Monday, October 27, 2008

Watch-A-Thon flicks 28 & 29: W. & FRONTRUNNERS

Thursday and Friday found me taking in two movies with political figures as their subjects. On Thursday, with visiting ambassador from New Jersey, Mike, it was W, Oliver Stone's cinematic take on the man we know as still-President George W. Bush, and on Friday, with my sister as spotter, it was FRONTRUNNERS—a documentary on the personalities, politicking, and campaign strategery involved in the presidential election... of the student body at Stuyvesant High in NYC in 2006. I gotta say, FRONTRUNNERS ends up being more about politics than W.

Light on story and controversy, big on characters and a certain point of view (no surprise there, right?).
trailer | website

I honestly didn't get a lot out of this film. The overall take on the prez presented in it is one which I think must have crossed most people's minds if driven to ponder the man's motivations since arriving at the White House. It's not so much a story as it is a diagram or outline, highlighting telling moments in W's life. It's about the man, not his office, and despite, or even because (frightening) of his mistakes, aka decisions, it paints that man, George, Jr., in a rather sympathetic light. But you know, good lighting can only take you so far. Perhaps it will age well, tho. When history out-and-out condemns the man for his mistakes, the sympathy that Stone's scenes-from-a-life garners might be more powerful.

For a more compelling and enjoyable, and completely fictional, but deja vu-inducing, story with great performances, look up SILVER CITY on Netflix.

This film jumps back and forth between moments in his first term as prez and events in his younger years. In the past, we get glimpses of his remarkable charm and way with people, his realization that he's a link in the chain of the American dynasty of Bushes, but apparently a weak one, an indulgence in a drinking habit that grows into a bigger and bigger problem, and the apparent salvation from it, and the calling he hears, when he is born again in JC's name. In the "present" of his first term we meet his close aids and friends, an impressive thespian menagerie, I must say. I did not pay attention to the casting before going into this movie, but if someone had given me the list of players and parts, I would have had a lot of trouble seeing it work in my head. I hafta say, tho, everyone is remarkably, freakishly, even, well cast. As unlikely as it seems when you measure Brolin and George, Jr. up side-by-side, Brolin totally sells his good ol' boy Bush performance throughout the film. The weakest performance may have been Richard Dreyfuss as Darth Cheney. I had the most trouble seeing him disappear into this role compared to the rest.

The portrayals of Rove and Rice are... well, uncanny, and kinda scary.

There are several fictionalized meetings we are allowed to sit in on, and these are probably the most engaging parts of the film. One of the strongest themes that arises from these, sadly, is a sort of "fall of Colin Powell," following his struggle to be a responsible citizen and advisor as well as a good soldier. The other theme that emerges, at least in my mind, is how much any big decision-making is part of an already existing agenda. It's just a matter of waiting for some facts, or pseudo-facts, to line up with some certain manipulated personalities, one of which might possibly be the President's.

I mentioned above that the film paints a very particular picture of Bush, in regards to his motivations and influences. I can't think of any way to talk around that idea, so I'm just gonna go ahead and spill, so if you'd rather be "surprised" in the theater, skip on from here to the FRONTRUNNERS ramble...

Basically, it's about his father, it's about his Godly calling, and it's about falling in with a bad crowd. In the film, we get to see how the approval of his father drives him to attempt great things, but how the expectations of his father perhaps lead him to be resigned to his fate of repeated screw-ups. His early opportunities, and the one early "success" that we're shown, actually end up being facilitated by his father and his influence. George, Sr. is not shy about holding brother Jeb up as a chosen, favored son, compared to the shiftless good ol' boy George, Jr., quicker with his drink than with his ambition. His last name might as well be Costanza.

When we see W come to God, he's apparently a true believer. His belief gives him the strength to beat the demon in the bottle. He also takes this belief and approaches his father about running his Presidential campaign with an eye for appealing to the religious right. George, Sr. is not comfortable with wearing the cross for political gain, but does declare that if that's what the people are looking for his son is who they should be talking to.

It's a bit chilling to me when we see George, Jr. insist on closing staff meetings, particularly "star chamber" ones—in which they discuss sketchy intel, bypassing the UN, and war—with a prayer.

Given the remarkable cast and performances, I really would've liked to have seen more about the other players in his adult and political life, Jeffrey Wright's Powell, that freaky Rove, Scott Glenn's Rumsfeld, Bruce McGill's Tenet, even Rob Corddry's (!) Fleischer. The movie doesn't indulge me, tho, and I suppose that's fair. The film is about its title subject, and not meant to be a website or flowchart of the White House. More's the pity.

What to tell you? It won't change your vote. It will boost your admiration for Brolin's talents. It makes a decent complementary film to RELIGULOUS. Wait for the DVD or see it at a matinee.

"It's high school!" Meet some interesting kids in an entertaining documentary on politics.
trailer | website | Brattle listing

I'm fading, so I'm gonna hafta keep this short. FRONTRUNNERS is a charming documentary following the four eccentric candidates—along with their running mates, friends, and faculty—campaigning for the position of student body president at Stuyvesant high school in New York City. You'll meet Mike, the self-assured (or is that cocky?—you'll hafta ask his veep) and experienced student body CFO. There's Alex, the jock, running on a non-existent platform with something of a whispering campaign. Then you've got Hannah, an over-achieving (but hey, this is Stuyvesant—isn't everyone?) cheerleader and accomplished thespian. And finally, George, the pseudo-philosophizing political machinesmith and student body chief of staff. Who will YOU vote for?

It's a pretty fun slice of high school (circa 2006) featuring some kids and candidates with real character. A great bizarro world of an escape from this countdown week of 24 hour news cycling "real world" election politics. It's playing in very limited release and currently on screen in the Boston area in its premiere run exclusively at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square thru Thursday night. Check it out if you can!

Keep on keepin on~

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