"Oliver Stone is one of the few star directors. And it's his most provocative pictures that tend to be his more popular ones," Gray says. But "this president has been lampooned many, many times. What is this movie offering beyond being just about Bush?"
Though the movie is released in the thick of an election season, Stone says he doesn't expect "W." to have any effect. "I went to Vietnam, and then I did three movies about it. Didn't do (anything), right?" "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July" won him Oscars for best director, but he says the anti-war message always fades. "They went to Iraq the same way, same length of time, and the media was beating the drum."
He says "W." is not a polemic but a character study about a man who is simply interesting.
"Bush is not a lightweight. He has determination. What did I learn? I really learned how powerful the willpower and discipline is that he has," Stone says. "I'm not making political judgments. We're not looking to condemn. He says what he says and does what he does. You're going to like him, and at the same time, you're going to be horrified by some of the stuff he does."
Scenes featuring Bush involved in binge-drinking and fraternity hazing are contrasted with a scene of him cavalierly setting the stage for armed conflict in a 2002 Oval Office meeting where the term "Axis of Evil" is crafted.
Powell warns that such bellicose language may commit the nation to three simultaneous wars. "I'm not saying war, I'm saying 'Lay down the law!' " Bush barks, propping his shoes up on the desk and leaning back in a style that suggests an Old West sheriff.
Stone also depicts warmer qualities in the character: "Faith, family and friendship," Stone says. "You could argue he is a good born-again Christian. He has been good with his family. There's a scene where he goes to the hospital and talks to the soldiers, and we honestly looked at the stuff he said and did."
But neither is Stone forgiving.
The Laura Bush character, upon meeting her future husband at a Texas barbecue, refers to him playfully as a "devil in a white hat."
"I think Bush is going to be accountable to history in a big way," Stone says. "These people who dismissed this movie, who wouldn't give us the money to make it — especially the American studios (the film was independently produced and picked up for distribution by Lionsgate Films) — had this attitude that he's too hot a potato, and at the same time, he's going away in January, so 'who cares?'
"Who cares? I'll tell you what — his policies are going to be still paying off 20 years from now. … He's not gone, baby."
There are certain parallels between the lives of the filmmaker and his subject. Both had powerful fathers; both started at Yale in 1965 (Stone quit two years later to join the Army); both did military service, Stone taking combat duty in Vietnam while Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard and remained stateside.
"And drugs. And alcohol. And women," Stone says, making his own list of comparisons. Bush was arrested for DUI in 1976, and Stone was, too, in 1999 and 2005.
The two men obviously turned out far differently. Stone bristles when asked whether he found anything about Bush to like.
"Empathy is understanding, it's not liking. … Why can't you just try to understand somebody? This whole polarizing 'Do you hate him? Do you love him?' doesn't work for me."