Bright Lights Film Journal

Looking Back on Silence and Condoleezza: The Weirdness of W

“The result is satire that doesn’t breathe.”

Even a year after the end of the Bush era, what an odd experience it is to watch this film: a bold, frontal presentation of events that somehow manages to retain the feeling of a daydream. Evidently, Oliver Stone considers the last eight years of American political life too topical, too bizarre to shape into a conventional political saga — or is it the events themselves that resist shaping? W (2008) is unlike any other Stone film: disorienting in the way it dangles us into history, without context or analysis. Where acts cry out for comment, the film offers us only an implacable silence. What we see of the war negotiations may be close to what happened, but that doesn’t make it any easier to digest. In W, the real remains illusory, incredible — especially given the stunned quality of the performances.

It’s been a while since a film traded on the pyrotechnics of acting rather than special effects; not since Wall Street (1987) has a major studio film showcased the power of head turns and line delivery. The first third of W has an oddness of tone that seems right: the film purports to show us in real time a recent history that has yet to be settled. Rather than offering a decisive interpretation, Stone makes us aware that there is something momentous and strange about satirizing events not quite resolved. History has a malleable feeling, as we are suspended within corridors and meeting rooms, watching as the case for war is constructed. As each politician expresses a balance of concerns and rhetoric, the camera keeps its distance, as if only faintly aware of the irony of their comments. The film positions itself as “objective,” and that leaves the audience — in the face of extraordinary events — a little staggered, incredulous at what’s taking place. This is pantomime on a massive scale: like Stephen Frears’ The Queen (2006), it’s a late formal comedy that happens to be mounted on a world stage. Even the film’s trailer is a theatrical throwback, promising the return of all your favorites: versions of Rumsfeld and Rove, as well as Bush Snr. and Barbara Bush, emblems of a long-gone, genteel Southern Republicanism.

One of the “characters” I was most looking forward to was Thandie Newton’s Condoleezza Rice. I’ve found Rice one of the most exciting and actorly figures in politics, along with Ségolène Royal (the French Socialist who resembles Isabelle Huppert in a Chabrol film, to an uncanny degree). Rice is implausible, like an invention of Philip Roth or Thomas Pynchon: she is strange and unreal in her combination of traits, and in the mere fact that she exists. A survey of Rice needs to take in the African American buccaneer, coolly deflecting racists through college; the academic turned Cold War specialist; the concert pianist and wearer of couture; and especially, her fascination with fascist power, from Byzantine dictators to Stalin. Rice is so dazzlingly smooth that she is never ridiculed for her single status or childlessness, unlike other female politicians; as Germaine Greer has said, she is a “Queen of the Night,” who leaves reporters too dazed to scrutinize her lack of political effectiveness. Rice’s relationship with Bush — like a governess employed to civilize the young W — is intriguing but also a little improbable: again, seemingly the creation of a novelist.

I was excited when Newton announced that the key to playing Rice was seeing how she “placed her face.” How does someone make you conscious of their face — how do they expressively place themselves into your awareness? According to Newton, Rice achieves this by smiling “in places you wouldn’t normally,” a technique used also by Margaret Thatcher. Rice arranges her features to suggest a fine mind, drawing attention to her own finesse in a way that confuses our perceptions. It’s a role with great subversive potential — I was especially interested when Newton indicated that she would play the part Cindy Sherman-style.

However, despite this promising approach, Newton’s performance is a major disappointment. I would have thought that Newton, so captivating in Besieged (1998), might convey the special animation of Rice as a public speaker. But ultimately the actress is too aware of her physical difference from Rice — she contorts her face, as if layering a heavy-jawed mask on her own delicate features. The camera shies away from Newton’s stiffness. The result is satire that doesn’t breathe, and an impression of strained awkwardness — utterly wrong for Rice.