Mr. Shyamalan’s hands. Despite its flaws and the generally negative critical reviews for this one, Vault liked “The Happening” very disturbingly much.

Video Vault: The Happening
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