Oliver Stone thinks George W. Bush was unqualified to be president. However, the filmmaker found him an irresistible figure for drama.
After months of speculation over whether Stone’s film biography would be a hatchet job on Bush, “W.” arrives as a surprisingly empathetic — though hardly sympathetic — portrait of the president.
Stone, the historical revisionist behind the presidential sagas “JFK” and “Nixon,” this time plays the provocateur by not doing what’s expected of him, namely, putting Bush on a pillory.
“W.” does present Bush as a man unfit to lead. And while Stone cannot resist injecting that theme with moments of sharp satire, he generally casts the president as a deeply tragic figure in far over his head, whose personal demons hold consequences for everyone else on the planet.
“I don’t know who George Bush is, really. But I can tell you, it feels like him from everything we read, and we did a lot of reading,” Stone said in an interview. “The guy has good, bad and ugly qualities like everyone else, but I can understand that things can get out of balance if you have the power. Certain people, if they have the say-so, can really exert their uglier side, and that is what came out, I think.”
Played by Josh Brolin, Bush is presented as the black sheep of a political dynasty who surprised his own family by becoming the prodigal son that made good.
“W.,” in theaters Friday, follows Bush from his boozy frat-boy days at Yale through a string of failed jobs and business enterprises and an early unsuccessful stab at politics. Perpetually in the shadow of his disapproving father, the first President Bush (James Cromwell), he eventually finds two anchors, wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) and his born-again Christian faith.
The film focuses on Bush’s private life, a loving relationship with Laura, a competitive edge with brother Jeb, a contentious air with his father and mother (Ellen Burstyn).
Stone also crafts prolonged sequences recreating meetings at which Bush and his advisers shaped their war-on-terror policies after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bush and company bat about language to come up with their “axis of evil” trademark for terrorist states. They backpedal to justify the invasion of Iraq after intelligence on weapons of mass destruction proves false. Vice President Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) delivers a chilling monologue about the aims of American imperialism.
“Everybody will be surprised in one way or another, no matter how differently you see it. It’s a very human depiction of this guy’s life,” Brolin said. “It’s an interesting, very behaviorally intense, somewhat funny, somewhat satirical, somewhat sardonic story about how this flailing guy became the president of the United States. Twice. ...
“I strangely found a lot of respect for the guy in his ability to tackle his demons. The opposite side of that is him feeling maybe that his demons were exorcised, when indeed they just came out in a different form through his presidency. The opportunities he saw that may have manifested through those, war being one of them.”
While Bush talks of being called by God to run for president in “W.,” Stone speaks of the movie as destined to be made.
He and screenwriter Stanley Weiser had been developing a Bush film biography throughout 2007, but Stone was planning to start production on “Pinkville,” a drama about the My Lai massacre that would have been the Vietnam veteran’s fourth movie about that war.
“Pinkville” fell through late last year, and Stone saw an opportunity to rush “W.” into production and have it out while Bush was still in office.
“I think if we don’t tell it now, no one cares for the next 20 years,” co-star Banks said. “Then maybe in 20 or 30 years we care again, when we’re still sort of feeling the repercussions of this administration.”
Contractually, Stone could have delivered the finished film in time for the inauguration in January, but he wanted it in theaters before the election. He is cynical about its potential impact, however.
“I have no hopes. I cannot affect the dialogue. I did three Vietnam movies. Believe me, I’m humbled,” Stone said. “They did nothing to prevent the country from doing the same thing in the ’90s in several incidents. And then above all, the ‘march to Iraq 2’ was devastating to the psyche of responsible American veterans. Devastating. It really hurt us, hurt our soul.”
Stone later added that he hoped the film would prompt some reflection among Americans before they vote.
“Perhaps we can think about what we elected, who we elected these last eight years,” Stone said. “If they see the movie, they may think about who they voted for the last time and not forget it very conveniently. If they do that at least, that’s pretty good. There’s at least some thinking going on.
“Unless we excite the human brain, excite the human spirit, evolution will not occur. We’ll become simpler and stupider, and we may revert to Stone Age behavior before long.”
Stone doesn’t hold back on unflattering dramatic moments, showing a drunken Bush dancing on a bar or crashing a car into his parents’ trash cans and nearly coming to blows with his father in the living room.
Such scenes are balanced with tender private times between Bush and his wife and moments of humility early in Bush’s born-again conversion.
“Oliver Stone is ferociously intelligent. He is never going to give a one-sided look,” said Thandie Newton, who plays Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser who later became secretary of state. “It’s not going for the jugular. Absolutely not, because that would be so easy. That would be lazy, lazy, lazy, lazy. This is about finding the person, and then leaving it open for an audience to judge.”
Many potential viewers may skip “W.” because they already have passed judgment on Bush, Dreyfuss said.
“Those few brave band of brothers who are still for Bush won’t see it, and those many who are now against Bush don’t have to see it,” Dreyfuss said. “I do believe that this film will be a knocked-out-of-the-ballpark winner overseas. I think every country on Earth wants to see this film, because every country on Earth has been wanting to hear Americans critique George Bush.”
Co-star Scott Glenn, who plays Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, marveled that such a film could even get made, no matter whether or not viewers agree with it.
“Even though we’ve fallen very far, it says I think some wonderful, central thing about this country,” Glenn said. “Where else could this have been done? In France? I don’t think so, where they have a national board that reviews films. In Russia? Give me a break. How about Iran? A film about (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad made by Iranians and released while he’s still there? China? Do you really think so?
“I mean, where else could this happen? The fact that it’s happened, regardless of whether you’re on the right, the left or in between, just the fact it’s happened I think is a cause for celebration.”