The comedy and the tragedy of history

Image of Nigel Andrews

W (Oliver Stone)
The Warlords (Peter Ho-Sun Chan)
Let’s Talk About the Rain (Agnès Jaoui)
Pride and Glory (Gavin O’Connor)
Easy Virtue (Stephan Elliott)

The George W. Bush presidency has proved what some philosophers have long contended. Comedy and tragedy are the same thing. They are separated only by degree. A banana skin under an individual is funny; a banana skin under a nation or planet isn’t.

Oliver Stone’s W – his best film since Nixon and proof that love-hate portraiture inspires him to a higher artistry than liberal polemicising (JFK, Born on the Fourth of July) – is a comedy with the tragedy, though vast and underlying, taken as read. That the Iraq invasion was a catastrophe we know. Likewise that the US economy is in tatters. But a movie cursing the obvious would be lost in today’s chorus of chastened malediction, as a condemned presidency takes its last bow.

Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser prefer to tell the person’s tale, not the country’s. Yet by recounting Bush’s tale they tell – with inspired, possibly unwitting intuition – the country’s too.

That tale starts in scene one: Josh Brolin’s Dubya in pow-wow with his inner circle (Richard Dreyfuss’s chrome-domed Cheney, as patient as a cobra, Jeffrey Wright’s Colin Powell, Thandie Newton’s Condoleezza) as the decision is made to invade Iraq. A low-IQ president with a can-do temperament is a dangerous thing: a missile without a guidance chip. The brains duly gather round, attaching their sparks to the vacant source of ballistic energy, then lighting up the folksy charisma for the public sell.

Of course Brolin (pictured) is attractive as “W”, from the flashbacked Yale fraternity japes to the cheering stumbles and malapropisms – “misunderestimate” – which show he is a doofus among us doofuses. He should be attractive. Otherwise there is no horror to expose, the horror being not one man’s mischief but an electorate’s gullibility followed by an executive’s opportunistic ruthlessness.

Detractors claim Stone has let Bush off lightly. They tut-tut over the picture of a Texan jock’s endearing, cornball geniality, and over the Freudian simplifications of a father/son subdrama with its implied condonement of filial rebellion. James Cromwell, fresh from doing privileged-class paternalism as Prince Philip in The Queen, plays the first President Bush with a gaunt and stricken grace. He can neither control nor understand his son – whose loose-rivets personality (it is hinted) comes from mum Barbara (Ellen Burstyn) – and gets a last-act fantasy scene in an eerily lit Oval Room, reproving Junior for Iraq. “You’ve ruined the Bush name with this – fiasco.” Junior stands firm. The ship of state he commands, even if it is the Titanic, must go full steam ahead.

Stone’s film misses some tricks. Toby Jones’s under-scripted Karl Rove is seen but little heard – no kingmaker in a film about kingmaking. And the soundtrack’s “Robin Hood” song refrain irritates. Yes, Dubya probably fancied himself as a folk hero from the backwoods, but “Mr Hood Goes to Washington” was never the whole story or even the main one.

Brolin suggests more than that and more than a dimwit surprised by high office. A hunger for achievement glows in those vacancies on either side of his nose: a hunger available for definition and deployment by the film’s supporting-cast schemers. These are played perfectly, from Dreyfuss’s Cheney – responding to anxiety about an Iraq exit strategy with “there is no exit, we stay” – to Stacy Keach’s religious mentor Earle Hudd, bulging of eye and brow like a bullfrog impersonating Burt Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry. The film is a comedy, yes. But you need turn it only a subtly different way to the light, or the darkness, to discern the tragedy.

Terrific clanking sounds emanate from The Warlords, like a scrap metal yard shaken by an earthquake. Are these sounds produced by the fighting hardware, as one battle succeeds another in late 19th century China? Or by the cartful of awards the film has won in Hong Kong and now drags across the world? These include Best Film, Best Director (Peter Ho-Sun Chan) and Best Actor for action star Jet Li, who is fast ageing into a grizzled facsimile of Japan’s late, great screen warrior Toshiro Mifune.

China may be the last country able to stage monster battles with multitudinous armies. The conflicts rage away on plains and hills, under smoke-blackened skies or before stricken siege cities. Lest the spectacle alone fail to conquer, a truth-based plot is wheeled into place and historical actualities are hurled over the walls of audience resistance, as if to say: “This rise and fall of a rebel leader” – Li’s self-made general who captures Suzhou and Nanking before being out-plotted by his blood-brother warriors (Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro) – “is based on a true life and a true, unsolved assassination.”

The film solves it with a strongly built tale of battlefield rivalry and the strain placed on a triumvirate of friends by the choices of realpolitik on the field. Spare your enemies? Kill them? Feed a fallen town’s citizens? Slaughter them to spare bread for your own army? The faces of the three leads become battlefields themselves, riven by doubt, singed by guilt or aflame with a possessed, defiant determination.

The patter of tiny aperçus and the warm glow of ensemble art: with Let’s Talk About the Rain, another screen comedy is born to French filmmaker Agnes Jaoui and writing partner Jean-Pierre Bacri. After The Taste of Others and Look at Me comes a modest, bittersweet rondo acted by Jaoui herself, as a writer running for local political office, and Bacri as the amateur documentarist pursuing her. (Picture Woody Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors gone tall, dark and balding.) Third star Jamel Debbouze as Bacri’s puppyish chum adds charm, pathos and sociopolitical themes – race, class – though nothing quite new enough, or strong enough, to turn a mild arthouse pleaser into a must-see.

Pride and Glory is NYPD cop hokum, overcooked and undercharacterised. The time is out of joint, but in films such as this another joint is always to hand: ham. Director Gavin O’Connor must have told actors Edward Norton and Colin Farrell: “Keep carving till I say when.” Farrell is the rogue cop up to his nose in drugs and crime. Norton is the good cop agonising over whether to shop him. Jon Voight is Norton père, a lovable human grizzly and bibulous police veteran, holding the balance of melodramatic contrivances.

What did Noël Coward do to deserve Stephan Elliott’s cackhanded film of his play Easy Virtue? Kristin Scott Thomas, Jessica Biel and Ben Barnes act as if they have never heard the words “style” or “timing”, while Elliott (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) directs as if he has heard only the words “high” and “camp”.

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