W. (2008) -vs- All The President’s Men (1976)

Sherry CobenThe Smackdown

Two wildly unpopular presidents and the mess they leave behind. Thirty-odd years apart but linked by a few common and terribly unfortunate threads. Hubris. Megalomania. Bad advice. Two films make drama of historical incident before the endings have quite played themselves out. It’s a tricky business, this current events filmmaking, walking the quivery line of fiction, hearsay, and reportage. We find ourselves drawn to the fiery spectacle, the political car wrecks at the side of our nation’s highway, hoping for some light and not just heat. The men who brought down President Nixon and his minions versus The Joe-No-More-Sixpacks who brought himself down and the nation and world along with him. Who wins? Not us. Not by a long shot.

The Challenger

Oliver Stone’s “W.” (2008) takes viewers through a picaresque and non-linear tour of Bush’s eventful life, an investigation of a spoiled rich kid blessed with everything but moral and intellectual rigor — his (selective) struggles and triumphs, how he found both his wife and his faith, and the critical days leading up to Bush’s real life Dr. Strangelove moment – his fateful decision to invade Iraq.

The Defending Champion

“All the President’s Men” (1976) is the film that launched a thousand journalism majors. (Where did they all go?) Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward follow the breadcrumbs from the 1972 Watergate complex break-in all the way to the eventual resignation of President Richard Nixon. All the i’s are dotted, all the t’s crossed in this reenactment of investigative journalism at its absolute zenith.

The Scorecard

A confession: I went to “W.” opening day hoping for a hatchet job, exhilarated by the trailer and expecting the last nail driven into the metaphorical eight-year coffin of unmitigated disaster and malfeasance that characterizes the Bush presidency. Oops. Are my politics showing? Suffice it to say I left the theater some two hours later, mildly stunned, slightly bored and profoundly disappointed at the gloves-on treatment accorded our worst President ever. I think the last thing I needed three weeks out from a close election was this psychologically simplistic explanation/apologia of a grown man trying to impress and win the approval of his classically distant dad. I wanted something more cathartic. This election season has me tied in knots; I spend countless hours every day combing the web for crumbs, fighting for optimism in the face of evil and prejudice: robo-calling, race-baiting, voter-caging, name-calling havoc. I earnestly wish I could fall into a coma and wake up the morning of November 5, our long national NeoCon nightmare at its inglorious end and the moosehunting Winky and her mugging, malignant Blinky reduced to the historical footnotes I fervently pray to be their just desserts and my happy ending.

I wanted nothing less than a cinematic waterboarding, a primal scream, a scrolling list of evil and mismanagement and miscalculation. Instead, I watched Josh Brolin’s game impression of a very dim bulb indeed made sympathetic. Even the darkly comic Dr. Strangelove Cheney-fueled moments failed to do justice to the catastrophic mess this administration has made of the Middle East, not to mention our drawn and quartered Constitution. Richard Dreyfus’ Cheney hinted broadly at unrepentant pure evil, and Donald Rumsfeld’s Marie Antoinette Let ‘em eat pie moment hardly grazed two sitting duck targets for mockery, for imprisonment, for war crimes. Only Thandie Newton’s gap-toothed harridan Ms. Rice fully delivered on the film’s wicked promise.

The casting was fine, the hamhanded scenario trying – alas — to be fair and balanced. Hmm. Where have I heard those ominous words before and why do they shake me to the liberal-leaning core?

So yeah. W.’s not about to change any minds. Bushies (if there are any left) won’t have much to bitch about but bitch they will. Complaining about the liberal (ha!) media is all they have left. James Cromwell’s Poppy makes a towering redwood of the man, stiff, cold and comparatively sainted. Ellen Burstyn’s Barbara hedges every bet, glamorous if borderline blowsy, kind and gentle – an unconvincing choice after we’ve seen the real life hatchet-faced executioner/matriarch of the dynasty in full-on Off-With-Their-Heads mode long enough to know better. Laura Bush comes off like the patron saint of librarians, public education, and marital love made flesh. I have failed to see her halo in eight years of looking for it. No winsome smile left behind.

Oh, Oliver Stone. You rushed W. out as if it would matter, and instead, it sort of lies there, a subtle artsy fartsy litany of our grievances laced with psychobabble, too complicated for those non-wonks to fully grasp the tragic missteps and too simple for us wonks to fully relish.

Telling the story of an unexamined life, an unconvincing religious conversion of a limited man, is made ultimately less interesting by the fact that his is the only examined life on the screen. The others are cardboard stand-ins, cast for resemblances and easy visual jokes.

A tepid piece of biopic that needed perhaps some historical distance to fully land, a more urgent narrative, something more along the lines of “All The President’s Men.” Alan J. Pakula’s lucid direction never falters, the script by William Goldman never lets up for a second. Even though we remember every detail it seems evergreen and fresh, so suspenseful we wonder if this time the bad guys might drill themselves a loophole. No misplaced false sympathy for Tricky Dick, just the unrelenting search for the Truth. Let the chips fall where they may. Clear the murky decks. Let justice and freedom ring. That film lands a fatal punch, focusing on the true heroes that have gone missing in action these past two election cycles, the press. Reporters. Remember reporters? Their dogged search for truth, any search for truth. That’s gone now, replaced instead by the 24-7 news cycle. Truth or innuendo, either one will do, filling the maw. I’m frightened for this country, divided as we are and devoid of truthtellers and truthseekers.

The Decision

When times get tough, we need a hero, not an anti-hero. Woodward. Bernstein. Obama. I’m just sayin’. After all, it’s the bottom of the ninth, we’ve got nobody on base and everything to lose. Hey, batter batter, swing for the bleachers. Get this one for the non-Neo-Con Gipper. We don’t need no Texas Ranger. We need the Lone Ranger.  Forget “W.”  It’s “All the President’s Men” in a landslide.


About Sherry Coben

A comedy writer who created the 1980s hit show Kate & Allie, Sherry Coben — tired of malingering in development hell — has enjoyed coaching a high school ComedySportz team in SoCal, making a no-budget, high-ambition webisode series, and biting the hand that feeds her.
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