Oliver Stone’s surprisingly sympathetic biopic W. isn’t the only Bush movie at the multiplex. An American Carol opened last month without press previews on exactly one Seattle screen and 10 in the suburbs. The release strategy almost perfectly coincides with this state’s 2004 electoral map: blue surrounded by red.
Directed by one of the Zucker brothers (of Airplane! fame), Carol is a would-be satire that lampoons a fat idiot liberal filmmaker (Michael Malone…why does that sound familiar?) and lionizes Bush values of patriotism, military strength, and resolve against Islamic terrorists. Like A Christmas Carol, here the wretched director is visited by ghosts from the past—including JFK (a Democrat) and George Washington (a Whig?). Jimmy Carter even makes an appearance as a cautionary example—meaning an old liberal idiot and appeasenik.
But George W. Bush isn’t even mentioned in what is, in effect, his own movie.
During the same week, I recently sat through both Carol and W., and the chilly reaction from two political-opposite audiences was telling—an indication of just how fast Bush likely will fade from screen memory.
Up at the Alderwood 16 for American Carol, there were a half-dozen other paying customers—white middle-aged married couples, I guessed—expecting some laughs. After 83 grindingly unfunny minutes, none came. These people had paid 20 bucks for two tickets, plus popcorn and babysitter—for this? I felt bad for these red-state voters; they’d been ripped off by their own kind.
On screen, presidents Washington (Jon Voight) and Kennedy (Jon nobody) reminded us of the righteousness of American power and the power of prayer. 9/11 was invoked. Soldiers and sailors were honored. The Fourth of July was saved. The script could’ve been written by Karl Rove, yet the moviegoers weren’t having any of it.
Back safe within the urban liberal zone, I joined a few Seattle lefties at the Uptown, who were eager to laugh at W. But what struck me was how forced their laughter was at a movie that’s hardly meant to be a comedy. Stone is a director who couldn’t find humor sitting on a whoopee cushion, and the film’s easy digs—”Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?”—were already stale from the TV ads.
W. is only the first draft for a good movie, one that’s strongest in its pre–White House years when it depicts an angry young man in search of self-definition, an overgrown, borderline-alcoholic frat boy who only knows he doesn’t want to be his father. “Don’t call me ‘Junior,'” he tells his future wife.
Here, Bush is a dude—not quite tragic, not really comic—craving certainty. That’s why his malapropisms are telling: “Don’t misunderestimate me” isn’t like Will Ferrell’s “strategery.” In the Josh Brolin version, Bush can’t fully commit to words even as they pass his lips. There’s a kind of petulant pathos to young Dubya in this story—he’s a guy a lot of us have met: a fuck-up who knows it, a shirker who knows it, a shallow good-time guy who still has a sense of shame.
That’s why Stone is correct in treating Bush’s religious epiphany straight; he’s a guy who sincerely wants to be a better man. It’s no laughing matter.
Yet in Carol, when the Michael Moore–style liberal hero undergoes a similar final conversion to Bush values, the movie also insists we take it seriously, which kills the joke.
Love ’em or hate ’em, Clinton and Reagan were charismatic presidents who worked well onscreen because their appetites, personalities, and flaws were already movie-sized. There was something cinematic about their determined rise from obscurity to power. (See Primary Colors, with John Travolta as Clinton, or the CBS TV movie The Reagans, which starred Josh Brolin’s father, James, as the Gipper.)
Dubya’s is a different sort of story: Born into privilege, then failure, redemption, victory…and failure again? That’s a character arc that makes Bush unsuited to future filmmakers from either the right or the left. Republicans aren’t about to honor the guy who precipitated a Democratic sweep. They’ll always have Reagan to laud as their conservative hero.
On the left, it’s hard to make a laughingstock of a guy who led us into war and recession. There’s nothing funny about that, despite the rather desperate and ultimately frustrated urge audiences have to guffaw.
Both W. and American Carol partisans, I think, need catharsis for the same reason: After eight years of the same movie, everyone wants to see a different show. The Alderwood contingent might like to believe that Michael Moore and his cohorts are to blame for the current impasse, but if the core gag is that liberals are insufficiently patriotic and don’t support the troops…that leads us back to the Yale cheerleader-in-chief. And the Uptown crowd may cling to Dubya as a figure of ridicule, but it’s Sarah Palin who’s this season’s only breakout campaign star, because she’s so fundamentally harmless. The Will Ferrell version of Bush was only funny before the Iraq War, before 9/11. Now he’s a clown with blood on his hands.
That’s why further Bush mockery at the movies is so unlikely. It would be like bashing Hoover, and when was the last time we saw a movie about him?