Film and TV

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?

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Scott Foundas
Contact: Scott Foundas