Director Oliver Stone was in the same freshman class at Yale as George W. Bush, the subject of Stone's scathing new biopic W., but it's an understatement to say they took divergent paths. While Bush enlisted in the Texas Air National Guard, Stone dropped out of school twice, then volunteered for Army combat duty in the Vietnam War, which he left with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Stone's Vietnam experience set the course for his filmmaking career, which has always been intensely political and provocative in its big-picture engagement with American life.
After breaking through with his Oscar-winning screenplay for Midnight Express, Stone made the horror movies Seizure and The Hand, but the more he engaged in the key events of America's past and present, the more respect he received. In 1986, the considerable achievement of Stone's Salvador, a gritty look at Central American dictatorship, was overshadowed by his deeply personal Platoon, the first in a loose Vietnam trilogy that includes 1989's Born On The Fourth Of July and 1993's Heaven & Earth. In addition to his war films, Stone has done biopics on Jim Morrison, Richard Nixon, and Alexander The Great, and offered his perspective on conspiracy theories (JFK), economic chicanery (Wall Street), media-fueled violence (Natural Born Killers), and national tragedy (World Trade Center).
Rushed to release just before the 2008 presidential election, Stone's latest film, W., follows George W. Bush's tragicomic journey from the frat-house to the White House, ending just before his 2004 reelection. Josh Brolin plays Bush with uncanny zeal, and he's joined by a star-studded ensemble, including James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush, Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld, and Toby Jones as Karl Rove. Two days before its première, Stone talked to The A.V. Club about Bush's legacy, the challenge of dramatizing an administration not known for its transparency, and W.'s daddy issues.
The A.V. Club: Your film Nixon was made 20 years after Richard Nixon left office, and this film is about a sitting president. Are you sacrificing perspective for immediacy here?
Oliver Stone: I would argue that it's an urgent situation. The Bush Doctrine, although Sarah Palin may not know what it is, is currently in place, and it's a very dangerous policy. We're in three wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and what [Bush] calls "The War On Terror," which is in whatever country he wants it to be in. He defined himself as a war president after 9/11. He found his character, his definition. So it's very serious for America. It's a time for filmmakers to step forward, if they have something to say. And I would have had nothing to say other than my opinion if it hadn't been for the researchers, the investigative reporters who broke the ice. That's kind of, for me, the price of loyalty, when [former Treasure Secretary] Paul O'Neill broke the ranks, and [former specialist on terrorism] Richard Clarke wrote a book. [Bob] Woodward did four books; the third one was, for us, the most telling one, State Of Denial. Ron Suskind did the other one, The One Percent Doctrine, and he just wrote The Way Of The World. Jane Mayer did The Dark Side, Michael Gordon wrote Cobra II, David Corn and Michael Isikoff wrote Hubris, Frank Rich did a media book. This is all great. You know, there's not that many, really. There's only 10 or so books like that. None of them are the definitive word, but they at least get into the process of sorting through all the bullshit that was going on. So this is not the definitive movie. This is the beginning. There could be other Bush movies by other people, and they may be very good, but this at least starts the process of that whole march to Iraq, up to early 2004.
AVC: Have you thought about what your film will look like in 20 years? Will the Bush legacy have changed in a way that might have—
OS: No, I think he's left his place. He left our nation disgraced, in tatters, bankrupt. I don't know that we can maintain this military domination of the world at the $800 billion and higher budgets given to the Pentagon per year. There's no way. This is an insane time we're living in, and our actions are insane—breaking treaties, criminal court, getting out of the Kyoto protocol. This guy was on a tear from the beginning. Some people would argue it was Cheney more than Bush, but you're asking about perspective. And I would say to you, we have three acts in the movie. It was not done as a Bush presidency only. It's not an eight-year movie. It's a movie about a kid in his 20s, a man in his 30s and 40s, and the final act is the first three years of the presidency. So it's a different structure. We have a lot of information about his past from Bill Minutaglio, who wrote First Son, and James Hatfield, who wrote Fortunate Son. The governorship is known about, so we have perspective there from time on his early Texas years. The only thing that was missing from the puzzle was 2001-2004, and that came, as I said, from those books. We started writing the movie in early 2007, and we made it very fast, as you know, when my other movie [Pinkville] fell apart. It was about the My Lai massacre, a second look at it. But that didn't get financed at the last second. It fell apart. And I jumped into this because we had been working on it very quietly on the side.
AVC: So it's safe to say there was a rush to get this film put together before the election?
OS: I think there's an immediacy to the situation. I think the movie leaves you with the idea of "How did this guy get elected?" We think we know Bush, everybody's got an opinion, but we don't really know him. We don't know how he got to be president. The average person of the press knows more about him, but the average person doesn't. And we're getting that information out there to a fairly large public. And they're gonna wonder, "Who is this guy I voted for? I didn't know how he got elected." I think you feel empathy for him at times, and there's nothing wrong with that, because I think we make you walk in his footsteps, and I think we represent the way he thinks and feels. I think we're accurate with what we've read. I also think we give you an impression of how Cheney thinks, and Rumsfeld, and Powell, and how this war happened, and what the concept of the Bush Doctrine is. I think it makes you think about where this country is now, and where it's going to go. I really do.
Let me also just clarify one thing that may be misunderstood. I have a final cut, but the film was made under different conditions with foreign investors, for the most part. And the contract is very clear. I would make an effort to finish in October as fast as I could, but I had a right to continue the process through January. I could see the movie coming out when he was leaving office. People would say, "He's gonna be gone, and it doesn't matter," but I totally disagree. I think his policies are in place, I think his legacy will overshadow McCain or Obama. They're going to be existing in his shadow for a long time to come. He is not going off the scene. This is a character for all time. You couldn't make fiction like this. This guy's a major war president. People don't recognize it, but he sees himself as Lincoln, as Truman, as Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill, or as George Washington even. I think he sees himself in the biggest light as changing the world.
AVC: What might viewers take away that changes their feelings on perhaps Obama or McCain?
OS: When we started this movie, I think [Rudy] Giuliani was the [likely Republican] candidate and Hillary Clinton [the likely Democratic candidate], so that wasn't really our goal. We're not that specific. We're making a movie that I hope lasts 15, 20, 30 years. This movie can be seen then as a window into the mindset and policies of the time, and into what America was thinking. There's a certain John Wayne aspect to George Bush, the sense that you may loathe his politics, but he has a tremendous screen presence, and you like him in this kind of awkward, cantankerous way where he sticks to his guns at any cost. He never admits he's wrong. That's very Western-hero-style. You know Red River, The Searchers.
AVC: So that cowboy image isn't just an image, but who he really is?
OS: He bought into it. He really did create that persona. He does say at one point in the movie, "I'm not gonna be out-Texaned or out-Christianed again."
AVC: Your version of W. seems easy to manipulate, yet determined to be "the decider." How do you reconcile those two sides to his character?
OS: I think that he has limited intellect and limited interests intellectually. He professed not to have read much until recently, when he discovered history. He seems to lack empathy with history, with empathy with those outside of his experience. He seems to personalize everything in a narrow sense. Stuff like, "I met Putin, I looked in his eyes, and I saw his soul." That's what his foreign policy comes down to. It's Manichean, it's good vs. evil, and it's very clear in the movie. In contrast to that, he has a huge ego. That's more in conflict with evangelical teachings than anything, because with evangelicism, you give up your ego when you become touched by the Lord. It's a very important issue. What you take at face value is conversion, but what he does with it? You can be the judge of that.
As for how he gets manipulated… There's a scene in the movie where he's talking to Dick Cheney, and Cheney lays out this geopolitical argument, but Bush stops him short and says, "Big thoughts. Big thoughts." He doesn't care to get into the complexities of it. Bush is a salesman. He doesn't like to read very much. He wants to get to the voter, he wants to sell it. He is very much a salesman.
AVC: He seems like one of those highly suggestible guys, in the film anyway, where you can convince him to follow your will as long as you make it seem like it was his idea.
OS: Oh yeah. Several times in the film, yeah, like the whole uranium-in-Africa business. Jon Stewart had a great clip the other day, where Bush used the same exact body language and almost the same language after 9/11 as he just did when talking about our response to the bailout. Nothing has changed. His knowledge has not deepened, only the lines on his face. It's an amazing clip. The guy doesn't seem to realize what he's saying; he seems to be very simple. And I think what aggravates people about him is that he has no ability to admit any wrongdoing. There's just no inner life, the unexamined life. There is nothing Socratic about him.
AVC: Woodrow Wilson famously said that D.W. Griffith's The Birth Of A Nation was like history written with lightning. Do you feel you have a strong hand in determining the legacy of men like Nixon and Bush? And is there a responsibility that comes with telling a popular history?
OS: Responsibility, history. I'm a dramatist. Dramatists have a right to look at history and interpret it the way they see it. We do the best we can. We read everything we could in the limited amount of research on this presidency. But we did it, we followed it, and I don't think we ever crossed the line. Everyone who speaks out in this movie spoke their documented views. That includes Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell. You don't have to change anything with Bush. He's been crystal-clear cowboy. He said what he meant.
AVC: The Bush administration has not been known for its transparency. How did you fill in the gaps of what went on behind closed doors?
OS: I gave you the list of books already, but we did have to condense a huge amount of raw material and fill in some gaps. We gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. I think Cheney, we gave him as clear an argument as we could, and Rumsfeld, too. Powell makes a very eloquent argument, but he caved in the end. We showed him at the UN, also caving. Repeating the bullshit. So I don't know where you can say we crossed the line of what the truth was. It's a rough role, to be a dramatist. In the new age it's been doubted, the role of dramatists. You know, Frost/Nixon, it's a wonderful play, but you can certainly say, "Let's not go there."
AVC: W. emphasizes the relationship between Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. Is it fair to contextualize some of what has happened in the last eight years as simply a son acting out against his father?
OS: I think it's fair. Acting out or trying to prove that he was stronger, yes, I think that is true to life. But the Bushes would deny that vehemently, and [George H.W. Bush] has. "Psychobabble," he called it. But no, I definitely think that relationship played a huge role. I think the '92 defeat by Clinton was a huge turning point for both sons. The rivalry that you have [between Jeb and W.], they will deny that to the death. But it certainly seems to have been mentioned. It's been documented again, and Barbara [Bush] has made statements to that effect, that their first son was not ready to be governor. That whole issue, the father's weakness, it's repeated except for the mano-a-mano battle they have in the end. The son grew to feel that he was stronger than his father and could not make the same mistakes because he wanted a two-term presidency. And by "taking that sucker out," [the "sucker" being Saddam Hussein—ed.], he felt in his mind he'd built the political capital to take that second term. In fact, a line he said to Woodward—"I have a higher father than my father." By which he meant the good Lord. And he also said the line about Reagan. Reagan was a big influence in Bush's life, Bush's surrogate father. I think that Reagan's his father and Nixon's his grandfather. That's the way I see it.