First Look: Oliver Stone's 'W.' Is Not Quite Out of Left Field

Director Oliver Stone says upcoming "W" isn't intended to bash George W. Bush.

ByAnthony Breznican, USA TODAY
September 24, 2008, 6:27 PM

Sept. 24, 2008 — -- A man stands in the middle of a sunny baseball field, beaming a smile as the roar of an approving crowd is heard.

An echoing announcer's voice calls out his name: "Ladies and gentlemen, the 43rd president of the United States …" But as the camera pans back, the cheering fades, and the stadium is revealed to be empty.

With outstretched arms and raised head, the character's body forms an unmistakable symbol: W.

It's the opening scene of Oliver Stone's movie of the same name, which he is still racing to finish in time for its debut Oct. 17. Stone chronicles the youth of George W. Bush, his rise to the White House and the crises he has faced over the past eight years. And it's a comedy.

Though dramatizing culture and politics is familiar ground for the director of JFK, Nixon and World Trade Center, this film's satiric tone is something new for him. Not that he thinks the actual history is funny.

"It was so painful for me. The reaction is to laugh a little because the pain would be too much," he says, sitting in his office after showing the first act of the movie in his editing bay.

The baseball stadium intro?

"We all have retreat fantasies," Stone says with a laugh. "He did have the express desire to be baseball commissioner, and I think some people, historically, would say if he had become baseball commissioner, it would have saved us a lot of problems."

Cast of big names

"W." features an all-star cast playing the White House's highest-profile figures: Josh Brolin as the president, Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, Richard Dreyfuss as Vice President Cheney, Jeffrey Wright as Secretary of State Colin Powell, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice and James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush.

Stone, an outspoken liberal, Vietnam War veteran and longtime cinematic provocateur, is not an admirer of the president. And he's prepared to be dismissed by Bush die-hards.

But he insists he and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (who also wrote 1987's Wall Street with him) "tried to stay human and true to this man. It's supposed to be a fair and true portrait. People get me confused with my outspoken citizen side, but I am a dramatist first and foremost."

He already has been criticized by the administration. White House assistant press secretary Emily Lawrimore told the Los Angeles Times last month that the president would ignore the movie. "Oliver Stone is an accurate historian like Gilligan was an accurate navigator," she said.

But Stone also says those with an extreme dislike of the president will be disappointed if all they want from "W." is an attack.

"I'm not interested in that radical 15% that hate Bush or the 15 to 20% who love Bush. That's not our audience. Those people probably won't come," he says. "I'm interested in that 60% in the American middle who at least have a little more open mind."

The movie portrays Bush as charming, spiritually devout and well-intentioned but also reckless, a kind of daddy's boy, always relying on his father, wealthy friends or Bush family connections to launch his career forward or extract him from trouble. He's also depicted as overly trusting.

'Cheney is a brilliant player'

In one scene, Cheney presents him with an executive order authorizing "enhanced interrogation techniques" of detainees. The president approves the idea but warns, "Just remember, though, we don't use torture in this country." He then doesn't want to read a long report with the details, tosses the document on the table and says, "Only three pages. Good!"

Dreyfuss' Cheney manipulates the president through praise and whispered asides, and his presence is always looming. At one point, Bush lashes out for upstaging him during a national security meeting, though Cheney hardly said a word.

"I think Cheney gamed him and gamed the whole system. Cheney is a brilliant player," Stone says. He adds that the recent book "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency" by Pulitzer Prize winner Barton Gellman backs up the depiction.

Along with the public record, a host of books provided background. Stone rattles off a list: Bob Woodward's "State of Denial," James Risen's "State of War," Ron Suskind's "The One Percent Doctrine," Stephen Mansfield's "Faith of George W. Bush," Bill Minutaglio's "First Son," about his early years.

Stone also read Kitty Kelley's "The Family," a gossip-heavy account of the Bush family, for insight into the father-son dynamic but did not include the book's allegation that the president, who has acknowledged that he had a drinking problem, once used cocaine.

"We didn't have to take cheap shots, and we didn't want to be malicious. We're very careful. We didn't want to go over the line," Stone says, though he acknowledges sometimes tiptoeing perilously close.

In a scene set in the early 1970s, before Bush was married, he is confronted by his father, who asks about a rumor that a girlfriend may be pregnant.

Stone notes the character emphatically denies it ("That's a dang lie, Poppy!"). Despite the character's refutation, it's clearly a "Do you still beat your wife?" kind of jab.

"Some of this stuff is not specific," Stone acknowledges. He says he plans to create a website with footnotes explaining either the source or the rationale for such controversial moments.

Reputation as a radical

Even so, many are bound to disregard "W." simply because of the filmmaker's reputation.

"Stone is seen as such a left-wing radical by everyone on the right that the danger is people dismiss this film immediately as just Oliver Stone trying to ruffle our feathers," says Syracuse University film professor Kendall Phillips, author of "Controversial Cinema: The Movies That Outraged America." "But he's good at getting under everybody's skin. He has consistently been able to push the right button to set people off on both the right and left."

New York Post film critic Kyle Smith, who often writes about political themes in movies, says Stone has little credibility with those right of center. "I think Oliver Stone, if he directed your kid's kindergarten school play, he would turn it into a demented fever dream about the failure of American ideals," Smith says. "I expect the movie to be totally demented, and around the bend, and I look forward to it. It will be entertainingly ridiculous."

Stone's reputation is a mixed blessing from a box-office perspective, says analyst Brandon Gray. For every hit ("JFK," "Platoon," "Born" on the "Fourth of July"), Stone has had some financial misses ("Alexander," "Nixon," "U-Turn").

"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."

So how does he see the president? "Ever notice how impatient Bush is at press conferences with questions, like, 'What right do you have to ask me a question?' " Stone says, noting the comical names the president makes up for reporters, friends and colleagues. "I would say he's a bully. It's classic bully syndrome. The nicknames, for instance, are bullying."

When Stone met Bush

Bush and Stone never met during their time at Yale, but they did encounter each other face-to-face in 1998 at a Republican breakfast in Los Angeles when Bush was governor of Texas.

"I was the token liberal who was invited. It was hilarious. Not hilarious, it was scary," Stone corrects himself. "He was talking about tough love and justice in Texas because he was known as a guy who executed all these people.

"He brought me up (to his hotel room) afterward. I didn't know he'd been to Yale with me, so he told me that. He knew more about me than I knew about him! He was definitely a charismatic guy. I knew he'd be president because there was no question that guy had absolute confidence."

He says Bush introduced himself by laying an arm around his shoulder and shaking his hand tightly, grinning with a twinkle in his eye and asking, "How are ya?"

Did he give Stone a nickname?

The director thinks for a moment, then flashes his gap-toothed smile.

"Not yet," he says.