Oliver Stone on W. and the President Who Would Be John Wayne
Sitting in the back of the restaurant at New York's über-chic Royalton Hotel in an orange polo shirt and khakis, Oliver Stone looks out of place among the bed-headed hipsters otherwise casing the joint (unless, perhaps, he's instigating his own, retro-Yale fashion trend). Given that the perfectionist director, who has made revised director's cuts of nearly all his feature films, just put the finishing touches on his George W. Bush biopic, W., a mere five months after filming started, he also seems surprisingly relaxed.
Like Stone's 1995 drama about our other most controversial commander in chief, W. attempts to cut through the familiar agitprop from both sides of the political spectrum in order to take the long view on its subject and his impact on the course of American history — considerably trickier territory when it comes to Bush, who, unlike Nixon, will still be in office when Stone's film arrives in theaters. Yet, rather than lampooning Dubya as an emperor sans clothes, Stone tries to wrap his head around just how and why the 43rd president ascended to his throne. Neither hagiography nor demonization, the result is Stone's liveliest film in years, highlighted by plum performances from Josh Brolin as Bush, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, and Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, and a sharp sense of the way America lives now.
Scott Foundas: After seeing W., one colleague told me that he didn't think it was very funny, which struck me as a bit odd, because there's very little about the film that suggests it's intended as a comedy.
Oliver Stone: I never claimed it was a comedy. I think it's a movie that allows the Bush people to speak in their own terms. I do find the president goofy in a way — he has a John Wayne quality. It's dangerous, because he sees himself as some sort of Western hero: "I won't back down even if I'm wrong." It reminds me of Wayne in The Searchers and Red River. That's why the Bush Sr. character is so important. Emotionally, Bush becomes traumatized in a way. Our parents do affect us deeply in ways we don't even realize. But Bush is always saying, "I don't believe in that psychobabble," and so is his father. There's just no examination of the interior life. He doesn't look back. He doesn't regret. He doesn't seem to read very much — or think very much — about what he does. I'm amazed by that, because to me, the unexamined life is not worth living. But a lot of Americans like him for that very reason. A lot of people in the South told me they like Bush because of his belief in faith, family, and friendship, but also because he doesn't smile when he doesn't mean it, which is very Western. When you see Biden do that smile, you think: What the hell are you smiling for? Or Obama: Why are you smiling at McCain when he's attacking you?
SF: You could say that for the Bushes, the unexamined life isn't worth examining. But you've made a very Freudian movie about someone who has probably never been in psychoanalysis in his life.
OS: Look, a key moment in the movie is the 1992 election, when the dad loses. That's the Rubicon; it's where the son overtakes the father. For the first time, he's stronger than Dad and he can show it. He's more like Mom. Dad is weak: He lost the election because he thinks too much; he's too diplomatic; he didn't go to Baghdad and take [Saddam Hussein] out. The son admires the father, but there's a rivalry. When he becomes president, no matter what happens, he's going to react forcefully — he's going to show his muscle. And he does exactly that.
I don't know if it's necessarily about policy, although I try to explain the geopolitics from Cheney's point of view. For Bush, I think it's less about the geopolitics than it is the reflex emotion of proving that you cast a bigger shadow than the father, which is something that has haunted him. And he became a two-term president, which is key. In 2004, he felt, "This gives me capital. This gives me the right. I do not doubt myself anymore." And what happened is ultimately disastrous. I'm not saying that as a judgment. I think history will be very judgmental to this president.
SF: The scene where Bush Sr. loses the '92 election and breaks down in tears is fascinating for several reasons. On the one hand, we see how hard it is for the son to see his father in that weakened state. On the other, you seem to be tapping into something elemental about the American character and, specifically, American ideas of masculinity. There and at many other points throughout W., it feels like you're looking at Bush as something of a representative figure. In other words, what does it say about us, as Americans, that this guy was popular enough to be elected president twice?
OS: I think he does represent a mind-set that's very popular in America: American exceptionalism. In this case, it became very dangerous, because it was post-Soviet Union, so it became about what he calls "preemption." It's a policy that was set in place in the '90s, actually, by Cheney, Richard Perle, and Paul Wolfowitz, and it became formalized in the think tank called Project for the New American Century. It's quoted by Wolfowitz in the movie when he says, "We will not allow the emergence of any economic or military threat against the United States." That's a big statement: "We will not allow." And then you have Cheney's 1 percent doctrine — the idea that if there's so much as a 1 percent chance of a terrorist strike, we have to act. It's about American paranoia.
I've been attacked for that, but the flip side is that I grew up under paranoia. I grew up during this hysteria that a Communist conspiracy was going to take over the world. That's what drove my childhood — the idea that Russia was not just Russia, but rather that China, Russia, and everybody else were united. There was no acknowledgment that Tito and Mao were fighting with Russia. It was just one big monolithic thing. And that's paranoia. America has been prone to paranoia for so long, way back to McKinley and the bombing of the USS Maine in the Spanish-American War, the Tonkin Gulf resolution with Johnson, and now the WMD business with Bush. What's most dangerous in politics — and in the world — is vigilante mob mentality. I think one of the greatest films ever made, story-wise, is William Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident. One little story sums up the madness of a mob.
SF: Another key scene is Bush's conversion to evangelical Christianity. Some directors would have seen that as prime material for satire, à la Bill Maher's Religulous documentary, but you play it more or less completely straight.
OS: You have to take it prima facie, because it was the deciding event in his life. So, you respect your character. I'm not doing any kind of a hatchet job. I truly want to understand George Bush. I tried to walk in his path. Evangelicalism is a very powerful force. I talked to four ministers who are big shots in the South, and they're almost like salesmen in the way that they tell you that you can be touched by God at any moment — one moment is all you need. There's this power of the touch, and it's in the name of Jesus. Jesus is the key figure when you break from yourself. You're no longer George Bush; you're the broken one, you have no ego.
The irony of Bush is that he became evangelical but maintained this enormous ego. It's clear from his presidency that when he walked into a room he was the decider; he took up the biggest space. Everyone says that about his life, going back to his cheerleading days. He was a bully; you had to make space for him. That said, there is a bit of a wink in the evangelical scene, because the minister is played by Stacy Keach, and Stacy is a bit of a scoundrel — he has that glint in his eye, that Burt Lancaster quality. And a lot of evangelicals — not all — have had shaky pasts.
SF: Have you given any thought to how this film may or may not operate as a political instrument?
OS: I hope we get noticed in the ongoing blender of events. I think people have a tendency to say, "He's gone," and that's not so. This man has changed the world and impacted us forever. He's changed your generation. The next 20 years, you're going to be paying for this thing. Iraq is not going away. It's not simple to get out of this. We're not going back to 2000. And he's a young man: Even when he loses power in January, he's going to be around on the right. Any time there's an us-versus-them situation, I can see him as a voice for using force. He's going to be a tough opponent.
SF: In the scene where George is meeting Laura for the first time at this backyard barbecue, as this mutual friend is walking George across the lawn to introduce him to Laura, you cut to this close-up of the woman's high-heeled shoe stepping on a corncob in the grass. That struck me as an iconographic Oliver Stone moment.
OS: People mention that scene — it's so bizarre. I really cracked down on myself, because I got so noticed [in my other movies] for stuff like that. Frankly, I tried not to put myself in this movie, because Bush is a sensitive issue for many Americans, and I don't want to insult or hurt Bush. My mom, who's a Republican, said, "Don't demean him." I did cut the corncob thing. I said, "Let's get rid of this. It's a nice touch, but I don't want to have people noticing this." And all four of my editors lobbied for me to put it back. The other day, a young critic said, "What is that about? Is that about ethanol?" To me, it seems a sign of excess. People grow up on excess in Texas.
SF: Well, people are always stuffing their faces in this movie.
OS: You've been there. You know what that's about. They're big. They talk big. They eat big.
SF: I guess what I'm saying is that the movie strikes me as being more than just a portrait of Bush. It feels like a panorama of America at this moment in time.
OS: It's a mind-set. A lot of people voted for this man because they like him. Like with John Wayne — you hate his politics, but you like his screen performances. There's something about the American character that loves the pioneer spirit of can-do-ism and not backing down. Chris Matthews said, "Americans like presidents like Bush. He's not like one of those narrow-shouldered British prime ministers."
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