Oliver Stone And The Kingdom Of The Cinematic American Presidents

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
October 13, 2008

It's an occupation that filmmaker Oliver Stone has been very familiar with: chronicler of American presidents.  He reintroduces these larger-than-life politicians to the American public in ways either different or the same as those alive at the time of their political travails remembered them.  Whether it was John F. Kennedy in "JFK" (1991) or Richard M. Nixon in "Nixon" (1995), Mr. Stone gained both grief and mileage from the controversies that some insisted these two films -- particularly the former -- sparked. 

With Mr. Stone's latest U.S. presidential figure on the big screen, George W. Bush however, there will be no historical distance from the audience that will receive his new film "W." on Friday (in the U.S. and Canada). 

That's because Mr. Bush currently occupies the White House as the sitting U.S. president until twelve noon (U.S. Eastern Time) on January 20 of 2009. 

With an overwhelming majority of Americans holding scorn and disdain for the 43rd president and suffering what some would term "Bush fatigue", Mr. Stone, in what might be seen as a chance to jump the gun on alternately potentially kind historians and public aversion to anything Bush, has worked feverishly over the last five months to get "W." into movie theaters.  Considering rejection of all things Bush, the public reception to "W." may be lukewarm or it may be  as some people are literally counting down the weeks, hours and minutes until Mr. Bush leaves the White House.

"W." happened by accident -- Mr. Stone, 62, was beginning production late last year on "Pinkville", based on the My Lai Massacre during the war in Vietnam and the letters and memoirs of Lt. William Calley, when the film's financing fell from view, meaning that production had to be shut down.  "Pinkville" was to star Bruce Willis and Channing Tatum.  The window of opportunity to make "W." happen was very brief, and when screenwriter Stanley Weiser approached Mr. Stone with the chance to make the film, Mr. Stone did not hesitate.  "I felt if we didn't do the Bush movie at that moment, it wouldn't be made, not for a long time," said Mr. Stone in the film's production notes.  (Mr. Weiser also co-wrote Mr. Stone's "Wall Street" with the director.)  Mr. Stone, a converted Buddhist and an avid student of global political history knew that it was possible to get this independent film out for release not only while George W. Bush was still in office, but also before the critical presidential election in November.

Mr. Stone has a diversified background in life.  Born and raised in New York City in a relatively well-off family, Mr. Stone went to Yale University in the early 1960's where he met none other than John Kerry and George W. Bush, the latter of whom was in the freshman class with Mr. Stone.  On HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher recently, Mr. Stone recalled of both 2004 presidential candidates from their Yale days: "They were not in the vanguard -- ironically, you know, John Kerry was a big shot on campus when I got there.  And he was the man.  And George was a "C" student so there's an irony to this whole thing in history, I think."

While Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush went on to complete their four years at Yale, Mr. Stone dropped out at the end of the first year to voluntarily fight for his country in Vietnam, in the combat division of both the 25th Infantry Division and the First Cavalry Division, for more than a year and a half.  (According to Wikipedia, the filmmaker dropped out of Yale twice.) 

Mr. Stone's Oscar-winning 1986 film "Platoon" was essentially an autobiographical account of Mr. Stone's tour of duty in Vietnam, for which he earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. 

Mr. Kerry, it should be pointed out, fought for the U.S. in Vietnam for several years and earned three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star.  Mr. Bush did not fight in Vietnam.  

Asked by Mr. Maher what would have happened to Mr. Bush had he fought in Vietnam, Mr. Stone replied: "Well, frankly he probably would have died.  And so he's here and we've got to deal with it."

When Mr. Stone returned from serving in Vietnam he went to film school at New York University, from which he graduated in 1971.  Mr. Stone, who has made a trilogy of films about Vietnam ("Born On The Fourth Of July" and "Heaven And Earth" were the other two films), may still try to make a fourth in "Pinkville", if the money situation regarding the film changes.

On Mr. Maher's show, Mr. Stone talked about the methodology of "W.", while making parallels between the war he fought in Vietnam and the ongoing war and occupation in Iraq.

"The movie treats Bush the way he sees the situation.  And Cheney and Rumsfeld.  It's their point of view.  They speak for themselves.  I'm not giving you my view on Iraq in this.  I'm only sad personally . . . when [the Bush Administration] marched to Iraq the same way (as in Vietnam) ... it was the same march, the same media drum and it's probably been the same amount of time that we've been there now.  You know, it's very deja vu."

Mr. Stone's speculation and conjecture in such films as his "JFK", which was less about the nation's first Catholic president than it was about who assassinated him, has earned him his share of detractors. 

"W.", however doesn't invite any such speculation.

"You don't have to make it up, the guy speaks for himself," said Mr. Stone when talking to Mr. Maher.  "And Cheney comes across as Dr. No.  And Rumsfeld is a powerful figure.  These are serious people, and frankly they changed the world in a profound way in probably the next twenty to forty years, is my opinion."

Mr. Stone and Mr. Weiser did a lot more research for "W." than one would expect, combing through many books about George W. Bush, including J.H. Hatfield's hard-to-find book Fortunate Son and numerous books by Bob Woodward. 

"It's very hard to have found information on Mr. Bush's Administration.  We know his first act as a child -- as a younger man.  We know his second act as a solid governor, baseball owner.  But his third act, the presidency -- those first, from 2001 to 2003 -- is clouded and veiled.  It was Woodward.  It was Suskind.  It was Risen.  It was Corn.  And these are the people who penetrated -- there's about 10, 12 of them now -- who have gone in.  And these are heroes, these investigative journalists.  We had no material on that Administration.  It was a secret.  Bush is a secret.  People think they know George Bush but they don't.  The guy has, is like, a bit -- I hate to say -- but a bit like the Wizard Of Oz in the sense you don't know who he is.  Judy Garland's looking for him the whole time, and at the end of the day -- what -- he's a small little guy behind the curtain . . . the banality of evil," said Mr. Stone.

"This is a fascinating man -- and guilt free."

Despite Mr. Stone's outspoken political opinions and vigorous disagreements with the policies of Mr. Nixon and Mr. Bush, "W.", the director says, is not influenced in anyway by Mr. Stone's personal opinions.  

"It was not our intention to bring malice or judgment on George W. Bush and his administration . . . The viewpoints and dialogue that we express in the film are drawn from their known and documented viewpoints."

Mr. Stone said that a website documenting the references and Bushisms used throughout "W." would hopefully be released in time for the film's opening on Friday.

"W." stars Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Burstyn, James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Scott Glenn, Ioan Gruffudd and Noah Wylie.  The film, released in the U.S. and Canada by Lionsgate, arrives in theaters on Friday.

Past "W." stories:

"W." gets rolling, May 2008

Trailer: "W."

Clip from "W."

TV Spot for "W."

Photos from "W."

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