Oliver Stone’s “W.”

George W. Bush is easy to hate.  More than other single individual, he is responsible for our illegal attack on Iraq and our terribly flawed war effort after we arrived; for the lack of moral leadership our country has among nations; for the frightening extension of the executive branch of government; for our willingness to imprison without trial and to torture; for the unprecedented spying on American citizens; and now for leading us into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

So why would anyone want to make a movie about W.?  “Because he’s larger than life,” says Oliver Stone, and I would agree with him.  George W. Bush is one of those real people who is so unreal that as a fictional character, he would hardly be believable–in other words, as the incredulous onlooker at Bush in action so often says: “You can’t make this stuff up.”

And yet the real W. is a living, breathing human being who is more like ourselves than different, and to Josh Brolin’s credit, that’s how the actor plays him.  This film is not a satire.  It is a picture of a man who is ambitious, like many other men; who, like many others, can’t quite find his niche; who, like all too many guys, drinks too much and has sex with women he has no intention of marrying; and who, like many such men, finally marries a good woman who stands by him. 

The one thing that makes W. different from most of the rest of us lost and searching souls is that he has a rich and powerful Poppy (played beautifully by James Cromwell) who keeps bailing him out.  And another thing: W. just isn’t all that bright.  And so he can be manipulated by those around him–people who are smarter and more nefarious than W. could ever think to be.  Richard Dreyfus leaves his usual fast-talking character behind to become the oily snake-in-the-cabinet Dick Cheney.

W. knows he has been going down the wrong path, and so he decides he needs to quit drinking and to be “saved.”  Had he not made these changes, he surely would have become the unseen, unheard of, ignominous Bush son that his parents feared he would be.  But Carl Rove guided him to victory as the Governor of Texas, and then on to the White House for two terms.  Books will be written for a hundred years about how that happened, but it did–enough said.

Josh Brolin, though, lets us in on the struggle of the man–to please his father, to overcome his alcoholism, to make something of himself.  W. thinks he is “called” to become President, and he goes forward with the moral certainty that is the hallmark of those who are not educated or reflective.  He is a man who is in way over his head.  Way, way over his head.  And because he is surrounded with toadies, he cannot see a way out, he can only “stay the course.” 

“W.” is not a great movie–it never brings us to the universal realm that a greater film perhaps could have.  In the end, it is topical, and it will die with the times.  But I liked the film because it humanizes a man who has now become a character to most of us.  The film reminded me that George Bush must be devastated right now, and he must be confused.  He must surely wonder how his advisors and his God could have let him go so wrong.  Maybe he wanted to grow up and be a man and give, but he just didn’t have the capacity for the job of President.  Which, of course, is a vast understatement.  I’m sorry for him, and I’m sorry for this country.


Does Race Matter in the Race?

The sub-text of this fascinating Presidential campaign is race.  Does race matter?  Only Stephen Colbert, of the Colbert Report, can look viewers in the eye and say, “I don’t see color.”  Perhaps one day in the distant future, no one will see color at all.  But now everyone does.  The question is not, “Does race matter?” the question is, “How much does race matter, and to whom?”

I am from the South.  I know the South.  So I should not have been surprised when I talked with a Southerner last summer–a well-educated woman, a liberal, a long-time Democrat–who told me at that time, “Obama is not electable.”  And when I asked why, she said, “He hasn’t had enough experience.”  Did her comment come from her own unconscious racism?  Or was she simply echoing the views of most of her neighbors and friends?  It now looks as though Obama is electable–but the new question becomes, “What about the Bradley effect?  Will people who say they would vote for a black person actually be reluctant to do so in the confines of the voting booth?”  I suppose we will see in three weeks.

One way to measure the division of the races in our country is the extent to which blacks and whites differ on the issue.  Whites were truly shocked when blacks cheered as O.J. Simpson was judged innocent in his first murder trial.  Didn’t everyone know he was guilty as sin?  Maybe so.  But did whites understand the depth of anger that blacks carry about police corruption and police brutality?  Not a chance.  And more recently, whites were shocked to hear the remarks of Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former minister, regarding his anger toward this country.  Again, whites mostly have no idea of the amount of unspoken anger that festers in people of color when they are talked down to, ignored by taxi drivers, disregarded when decisions are made.  And most whites have never attended a black church service, which is one place where blacks speak are able to freely not only about their own sins, but about their hopes and dreams, and about the systemic sins that plague this country.

Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, whether you support Obama or McCain, I think all Americans will judge it a positive step forward that a black man is being seriously considered by either party as a viable candidate for President of the United States.  This in itself is something of a moral miracle, considering that blacks were being still being lynched in this country in the 1940′s, and Civil Rights legislation wasn’t passed until the 1960′s.

So are we color blind yet?  Not yet.  But though Obama is called black, we should remember that he is bi-racial, as more and more of our citizens will be, as time goes on.  We will begin to wonder, as people do of my bi-racial grandson now–what race is he, actually?  Maybe just the human race.  Whether or not he is elected President, Obama and his kind are the future, a future when truly, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., suggested, people will be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. 

Let us set our hearts and minds toward this long-awaited time of justice and reconciliation.


Downturn in the Economy–a Spiritual Opportunity?

The papers are all saying so: this is the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.  We’re all beginning to believe it.  Formidable investment institutions have crashed and burned; strong banks have failed; lending institutions have gone out of business; and now buying and selling are slowing down to a crawl, if not a stop, from what has been a very long and very imprudent run.  The government bail-out, which has always bailed us out previously, is not starting the machine running again.  What will happen next?  Wait and see.  That’s about all we can do.

The fact is, no matter how or when a recovery comes, we can be sure it will not be sudden or even soon, and certainly not complete.  Most likely, we are going to be asked to do with less, for a long time–as a country and as individuals.  And how will we respond to this challenge?

A sense of scarcity has a way of engendering fear into people, and fear has a way of making people hostile and mean-spirited and self-centered.  We could go that route, as a country.  We could stop giving out the little foreign aid we are presently giving.  We could crack down even harder on undocumented workers.  Charitable organizations and non-profits could shrink to a fraction of their former size.  Our most vulnerable citizens–poor people, people without health insurance, disabled people, indigent elderly–could well be left to their own devices, such as those might be.  Government-supported institutions such as schools and prisons could easily become overcrowded and increasingly disfunctional.  

And we could go that route as individuals.  We could hunker down and protect ourselves.  We could attempt to continue our wasteful lifestyles as Americans, angry that gasoline has become so high and that food has become so costly to import.  On the other hand, we could learn from these hard times.  We could change our ways.

As a country, we would change our priorities.  Instead of soaking billions into foreign wars, we would pay attention to the infrastructure of our own country–that is, to the needs of the people, including education and health care.  Insead of throwing our weight around, seeking empire, we would become a country among other countries, acknowledging our interdependence.  We would come to understand that it is just wrong for us to continue to consume such an unfair share of the earth’s resources.  In short, we would gain some humility as a nation.

As individuals, we might begin to learn that our well-being is tied to the well-being of all.  As a matter of fact, perhaps as global warming gets worse, we will understand that our very survival depends on our being genuinely neighborly and co-operative.  We’ll undoubtedly have to live on less, and that will mean that we will not be so concerned about new fashions every season.  We will wear our clothing until it wears out, and we may even repair our underwear and socks.  We will not eat strawberries in the winter, but rather will find new ways to prepare local produce that doesn’t have to be trucked in.  We may join the “slow food” movement, because we’ll be spending more time at home, and therefore can actually cook most of our meals.  Entertainment will have become more of a luxury than a given.  We will travel less and get to know our neighbors better.  We will ride bicycles and walk a great deal more, and we will therefore be in better physical condition.  Because we will not be able to consume as a pastime, we may spend more time with family and friends.  Because we will not be distracted constantly by what we will buy next, perhaps we may decide that we will take up a spiritual practice.  We may come to know ourselves better, to acknowledge our need for others, and to shift the emphasis in where we spend our time and energy–that is, the stuff of our life.

Who knows?  When we look back on this time, we may decide that this crisis was the catalyst we needed to make the changes that have been calling to us for a long, long time.