/ 17 October 2008

W and I

Almost nobody has yet seen Oliver Stone’s forthcoming movie about George W Bush, but already it’s hugely controversial. A White House spokesperson has predicted that it will be full of inaccuracies, and says the president plans to ignore it. Rightwing columnists and bloggers have condemned it as a vicious smear.

Leaked pages from an early script have been picked apart by the media. Before interviewing Stone, I rewatched several of his darkly brilliant conspiracy films, and once you’ve marinated for a while in their pervasive sense that unseen forces are at work in the world, it’s hard not to look at the pre-release controversy and wonder: to whose advantage, ultimately, does it accrue? Who’s pulling the strings here? Follow the money. Cui bono? Who benefits?

But maybe that’s unfair: Stone insists he can’t bear the label ”controversial” and says he doesn’t benefit from it at all. ”To be ‘Oliver Stone’, whoever that is, is to provoke feelings in people before they’ve met me,” he says with some exasperation, hunched forward in an armchair in his tidy Santa Monica office. ”[People say] ‘I don’t want to work with him — he’s controversial!’ But I’m not controversial. I make people think, sometimes.” Stone sighs. ”Maybe making people think is controversial.” Far from being commercially helpful, Stone’s reputation for controversy made the film almost impossible to produce: no big American studio would touch it, and funding had to be cobbled together from several European sources.

The actor Josh Brolin, who plays Bush, nearly declined for fear of the potential professional repercussions; other cast members took a lot of persuading, too. ”Maybe I’m going to get nauseated and never do another movie,” Stone says. ”Because they’re so hard to do! This was so tough, in terms of getting it together, rushing, getting all these people to work for so little in the hope there’d be a profit. I won’t say I’m box office poison, because I’m not, but …” He seems tired. The movie industry, he explains, ”is fucked. Really fucked.”

Given all this, the surprise is that the film, entitled W, doesn’t seem to be an anti-Bush tirade. (I saw brief clips and read detailed production notes.) It’s strikingly light in tone, bouncing back and forth between the president’s privileged, alcohol-fuelled youth and his first term in the White House, up to the invasion of Iraq, which is presented in Oedipal terms. Naturally, it’s not a flattering portrait: Bush emerges as an angry loafer, oppressed by his father’s achievements and his family’s sense of honour, at one point drunk-driving his car on to his parents’ lawn and challenging his father — ”Mr Perfect, Mr War Hero, Mr Fucking God Almighty!” — to a fist fight. But Brolin’s Bush isn’t a mocking parody.

He’s fundamentally human, even likable, as are some of his inner circle, including Condoleezza Rice and Karl Rove, played by the British actors Thandie Newton and Toby Jones. At least in part, W — co-written with Stone’s collaborator on Wall Street, Stanley Weiser — is a good-faith attempt to answer the core question about the president, which Stone frames thus: ”How did Bush go from an alcoholic bum to the most powerful figure in the world?” (Hint: Jesus was involved.) It also delivers a frisson, reminiscent of Stephen Frears’s film The Queen — which Stone cites as an influence — of being a fly on the wall during recent major affairs of state. The cast of W were chosen to be ”feelalikes”, not lookalikes, Stone says, but either way the similarities are sometimes close enough to startle.

Stone admires Bush’s sincerity and self-discipline. ”He had tremendous personal problems, and I have to give him enormous credit — he did overcome them, through willpower. Whether he solved them is another issue, but he overcame certain states of mind.” The movie isn’t angry: Stone says he has no anti-Bush anger left. ”I went through this hatred that so many of the American people are going through now, but fortunately I got over it. I had all this anger for this loss for our country, a serious eight-year loss, and now I just want to say you’ve got to laugh, a little bit, about this whole thing. It gets so painful that humour is the only antidote. If you didn’t, you’d go bonkers.” Nor is it a conspiracy film, not least because the Bush administration’s conspiracies are too well known. Who needs to go to the cinema to be told that the march to war in Iraq involved lies, cover-up and misdirection?

W will be released in the United States on October 17, right before the election. The timing is useful from a marketing point of view, but Stone insists he had other reasons for rushing it out as its protagonist neared the end of his time in office. ”We were here for eight years,” he says. ”And before we say goodbye in January 2009, we have to exorcise the ghost. We voted for this guy — not everyone, true, but we had him as president: he represents more than just Bush Jr. He represents a mindset of American history.”

The early lives of Stone and Bush overlapped in several curious ways. They were born within three months of each other, to privileged families; both spent part of their childhood in wealthy Connecticut towns. They both arrived at Yale University in 1964. But then their paths diverged: Bush completed his degree, then spent five years avoiding the Vietnam War with his famously lackadaisical service in the Texas and Alabama Air National Guard. Stone dropped out of Yale twice, and ended up volunteering for Vietnam, where he specifically requested combat duty and was twice wounded in action. His wartime experiences earned him a Purple Heart, and led directly to his unflinching Vietnam films — Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, both Oscar winners, and Heaven & Earth.

”Bush is the [kind of] Yale boy that’s completely different from me,” says Stone. ”I had a thirst for the world. I wanted to go to Vietnam, I wanted to see the world. Africa. This guy went the other way. He stayed inside the entitlement, he operated very provincially, he stays at home. The National Guard was really about staying at home, too — not just not going to Vietnam, but staying at home.”

They never met at Yale, and didn’t cross paths until 1999, when the two-term Texas governor was plotting his bid for the presidency. Bush was speaking at a fundraiser in Beverly Hills when Stone staggered in late. ”It was 8.30 in the morning — Republicans always have these breakfasts! — and here I am, dressed in black, and I think I’d been up having a couple the night before, so I looked like some version of Dylan Thomas, I think. I walked into the room and you could hear the silverware stop for a moment.”

After Bush had delivered a speech about ”tough love” in the Texas penal system (”It was all about the people he’d executed, and why”), the two were introduced. ”He surprised me,” Stone recalls. ”He said, ‘We were at Yale together!’ I never knew that. And then he told me a bunch of stuff about his buddies in Vietnam … He had power, man. He had charisma that day. You could tell he was going to be president.”

Stone showed W to ”a very senior American journalist”, he says, who warned him to expect a deluge of hostility. ”There are lines in the movie from Bush that are out of context, but I think you used them in the correct spirit,” the journalist told him. ”You didn’t cross the line. But there are those simpletons who will go after it — they’ll say, ‘Well, he didn’t actually say that in his pyjamas at that time.’ Good historians,” Stone says, ”understand that dramatists who deal with history have a licence they don’t have. It’s so ridiculous for me, in the 21st century, to be defending a position taken by Shakespeare. By Aeschylus. Sophocles.”

Being Stone seems to be an exhausting undertaking, necessitating constant combat. But he appears not to feel as though he has any choice in the matter. ”I am destined to do what I do, and ultimately I’ll do it at any price, if it needs doing,” he says, with a ”what-can-you-do-about-it?” shrug. —