On the night of Monday, October 13, Oliver Stone was being chauffeured around downtown Manhattan, looking for the dinner party he was running late for, and talking about what the subject of his new film, W., has in common with the Wizard of Oz. Connecting W., which examines and chronicles the life of George W. Bush leading up to and including his presidency, to the 1939 Judy Garland flying-monkeys extravaganza might not seem all that intuitive. But in conversation about his latest subject, Mr. Stone was drawn back again and again to the moment that Dorothy discovers that the great and most powerful wizard was
really just an ordinary man, hiding behind a curtain, desperately pressing buttons and pulling levers to keep up the illusion of his control. “He’s sort of a Wizard of Oz president,” Mr. Stone said. “I do kinda see Bush that way. He walks with the macho John Wayne walk and he has all those trappings of power—the outer forms of power, those salesman-like aspects. But he’s entirely not qualified and, in fact, he does not have power. You say power, I say Wizard of Oz.”
The movie, which stars Josh Brolin, who uncannily channels George W. Bush (or “Bushie,” “Geo,” “Junior” and, of course, “W.”/“Dubya”), does plenty more than paint a picture—or caricature—of the man who still inhabits the Oval Office. It many ways Mr. Stone tells a classic, tragic father-and-son story (as many early critics have noted, one conclusion to draw from the movie is that each of President Bush’s actions have been a direct result of his feeling inadequate to his father, George the elder). But it’s also a cautionary, still-in-session history lesson, and at times a comedy, if in a holy-cow-look-at-the-unbelievable-mess-we’re-in kind of way. But much like Mr. Stone’s other films—say, Wall Street, or his other two grapplings with the modern presidency, Nixon and JFK—W. demonstrates an unrelenting interest in that almighty American ideal: power. In this case, even as we have an elected official sitting in the most powerful office in the world, Mr. Stone seeks to answer this question: Who is the one really pushing the buttons and pulling the levers?
Regarding the past seven years, the answer seems clear. “I think Bush is in charge because he ultimately says yes or no, but it’s clear that he lost control. I think Cheney had more actual practical power because of the appointments he was able to control. … Cheney played [Bush] very, very well. Very well. Masterfully! Because Cheney wanted to control policy but wasn’t interested in the trappings of the presidency,” said Mr. Stone. “It’s really Cheney and [Cheney’s chief of staff David] Addington who are probably the two most villainous aspects of this administration.”
When we meet young Bushie in W., he’s a (somewhat) lovable screw-up—a twinkly-eyed, good-time scamp that his father, played with grave elegant reserve by James Cromwell, continuously has to bail out of trouble and lecture about not embarrassing the family name. Jeb is the good son. W. drinks too much and is a hothead like Babs. After college, he drifts through his 20s and 30s, having the good fortune to meet and marry a sweet and intelligent woman, Laura (played here by Elizabeth Banks). But he’s still unmoored and directionless.
“Honestly, I found him to be a fascinating subject because he’s such a great story,” Mr. Stone said. “It’s a Frank Capra figure, a Preston Sturges figure. Here’s a guy who was 40 years old and a failure in most everything he did. And then he turned it around and had a wonderful second act, and then there’s the third act. And that’s what fascinates us, because that was the presidency. You get a sense from the movie how his character shaped and developed and how he became the president he was.”
Despite the fact that it may seem as though Mr. Stone is trying to do the work of journalists—as with Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin, might it be Josh Brolin’s W. who takes up residence in our memories, as opposed to the man we’ve met through the newspapers and evening news—he’s quick to mention the research he consulted and books he read while preparing for this film, rattling off titles by Ron Suskind, Richard Clarke and Bob Woodward, whose State of Denial was particularly influential. “We finally got past the veil,” he said, pointing out that very little was known early on in Bush’s presidency about those early years in office, with every appearance and press conference orchestrated and the president spending much of his time in Crawford, Texas. “These investigative journalists are really the only ones to peel it back,” said Mr. Stone. “We suspected a lot of stuff was going on, but we didn’t know. We couldn’t have made this movie in 2004 or 2005. It really did take a while, and I think there’s going to be more stuff that’s coming.”
Still, it’s W. himself who is most humanized in the film (though Mr. Stone prefers to say his W. is “empathetic”), which may surprise many viewers given that Mr. Stone is a director not exactly known for having a light touch when it comes to expressing his opinions. Take, for example, 1995’s Nixon, and Anthony Hopkins’ withering depiction of a man wholly consumed by gloom and paranoia.
“I did not like Nixon. I suffered, like many people suffered under him, in Vietnam,” said Mr. Stone. “But you know what? In the movie, we went in there and my job as a dramatist is not the same as that of a private citizen. I wanted to walk in his shoes and understand him. Opinions don’t add up. Hate, love, those things change. Understanding is far more valuable to me.”
But is there something that ties Mr. Stones oeuvre, from JFK to Nixon to W., all together? “Off the top of my head, concern for my country,” he said. “Contrary to what many people think, I love America. It gave me my chance. I love this country and I just think there was a betrayal in the Kennedy assassination, there was a second betrayal with Nixon. I think Reagan is the son of Nixon, and I think Bush Jr. is the grandson of Nixon. I do think Nixon is the forebear to a lot of this stuff.”
W. was completed quickly in order to come out before this year’s election. When asked if he thought that releasing the film while Bush is still in office could influence history as it unfolds, Mr. Stone (who openly supports Senator Obama) was quick to say, “I have no say in that.” But he warned that those who inherit the job will be untangling these past eight years for the next few decades. “W.’s influence is not going to go away in January 2009. He’s going to be impacting us for 20, 30, 40 more years. We’re fighting three wars—Iraq and Afghanistan, and frankly, the most expensive is the war on terror. We have a government that’s been stripped of its ability to function and react, from the economy to New Orleans. There is a disregard and hatred for government in these people that has led us to the place where you have to ask, where are we going to go now? How did we get here?” He paused. “So, we made a first good stab, but there’s more to come in understanding the phenomenon that took over America.”
We’re thinking W. 2 has a nice ring to it.