Oliver Stone’s Bush biopic is all about a confused man-child with daddy issues

March 3, 2009

FROM JASON’S RENTAL CARD — Just because you’re simple doesn’t mean you’re uncomplicated.

That’s how I felt about George W. Bush — or at least his silver screen caricature — after watching Oliver Stone’s W. Sunday night. That, and surprisingly a small amount of pity for a man whose policies I’ve despised and whose actions I’ve cursed.

I told Andrew after watching the film that it’s too apologetic, too humanizing of the 43rd president. It gives ol’ W. a bit of leniency by showing his Oedipal angst and constant quest to find self-worth despite his skin-deep Texas swagger. Stone pushes the younger Bush as a man-child desperately seeking his father’s attention and trying to come to terms with his lack of career acuity, and it feels like a back-handed sympathy party.

From his failure to make it as a blue collar salary man, to his drunken Harvard fraternity nights, and then his coat-tails ride into the political arena, Josh Brolin as Bush seems more a confused teenager in an adult body than the evil corporate oilman his opponents have labeled him.

brolin-bushAnd trust me, the guy from The Goonies (Brolin) is good. The face is Brolin’s, but the trademark derisive snicker is Bush’s, as is the Lonestar State strut and the halting delivery of contorted Bushisms lifted straight out of the newsreels. He infuses W. with a mannish petulance, showing Bush trying desperately to maintain a pretense of control as his decisions constantly kick him in the groin.

It’s the facial expressions, really, that clinch the performance. Brolin gives the recognizable Bush squint while mulling the really tough ideas, radiating the idea that if he can only knit his brow a little tighter then he might be able to pierce the veil of information around him and find out what is really going on, and why his policies are having such disastrous consequences.

Brolin and Stone also dally a bit, much to my delight, on the right-wing religious angle, making a fairly acute statement on the pandering of Bible Belt politicians.

“Nobody’s ever going to out-Texas or out-Christian me again,” Brolin-as-Bush says after losing his early Congressional bid. He spends the rest of the film pausing frequently for showy prayer breaks and even telling his preacher that God is speaking to him audibly.

My stance on such things: Hearing imaginary friends talking to you is a sign of paranoid delusional schizophrenia.

Bush is in the reticule with this one, but Stone doesn’t miss an opportunity to skewer Dick Chaney (Richard Dreyfuss) as a manipulative, power-hungry warhawk; to simultaneously golf clap and give a shame-on-you to Colin Powell for his role as a Bush enabler; to jab at Karl Rove’s smug calculative nature; to borderline impune Donald Rumsfeld as certifiably insane; and to cast Elizabeth Banks as an (unrealistically) sexy version of Laura Bush.

I don’t know exactly why W. scored just a 59 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I’d be willing to guess it has to do with the political charge of the film; it scores slightly higher with a 6.9/10 rating on IMDB.

Personally, I’d recommend it slightly higher than either of those metrics, but with the admonition that it’s not going to spur much demand for repeat viewing. I definitely wouldn’t buy W., especially considering how it will be dated as we put the Bush presidencies behind for good.

It will be interesting to see in eight years whether Barack Obama will require Stone to rev up the camera for a similar treatment.


‘Futureland’ and a co-worker’s racism harsh my Obama high

January 21, 2009

futurelandFROM JASON’S GRITTED TEETH — My outlook swings day-to-day from gloriously optimism to blood-boiling pessimism.

Yesterday, watching Obama take control of the mess into which the executive branch had fallen, was a good day. In the evening, I told Andrew I believe we’ve done much more than we realize to eliminate racism in this country, or at least make it so socially odious that it might as well not exist.

Today, however, was a pessimistic day as my idealism was smashed. In the cubicle next door, I heard a co-worker raving about an encounter with a client he labeled “a damned Arab.”

“They’re all terrorists. Even the children… You can’t trust any of them. I don’t know why they have to call me, talking all Arab. We should blow them all up,” he said.

I am sheltered. I normally associate with people of extreme education, raised in a strict environment of social correctness. This co-worker’s words were alien and loathsome. There was nothing in them to which I could connect on any level.

They were not the starry-eyed hope I felt during Tuesday’s inauguration. This co-worker clearly does not agree with Obama’s words: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and latino America and asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

The fever of the inauguration had given me a temporary peace. But my co-worker’s words jogged me into a blacker vision for our nation’s future, one that’s been reinforced in the last week while reading an excellent science fiction work by Walter Mosley, titled Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World.

This dystopia is no Idiocracy; it’s a world of corrupt geniuses and the helpless victims pulled into their sphere of influence. Futureland is a place of designer brain-viruses, corporate city-states and megalomaniacal dictators, genetically-engineered slaves, and politically oppressed masses.

It’s a place where children are drafted into government cabals; where the race and gender divides have exploded; where the Supreme Court allows citizenry to be revoked from anyone the authorities deem socially dangerous; where property rights have been all but abolished; where pre-teens live in underground concentration camp castes while the rich cavorte in the streets above; and where science and religion have been merged into one InfoChurch to keep the desperate under thumb.

Some days Mosley’s futurescape seems laughable. Others — when a co-worker reveals such ill-masked, torturous hate — his grim vision seems as imminent as the vignets he ties together in this book. And then I wonder whether we’ve really progressed at all as a nation, or whether we’ve simply deluded ourselves into thinking our attitudes are evolving at all.


Obama’s eloquence straightened American spines today

January 20, 2009

165357FROM JASON’S LUNCH ROOM — Everyone today will have an Obama story.

Mine happened in a small, corporate lunch room where about 40 people gathered in absolute silence. Where mainly there’s a deafening rabble of voices, there was respectful silence. All mouths — from 18 to 65, black, white, brown, male, female, poor, less poor, smart, less smart — were clamped shut.

And every eye was on the LCD flat-screen on one end of the room. Every head nodded in unison as the 44th President talked about economic and military crises, and about unity in the face of very palpable threats. A buzz of electric agreement surged through the room when Barack Obama told us to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking.”

My co-workers are not people to remain quiet long; but for 30 minutes today, they listened without speaking. They agreed without dissenting. They prepared for hard work without grumbling.

One giant of a man, who looked like he could crush me with a glance, wiped tears away. When Obama finished speaking, a white man and black man at the back of the room gripped each other in a bear hug and then went separate ways without saying a word. At the end of the 30-minute address, there was no hooting or whistling in my lunch room; everyone walked from the room with backs straight, eyes thoughtful, and minds in a mutual alignment.

The word I’ve been avoiding here is “hope,” because it carries with it the weight of a political slogan. What I can say I saw instead in that room was an expectation of success.

After 12:30 p.m., it was finally right and prideful again to be an American. After eight long years of confusion and embarrassment, we were no longer ‘Merkans. There’s no more need to worry about “strategery.”

It was liberating, and for the first time (especially watching the faces of my black co-workers) I could start to scratch the surface of what it really means to live an historical moment. I thought to myself that if I could magnify my content by a thousand, it might come close to what our black brothers felt in 1964 when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

I couldn’t help questioning the ethics of the swelling patriotism I felt in that lunch room.

The day after the nation elected Obama, I asked a black worker what it felt like to have a black man become president. She told me it was a feeling I could never as a white person understand. She apologized, saying it wasn’t meant to be racist; just that I lacked the cultural lexicon necessary to get it.

This, she said, was validation that a person like her could achieve the highest level of power. All the doors were finally thrown open to her, not on paper but in practice.

She’s right, of course. I’m not sure that I can understand the spiritual release she experienced on election night, or at noon today. I’ve never been shackled with the onus of minority race.

But I can understand in many other ways. My family grew up in poverty. My family accepted government cheese. My family did not often have money for new school clothes, let alone luxuries. My family did not have money to send me to college, and so I paid my way on the sweat of my brow instead of the polish of my spoon.

And here is a man that embodies that golden American upward mobility, that seed of manifest destiny we all want to nurture in ourselves. When I watched President Obama’s address today, I saw myself on that stage even though my skin is white and my paycheck is small.


The old tax-and-spend slur is laughable in the face of a $10 trillion debt

October 23, 2008

FROM JASON’S TAX STATEMENT — The Anti-Federalists were right in 1780s when they rallied against Big Government.

Since then, they’ve become Republicans.

I used to be one, at least from a fiscal point of view. The Republicans say they believe in limiting the size of government, preventing a nanny state, lowering taxes, protecting privacy, and keeping hands off business.

Good ideas, right?

But while they’re chanting those mantras, and while “Tax-and-Spend-Democrats” is a label used as a slur in Sen. John McCain’s campaign advertisements, the Republicans are spending us all into a black hole of debt.

The National Debt has increased an average of $3.6 billion per day since Sept. 28, 2007, reaching $10 trillion on Sept. 30, 2008. In 2006, the government spent $406 billion paying just the interest on the National Debt.

The total debt has jumped more than $500 billion every year since 2003. Meanwhile, the federal budget for 2008 is the largest ever — with a record $438 billion shortfall.

What could you buy with $10 trillion?

I don’t think people understand how much money we’re talking about. I have a calculator.

With 305 million people in the United States, $10 trillion would be enough to cut a check for $34,000 for every man, woman, and child — including illegal immigrants.

There are 124,000 chronically homeless people in the U.S. With $10 trillion, we could afford to give each of those homeless people $80 million.

The 2009 Honda Civic base model is priced at just over $15,000. You could buy 649 million of the cars with $10 trillion.

The Statue of Liberty cost $530,000 to build in 1886 (the statue and the base included). With $10 trillion, we could build 827,458 of them today, adjusted for inflation.

The Space Shuttle Endeavor cost $1.7 billion to build. With $10 trillion, we could build 5,582 space shuttles.

If we fed every single person in the U.S. a McDonald’s double cheeseburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, with $10 trillion we could feed everyone for almost 30 years. I’m not saying it would be healthy.

Jacob’s Field (now Progressive Field) in Cleveland cost about $176 million to build. You could build 56,818 of them with $10 trillion.

The average teacher for grades K-12 makes $46,752 per year. With $10 trillion, we could afford to hire nearly 214 million teachers.

As of August 2008, the average home in the U.S. cost $203,100. That means with $10 trillion, we could buy a house for everyone living in Atlanta.

Who is spending all this money?

We didn’t used to have  much debt as a nation. From World War II through Vietnam, it held fairly steady at well under $300 billion. It started to seriously spend up under Gerald Ford (R) and continued at a steady clip under Jimmy Carter (D).

The real problems began when Ronald Reagan (R) took office. During his eight years as president, the debt ballooned by $2 trillion, and continued on that line under George H.W. Bush (R). Spending only slowed when Bill Clinton (D) put tight restrictions on budgetary benchmarks.

This chart says it all: Mathematical proof that Republicans have not only outspent Democrats in the past half-century, but they have done so at an incomparable rate.


{CLICK CHART FOR LARGER VIEW]

At the end of the Clinton presidency, the National Debt was nearly flatlining at under $6 trillion. Then George W. Bush was elected, campaigning hard on the old Republican bread and butter of lower taxes, smaller government and more restricting federal spending policies.

“Spending without discipline, spending without priorities, and spending without an end,” he criticized Democratic candidate Al Gore in 2000 during a speech in Minneapolis. “Al Gore’s massive spending would mean slower growth and higher taxes. And it could mean an end to this nation’s prosperity.”

Under Bush II’s leadership since 2001, the debt has increased by $4 trillion — that’s more than 60 percent — and America’s economy has been plunged into chaos. That is not fiscal discipline. That is not small government.

In the first five years of Bush’s administration, while he had the backing of a Republican congress, federal spending exploded by 45 percent. In his final year in office, Bush has asked for $3.1 trillion going into 2009, which is a spending increase of 6 percent over 2008 and 67 percent over 2001.

Cut taxes and spend

Democrats have been labeled as the “tax and spend” party since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. But no president since FDR has orchestrated such blatant expansion of the federal government and its spending as Bush II.

Worse, his initiatives have been riddled with problems. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform found $1.1 trillion was spent between 2002 and 2008 on 700 projects that were mismanaged, wasteful, fraudulent, or abusive.

At the same time he was spending recklessly, the Bush congress agreed to lower taxes. So less money has been coming in to feed more programs, which in turn means the country has to borrow even more to stay “solvent,” by which we apparently mean choked on debt but not officially pronounced dead.

The Tax Policy Center has projected the impact of the Bush tax cuts will cost $1.9 trillion in lost revenue between 2008 and 2017. By that same year, the tax cuts will have increased the National Debt by another $3.4 trillion.

Republican fiscal conservatism, according to the math, is a joke. No, it’s a myth. If you want better government, choose a party that won’t lie (as much) about its spending policies. But for the love of your pocketbook, don’t let the Republicans continue to choke us to death while telling us they’re good with money.