Karl Zero (photo, on the left), born Marc Tellenne, just loves George W. Bush. Like he loves Jacques Chirac (Dans la peau de Jacques Chirac, winner of France's Cesar for best documentary in 2007). In future, stay tuned for similar "unauthorized autobiographies" of Nicolas Sarkozy and - who knows? - Sarah Palin (Zero has already professed his love for her).
Karl Zero will be there with his trademark compilation of rare (and not so rare) footage and imagined (but close to the mark, and to the quick) voice over. His latest effort, "Being W." (Dans la peau de George W. Bush), which aired last week on the French-German non-commercial channel Arte, is, like Oliver Stone's "W." timed for maximum exposure in this American election season. We saw it, for free, on Arte in its French version, with Zero's imagined Bush monologue voiced by actor Lambert Wilson. Anglophones can get a feel for the Zero style in this clip from Zero's website.
Though we like to see films in their "version originale," it's hard to find fault with either French or English version of Being W. In any case, the documentary footage is left in English with French subtitles, so nothing is lost in translation.
Anyway, I'm being technical: what matters is that Being W. is hilarious, and euro-for-dollar probably a much better return on investment than Oliver Stone's interminable "W." Somehow, in this election season where all eyes are on the present contest, and hopes fixed on the future, I took the time to see Oliver Stone's latest on the day it was released in Brussels.
I won't go as far as Eileen Jones in Alternet - "A catastrophe worthy of the worst president" - but compared to Karl Zero's little tweaked and twisted documentary gem, Stone's multi million dollar star-studded opus is little better than a ... documentary. No, I take that back. It is not nearly as good as most documentaries, where at least you have a sense of when footage is genuine. Stone's mix of imaginary scenes - many mano-a-mano set pieces between "Poppy" Bush and his neer-do-well son - and Stone's Forrest Gump-like superimposition of Josh Brolin (W.) on board the aircraft carrier in the "Mission Accomplished" scene, make for a sophomoric exercise in film editing.
In the end, Stone's film is unnecessary: we didn't really need a dramatization of Bush reading to schoolchildren on September 11, Bush's carrier landing with codpiece, Bush's address to Congress... they're all on tape anyway. Stone's depiction of the lost years when Dubya drank and dawdled his way through a bunch of failed ventures are moderately entertaining, but only that.
Want a look at the real Dubya during the missing years? Karl Zero provides the real thing, and at times the President-to-be looks like a handsomer version of Alfred E. Newman. Mr. Zero even has a couple of real-life revelations: there's a sequence of a Bush speech where he's recollecting seeing live images of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11, though taped footage was not even available until later that day. The tricks memory can play.
In the Arte TV premiere of "Being W." Karl Zero and co-director Michel Royer (photo, on the right), during a non-commercial pause, warned that the final part of the approximately two hour film was "darker," and indeed there is footage - no doubt unseen on any American TV screens - of civilian casualties: a grisly lineup of children, probably casualties in the initial invasion phase of the Iraq war.
Karl Zero - a news comedian in the Jon Stewart mold, though very much a la francaise - sees no contradiction in thinking Bush "crazy" and "catastrophic" and yet showing him as the buffoon Bush likes to play (is he just playing or is he truly as dyslexically inept with thoughts and words?).
Stone, on the other hand, portrays Bush as a true believer, at least in terms of religion (for my money, Stacy Keach as Bush's born-again sagebrush preacher/AA team leader "Earle Hudd" is one of the film's more convincing supporting roles - though the character is fictitious). What is the Stone take on Bush? I don't really know, and while I can tolerate a good amount of ambiguity in cinema, Stone's W. just seems like it ran out of running time. Thankfully.
So, if you can somehow get to see the Karl Zero/Michel Royer version of W., you'll learn more about George W. Bush than Oliver Stone will ever be able to tell you. Both are semi-fictional unauthorized biopics, but instead of squirming in your seat and playing spot-the-politician played by celebrity lookalikes, sit back and savor the skewering that Mr. Zero gives Mr. Bush.
(photo credit: Arte.tv)