PAGE TO SCREEN: “W” by Stanley Weiser

Posted by · 9:54 am · August 12th, 2008

Page to Screen at In Contention“Thirty days!  I’d like to shove a plate of Freedom Fries down that slick piece of shit’s throat.  Givin’ me lectures?  The next chance I get I’ll be glad to veto something French.  Damned glad.”

Those were the words that seemed to send a shot through the industry when Stanley Weismer’s script “W” made its way into a number of hands last April.  The speculation set in, the timidity, and in more ways than one, it did so with good reason.

I have heard “W” praised by smart journalists and gifted filmmakers alike, but when I flipped through its pages last spring, I was met with an effort taxing in its elementary construction.  Packed to the brim with dialogue meant to secure George W. Bush’s position as a simpleton who managed his way into the most powerful position in the free world, “W” reads more like a parody than the modest character study it aims to be.

The script is bookended with a device that draws a distinct clarity about the film’s ultimate point: Bush is a simple man meant for pretzels, beer and a love of baseball, not a man who should have the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.  And that’s a valid enough thesis, because the narrative — to its credit — doesn’t try to lambast Dub-ya throughout.

Weiser trails the character as he moves from one disappointing venture to the next — strings pulled to land at Yale, alcoholism, car-wreck business endeavors — before finding an early groove with a father/son drama.  George Bush Sr. is consistently displeased with his son (a trait he’d later share with 80% of the American population).  And Dub-ya’s life in that shadow plagues him so.

It’s borderline cliche in its construction, but a valid jumping-off point.

The narrative is a broken one, shifting from the opening pitch at a Texas Rangers game to a behind-the-scenes think-tank between Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and Dub-ya regarding a label to adhere to the ultimately ordained “Axis of Evil.”  The back-and-forth is utilized as a commentary on the man and his motivations, and it works most of the time.

But sooner rather than later it becomes clear that Weiser’s intentions are to employ speech as a way of driving home his simpleton point, and even with the crutch of “That’s how these people talk,” it just comes off mean-spirited and, again, parody.

Consider this aside from Dub-ya as he puts two-and-two together regarding Rove’s suggestion of preemptive attack:

(smirks) So you walk into a bar, guy looks at you the wrong way.  He could be achin’ for a fight.  Before he gets the chance, you deck him.

Sure, it’s character-illuminating but there’s something too on-the-nose about it.  Too easy.  And that’s a trait shared throughout the script.

We’re later led through Dub-ya’s spiritual re-awakening as he takes the reverend Billy Graham as a mentor.  We move through the elections of Bush Sr. (including the loss to Clinton, which is the one sequence of the script that plays very well emotionally on the page), Dub-ya’s up-and-down relationship with Laura (who proves to be his rock in the script and could be a nice opportunity for actress Elizabeth Banks), eventually the stolen election of 2000 and finally “the question”: “What would you say your biggest mistakes would be, and what lessons have you learned from them.”

It’s an inevitable moment but one that is treated quite interestingly thematically.  Dub-ya just isn’t bright enough to know how to approach the query.  Even if he were able to admit to a misstep, he wouldn’t have been able to illuminate the impact it had on him and the country without the help of his speechwriters.

The following moments are where Weiser’s simpleton thesis actually pans out, and as the script ends, it does so with a whimper…and an earned one at that.

If only we could say the same of this administration.

There is room in a script like this for directorial development, no question about it.  But any time I read something this striking in its thematic exactitude, trying so hard to make so small a point, I get worried.  I’m not convinced it has been cast appropriately, but the decision within the script to highlight the future with the past and vice versa could be something Stone can work with, and, despite his failures, I always have hope that he can render a powerful film.

We’ll see.

NEXT WEEK: “Valkyrie” by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander

→ 3 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Page to Screen

3 responses so far

  • 1 8-12-2008 at 11:26 am

    Markku said...

    Funny thing is, even though I like the script far more than you do, I concur with just about everything you wrote here. The weaknesses of the script (unsubtle, bombastic, too literal) have been plaguing Stone’s projects from the beginning of his career. Sometimes his dynamic filmmaking makes the writing work, (Salvador, Nixon, JFK, Born on the Fourth of July) sometimes it doesn’t (Alexander, Any Given Sunday). W. could still go either way.

    If anything, it could be a good vehicle for Brolin, who gets to play a colorful, larger-than-life central character. It’s hard to say, as the trailer didn’t really show much White House -footage, where the meat of the story is.

  • 2 10-01-2008 at 9:18 am

    TR said...

    Oliver Stone’s tendency is to cover large ground then zoom in close with telling emotional private moments. If cliche is used it is generally a starting off point for a spin into he psyche. NIXON is filled with interesting introverted moments. Perhaps W will be, too, since we are still living under this clown’s dark cloud.