starring Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Burstyn
screenplay by Stanley Weiser
directed by Oliver Stone
TROUBLE THE WATER
directed by Carl Deal & Tia Lessin
by Walter Chaw John Powers once called Nixon-era Oliver Stone our most Nixonian director: smart, driven, divisive, unlikeable. So the neatest trick of Stone's latest biopic, W., is to make George W. Bush--arguably the most reviled, detached, ideologically arrogant president since James Buchanan--a figure of genuine pathos. Never mind that this incurious, adolescent, fundamentalist fanatic is our proverbial Nero, fiddling while every foundational tenet of Lincoln's party is fed to anti-intellectualism and evangelical Christianity. George Orwell said something once about how the end of democracy is heralded by millionaires leading dishwashers; what's unexpected for me is the extent to which the Republican party in the new millennium has not only convinced the blue-collar to vote against its own self-interests by waging class warfare against liberals, but also begun to turn against the intellectuals in its own party. "Georgetown cocktail party" conservatives are now painted with the same broad brushstroke as "Latte-sipping" lefties--and this idea of abandoning the middle class takes on the onus of not just money and privilege, but education and eloquence as well. The logical end-point of wanting a President as ill-read, venal, and feckless as your alcoholic born-again Uncle Festus is a figure like Governor Sarah Palin, whose chief qualification appears to be her ability to blend into your local chapter of Oprah's Fan Club without a ripple. Hate, division, ugly innuendo, and racism: sowing fear and reaping the political benefits until the house falls down.
For as good as Brolin is, and as reasonable as the picture seems for the most part in sticking to the public record and steering away from Stone-ian controversy, there's a question in my mind--I'd bet even among W.'s supporters--as to whether there's enough gravitas in the man himself to merit a biography of any kind. What I'm saying is that it's not a problem that W. is simplistic, it's a problem that W. is. The only thing the film actually does is confirm that W. was elected because he doesn't threaten anyone intellectually or culturally despite being a member of one of the most entrenched political families of the twentieth century; he's the Faulknerian man-child next door who hasn't read anything you haven't read, used to manage the Rangers (where he traded Sosa before BALCO), and would be fun to have beer and pretzels with. No stranger to daddy issues myself, hell, I'd probably root for him, too, if only he didn't speak for the country I love.
Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) is a monster--and portrayed that way; Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) is a martinet and an idiot (and ditto); Condi Rice (a ridiculous Thandie Newton) has drunk the Kool-Aid; CIA director George Tenant (Bruce McGill) is literally sleeping when the Administration's preferred misinformation is spread on national television; and Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) shits away his credibility by doing what his President asked of him. It's predictably impossible to judge the performances as anything other than caricatures--only Brolin adds something like nuance and complexity to his portrayal of the Good Ol' Boy-in-Chief, and it should be said that his is the one W. character given something to do beyond regurgitating common knowledge and popular opinion. Bush undergoes something like a transformation over the course of the picture, going from binge-drinking, bad business investments, and quitting the jobs daddy gets for him to meeting his wife (Elizabeth Banks, ornamental again) at a barbecue and closing every staff meeting with a forced prayer. He learns how to win from "Genius Boy" Karl Rove (Toby Jones) by courting the undereducated, over-religious, and otherwise desperate; and he learns how to govern by his Freudian desire to do his patrician pop right in whatever way he believes most shocking and awe-inspiring. A film for the choir, W.'s usefulness is suspect, but damned if I wasn't in the stupid fucker's corner from start to finish. Thank Palin at least a little for making the guy look like a Rhodes Scholar in the rear-view.
What W. doesn't touch on is the current administration's complete failure to deal with the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with the subsistence residents of New Orleans' Ninth Ward marooned in every conceivable way. Their response to the government's obvious disinterest was outrage, of course, tainted by about a hundred-and-fifty years of unsurprised resignation. Enter Sundance sensation Trouble the Water, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's all-over-the-place documentary about Katrina and its aftermath, which features eye-witness documentation by victims Kimberly and Scott Roberts, shot on a camera bought for twenty bucks off the back of a truck. A self-described street hustler and aspiring rap artist, Kimberly walks her street the day before landfall, interviews her neighbours (one doomed), shoots about eight minutes of footage during the heat of it as the levees fail, and leaves it to former Michael Moore collaborators Deal and Lessin to insert infuriating clips of our beloved leader failing to grasp the enormity of his government's failure to help its citizens in a time of crisis. That Americans were allowed to sit out a storm without any public evacuation plan, threatened at an American Naval Base with allegedly-loaded machine guns, and left in the heat and squalor of the Superdome begging for food and water is an atrocity--one that begs the question of first how it is that Mayor Ray Nagin was re-elected to his office six months later, then how it is that Barack Obama is only ahead in national polls by around eight percent. Race is the elephant in the room--the topic most likely to be dropped in polite conversation by this year's mainstream cinema, as it happens--and Trouble the Water is best when it shows Kimberly and Scott in their natural element: illiterate, incomprehensible, profane members of a class in the United States that, if not completely invisible, is at least deeply unsettling for everyone else. Better to let the waters carry them away.
Trouble the Water, however, is a diary of missed opportunities, dealing neither with the distaste most have for the self-described "bottom of the bottom of the barrel" of our society nor with the essential nobility in the American character that can recognize something fundamentally wrong with Babs Bush flying over New Orleans and opining that the squalid, Third World accommodations in the government's mandated emergency housing arena is a "let them eat cake" step up for most of the refugees*. Originally meant to be a doc on the National Guard response, changing gears mid-stream when Kimberly and Scott told the filmmakers they had actual footage of the devastation from their flooded house, Trouble the Water shows a lack of focus and can't resist making overtly political what might have been more effective as an introspective examination of the complexity of the invisible caste system in the United States. It doesn't seem calculated enough to be accused of paternalism and exploitation, or organized enough to be a full-frontal Moore-like assault on a ridiculous term and President. And it's not affecting enough to be an Al Maysles-style documentary on any one stain colouring the American character. The unfortunate thing about Trouble the Water is that it comes off as both fuzzy and fervent, meaning it won't attract the audience that should see it and won't convince them should they attend, either. Moreover, the picture is in constant danger of confusing the things about it that are valuable with the things surrounding it that are obvious. Then again, if you don't believe that W. screwed the pooch but good with Brownie and the Hurricane, nothing is going to convince you. You can't argue with idiots, because idiots always win. Originally published: October 28, 2008.
*"What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." (source) return