Oliver Stone's W., an Oedipal story about George W. Bush, was released into theaters on October 17, 2008, one month after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and just a few weeks before Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president. It was a curious decision, to rush a film onscreen about a man everyone was eager to forget, whose job approval ratings were around 25%, the lowest of his career and one of the lowest in polling history. What was one to make of it? Nearly four months later, as W. is released on DVD and Bush is in Crawford, Texas, still regularly excoriated in the press for his role in the financial meltdown, Stone spoke to me about the film, and his empathy for its subject.
"Honestly, the election was weird, because McCain was surging in the polls, we had the film ready in October when there was a serious debate about national security, and then out of the blue, the economy became the only issue for the press," he says. "At that point in time, physically, Bush died. He was ridiculed, he wasn't even listened to, he was the guy behind the curtain."
Stone is one of the most influential and contentious directors in America, and it's ironic that his Bush biopic was eclipsed more by the sharp turns of history than by the controversy he stirred in making it. "I wish we only could have done it faster," he says. It's too bad, because whatever one thinks of his other movies, or, for that matter, his politics, W. presents a perspective that stands apart from the tired criticism that has dominated newspapers, magazines, blogs, and news networks for the last eight years. In his world, historical circumstance takes a backseat to Freudian determinism and the real culprit of the Iraq War becomes Bush's oversized ego, the result of a lifetime of disapproval from his real father, and being born again to his higher father. Josh Brolin plays the son with Poppy issues; James Cromwell plays a mean Poppy. Though it can be heavy-handed, when it gets the tone right, it's goofy, chilling, a bit deranged, and oddly sympathetic. It is also vintage Stone: fast-paced, well made, and admirably interesting. Even though Bush's real-life impotency doomed the film's blockbuster potential, it's a huge, commercial movie that succeeds in capturing the absurdity of the era.
As usual, Stone was criticized for getting the facts wrong, for being a revisionist historian, like in The Doors, JFK, Nixon, and Alexander. In effect, it is the same complaint he gets whenever he makes a film. "I've constantly been labeled a conspiracy theorist," he says wearily. "I just follow my instinct with the time." Perhaps the better label is, simply, a storyteller of unabashed excess, one who feels the need to dramatize big historical figures and big historical events in order to give the voice he feels most deeply, his antiwar bellow, an outlet. "I'm a dramatist," he says. "Even prior to Thucydides, dramatists have always existed beside historians. Then, dramatists lost a lot of their seriousness in American culture. But I think dramatists can nail the spirit of something in a way that historians can't. I think it's the dramatist's responsibility to read everything he can get his hands on but, then, at the end of the day, leave history books behind."
W. begins in the Oval Office in 2002 during an imagined Cabinet meeting in which the central question is "Why Iraq?" Stone says, "You could fault me for not showing 9/11 but I felt it had been overdone. I'm interested in the reactions. The reactions start then, in 2002. It's not about the presidency. It's about the scenes of the man. The prodigal son. The prodigal son returns home and becomes president. And then, the third act, the Icarus and Daedalus story, where Icarus flies too high, his wings melt, and he falls."
Cutting back and forth between past and present, the story is all too familiar. But the narrative fluidity overrides anything tedious -- this is Oliver Stone, after all -- and so does the idea that not only are we being reminded of how we got here, we know what else happens. The climax, or "empire scene," as he calls it, returns to a cabinet meeting when the decision is made to go to war. "It's twelve minutes long and it's pure dialogue. We were setting up where everyone stands, but what really happened, we don't know." Colin Powell has the edifying voice of dissent, but Stone is quick to say, "I doubt what he actually said in the movie is what he really said. To exaggerate it, it's part of what movies do." Later, he adds, "I see Powell as the tragic figure." Bush, on the other hand, is not. "He doesn't have the consciousness. I don't think that he expresses any change in behavior in his eight years."
Stone has publicly called George W. Bush a "bum," and in this conversation, a "lunkhead." But making a biopic, no matter how satirical, requires empathy. One thing that's baffled critics is the exorbitant amount of empathy that he shows for Bush, the character. This may not be what he intended, but given his true feelings, it suggests his particular artistic dilemma. When pressed for the three points of Bush's story he found easiest to empathize with, he says, "Three?!" And then, "Well, he's under enormous pressure. He's the first son in a very political family with a father who is very remote. I feel sorry for him. We all have issues in our lives. We try to overcome them. But we are faced with choices and it's what we do with them." But then, as if what he's hearing himself say sounds too diplomatic, too much like psychobabble, he switches his tone to make the point of difference clear: "If there is anybody that needs a little psychiatry, it's Bush. He prides himself on not reading, not thinking about these things. It's very anti-Socratic. Know thyself means nothing to him. He stays above the surface and doesn't question. He believes a man is an outward figure." Then he pauses, and concludes, "I empathize because that's the way I was raised. I had a very conservative father."
Both his critics and fans always try to compare Stone to the world leaders he profiles. He's the powerful, tempestuous director who had a conventional, upper class upbringing, who rebelled against his father and dropped out of Yale, fought in Vietnam, studied under Scorsese, and made an arsenal of highly political films, three of which won Academy Awards. There has to be something in there. But while he is definitely outspoken and refreshingly straightforward in his beliefs- he laughs at the idea that he can be both Jim Morrison and Richard Nixon- his own life is his most ambitious project. He seems to be in a constant battle on a journey of self-awareness, and he is thoughtful when he relates Bush's story to his own: "I understand the sense of entitlement that George Bush had. But there is a cross-over. Only a portion of my life was led like that. I didn't come from that kind of family. I was an only child, which is a whole other ballgame. And then, of course, I went to Vietnam. I've had my issues with that. I did have a military-oriented, conservative father. But I divorced from it completely. You could say it's a strange mix. Frankly, I try to run my life differently and learn as much about myself as I can."
It's hard not to feel disappointed that Stone's ardent contempt for Bush Jr. wasn't channeled into something more Shakespearean, a more violent bloody spectacle. But that's not to say the film isn't powerful for fealty to its themes; that, and the fact it would take more than a Freudian wasteland to make Stone's work boring. What's unfortunate, for both him and us, is that no one is looking back right now. Americans are still glued to the numbers: the crashing Dow Jones Industrial index, the rising unemployment statistics, the dollar amount supporting the stimulus package. This is the danger of trying to understand a contemporary historical figure: there is no protective distance from the whims of current events and opinion. But once we do start to look back and reflect, once the mysteries are revealed, and once our own cluttered narratives of the Bush presidency are simplified and obscured by time, W. will be a more interesting film to watch.
Follow Katherine Ryder on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@kentuckychang