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August 4th, 2008:
Whether you love him or hate him, there is no question that George W. Bush is one of the most controversial public figures in recent memory. In an unprecedented undertaking, acclaimed director Oliver Stone is bringing the life of our 43rd President to the big screen as only he can. "W" takes viewers through Bush's eventful life -- his struggles and triumphs, how he found both his wife and his faith, and of course the critical days leading up to Bush's decision to invade Iraq.What to Expect: Oliver Stone
is one of those directors whose persona has grown far beyond his films. He's practically a brand name. He keeps company with Steven Spielberg
, Quentin Tarantino
and Tim Burton
on a very short list of directors whose names are considered selling points for their films because they convey something to filmgoers that the studio wants to exploit. In Stone's case, that quality usually involves controversy or hard-hitting drama. Stone's penchant for asking hard questions and stirring up controversy is almost a cliché, one he has himself spoofed (he appeared in the comedy "Dave" as himself, riffing on his conspiracy-theorist image). Article continues below
Is this perception of Stone still warranted? I'll not come down on one side or another, but I'll just point out that he has not made a film of significance since 1994's "Natural Born Killers." Not for lack of trying, mind you. His biopic of Richard Nixon spurred some mild reactions but nobody staged any riots over it. "Any Given Sunday" was adequate, "World Trade Center
" was a flop, and "Alexander" was abhorred. I'm just saying. It's been a long time since his glory days, when in a single five-year period from 1986 to 1991 he made "Platoon," "Wall Street," "Born on the Fourth of July," "The Doors" and "JFK."
Not that Oliver has lost his taste for politically-slanted filmmaking, it's just that nobody's listening. He's done several projects about Fidel Castro, one of which is a documentary that has never even been released in the States. His next project was supposed to have been "Pinkville
," a return to his favorite subject, the Vietnam War. The United Artists production, set to star Bruce Willis
, was to depict the Army's investigation into the My Lai Massacre, but it was derailed by the 2007-2008 Writer's Guild Strike. Both Willis and UA pulled the plug, at which time Stone moved on to "W.", a project he had been writing with his "Wall Street" co-writer Stanley Weiser before the strike. It's interesting that UA is not financing this project. It's even more interesting that no studio whatsoever is financing it, because nobody would touch it with a ten-foot pole. Stone blames this on the fact that movie studios are part of politically-sensitive media conglomerates (although it hasn't stopped them from making sensitive films before), but it may be more of a matter that films about recent history, be it 9/11 or the Iraq war, have just not been successful at the box office. In the absence of studio financing, the money is coming from a variety of international investors and distributed by Lionsgate. Bill Block, CEO of the international consortium that's putting up the cash, says outright that independent financing was the best way to insure that Stone wasn't creatively compromised. I'm all for independent financing for that very reason. How many films have been ruined by studio intervention in the name of mainstream marketability? The fact that Stone has made the exact film he wanted to make may end up being good or bad for the film's success, but from an artistic point of view it has to be considered a smart move.
Yet another interesting aspect of this film is the level of talent Stone has assembled given the relatively paltry $30 million budget. The cast list reads like a game of "Who'd they get to play so-and-so?" Josh Brolin
seemed an odd choice at first. He is 22 years younger than the President, but since Stone wanted to depict Bush's early days before even becoming governor of Texas, a younger actor made sense, and I have to admit that the images of Brolin made up as the President are pretty convincing. Going down the list we see James Cromwell
as Bush, Sr., Ellen Burstyn
as Barbara Bush, Thandie Newton
as Condie Rice (seriously?), Richard Dreyfuss
as Dick Cheney, Scott Glenn
as Donald Rumsfeld, Ioan Gruffudd
as Tony Blair and Toby Jones
as Karl Rove. Despite the cast he ended up with, it was a tough struggle to find actors who did want to be involved. Many Hollywood men, especially those of the appropriate age, were not politically inclined in Stone's direction, and conversely, those who share Stone's dislike of Bush didn't want to be involved, either. Even so, I'm impressed by the roster of talent he's lined up. These are serious actors with serious resumes who'd usually command serious money. I wouldn't be surprised if some of them had taken pay cuts to participate. Whether they'd do so for the chance to work with Stone or just to be part of such a potentially politically significant project is anyone's guess.
It's no secret that Stone is not a fan of Bush. He has lots of company, to the tune of 70% of the country, according to the most recent poll. Nonetheless, he has said over and over again that it was not his intention to make an anti-Bush film. He's named Stephen Frears' "The Queen
" as a similar film to the one he's made. He wants to get inside the man's mind, peek behind the curtains, give audiences an insider's view point, yadda yadda yadda. If you believe that Oliver Stone is going to produce a fair and impartial depiction of Bush's life, I've got a bridge I can sell you. But that isn't the point. Stone's a filmmaker and an artist, not a journalist or a documentarian, and he's under no obligation to produce a fair and impartial depiction. I don't know why he's insisting that he's doing so, he must know that nobody will believe him. Advance copies of the script (which has admittedly gone through several revisions during filming) were said to be not entirely unsympathetic, but also to portray Bush as...well, let's just say, less than intelligent or thoughtful. In fact, Stone went to college with Bush. Both were at Yale at the same time, although Stone can't recall ever meeting him (Stone later dropped out to serve in Vietnam).
Although Stone has said that while Bush may turn out to be the worst president in history, his story is still compelling. A kid from a wealthy, politically influential family, overshadowed by his father and brother and overcoming his shortcomings with a nearly supernatural ability to sell himself. "It's almost Capra-esque,
" Stone says. "If Fitzgerald were alive today, he might be writing about him. He's sort of a reverse Gatsby.
What's bothering some people even more than the subject of the film is the timing of its release. Currently set to debut in mid-October, the film will be onscreen mere weeks before the presidential election, and if anyone thinks that's coincidence, they're dreaming. This film has been fast-tracked in a big way, probably to open before the election. Photography only took place in May, leaving a scant three or four months for post-production, which is ridiculously fast even for a political drama which is presumably light on effects and CGI. Bush is, of course, not up for re-election but no one has any doubt that dissatisfaction with the current administration is a huge issue for the candidates (McCain is not mentioned in Stone's film).
So where did the material for this script come from? Stone and Weisner read nearly 20 books about Bush's life and presidency to prepare, although the reliability of their source material itself may not be high. Given the historical framework, dialogue has been mostly created out of whole cloth. It's a fictionalized biography, albeit the first ever of a sitting President. Some historians have already decried the film as completely inaccurate of its overall depiction of Bush. I've never understood the huge outcry in the name of historical accuracy that accompanies nearly every historical film made, and biopics in general. I get nerdy glee out of fact-checking these films as much as the next person, but I don't expect Harvard-level adherence to historical fact, here. They're movies, people. Not academic research papers.
Stone insists he isn't looking for a fight. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he likened the filming of "W.," small money and quick schedule, as a return to his "Salvador" days of filmmaking. He's trying to be deadpan, trying to lighten up a little. And this script is reportedly, odd as it sounds, funny. Stone compared it to "Network" or "Dr. Strangelove." A little absurd, a little dark at times, funny as Bush often is, and bemused at its own main character.
What's the film about, exactly? It's described by Stone as a film in three acts, depicting Bush in three different stages of life from his college days to his father's presidency to his own invasion of Iraq. Choosing seminal times in his life that highlight his journey from young screw-up to Commander in Chief. Brolin spent weeks studying Bush's speech and mannerisms, observing how he carried his body in different situations. Banks won't be imitating Laura Bush, just paying homage to her presence and, of course, her hairstyle.
But this isn't about the plot. Or the cast. Or the drama involved in getting this film made, or about what could seem like a Hail Mary on Stone's part to re-establish his own relevance in a film culture that's moved on from his brand of filmmaking. This is about Bush, and if anybody's going to want to go see this film.
I think they will. Bush fans won't, but they currently represent only 26% of the population, and Bush detractors have a big fat juicy reason, coming up on January 20th, why they might want to go sit in a theater and watch a film that validates all their beliefs about Bush. Which begs the question: what if it doesn't? What if the film isn't as anti-Bush as most people are assuming it will be? If that's the case, beyond all of us being shocked into catatonia, it might make the film even more worth seeing. Judging by the success of tangentially Bush-critical films like "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "An Inconvenient Truth
" (with the caveat that both of those films are documentaries), Stone's film may strike a nerve with liberal moviegoers. And if the film is as good as either "Network" or "Dr. Strangelove," two of Stone's cited inspirations, it may prove to be worth seeing regardless of one's political bent of mind.In Conclusion:
Oliver Stone's back, and this time it's personal. He's made another presidential biopic, but it's turned out to be more light-hearted and less complex than "Nixon." He's set it to release just before the Presidential election, and swears it isn't anti-Bush. The curiosity factor combined with the general antipathy towards Dubya could make this one a big hit for Stone, one his resume has conspicuously lacked for, oh, a decade or so. I'm sure that played no part in his calculations when deciding to make this film (ahem). I'm on the fence as to how to predict this film's success. Will audiences bite? I'm predicting that they will, clad in their Obama t-shirts.Similar Titles: Fahrenheit 9/11
, An Inconvenient Truth