Oliver Stone is one of those directors people either love or hate. His forte has always been the delivery of controversy – sometimes executed with brilliance, other times with insanity. All in all he’s been blessed with a career as varied as any other.
The director is currently hard at work on an upcoming, potentially fiery biopic of our current leader, George W. Bush, the ironically simple, W. (pronounced dubya). Unlike past large scale Stone projects–the poorly delivered, strangely erotic Alexander the Great biopic perhaps–W. is set to be a low-budget, small romp of a film that appears to have more of political agenda than the director lets on.
W. is hardly Stone’s first exploration of powerful political figures. The director’s 1991 film JFK was an interesting, if not a bit paranoid, look at the conspiracy theories regarding President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. His underappreciated biopic Nixon was an intense character study of quite possibly America’s most complicated, hated, and generally misunderstood Presidents. Even his rarely discussed 2003 documentary Comandante, which explored the life of revolutionary Cuban leader Fidel Castro, set out to show that there was more to the controversial figure than the nation’s current negative attitude.
From what is known about W. it’s hard to say whether Stone’s aim is to fairly examine America’s current comandante or merely dish out a film that treads the waters of simple character assassination.
Entertainment Weekly Magazine’s current issue features a cover story about the new film with the two stars–the rising middle-age actor Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Banks as President and first lady Bush–on the cover in full makeup. The film has an impressive cast of greats, most of which are not only respectable in their trade but visually are spot on matches to the characters they’re embodying. Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Thandie Newton as Condi, the great James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn as Ma and Pa Bush, and the intriguing casting of Rob Corddry as Ari Fleischer all make up the company.
At the moment this promising lineup appears to be the best thing going for the film. Stone has said in interviews that he has every intention of delivering a fair and balanced look at Bush’s life and actions leading up to his current position. The problem with this supposed stance on the film is that he often follows these comments up with references to particular Bush blunders over the years. He also contends that this man is not as complicated as we might suspect but rather just funny and to quote the director, “awkward and goofy.”
Here lies the potential problem with W. Most people would have a difficult time denying that George W. Bush will carry the legacy of one of America’s worst Presidents. While he has slipped through two terms and a barrage of dissent it’s safe to say history will not be so forgiving. Still why make a film glorifying everything that’s wrong with the man?
A couple months ago an early draft of the film was leaked on the internet, mainly to popular political blogs and media hound dogs. In it were certain scenes dating back to Bush’s wild youth. During one such moment, which is discussed in the EW feature, a 26-year-old inebriated Dubya crashes his car onto the lawn of his parent’s house and then verbally assaults his father with barrage of angst about standing in the shadow of a great man. Later on Bush nearly crashes a small plane, again also under the influence of alcohol. There’s even an account of Bush playfully locking Colin Powell out of the oval office during a cabinet meeting.
These little snippets of Bush’s life may be amusing and are most likely factually accurate (Stone supposedly referenced 20 or so Bush biographies and consulted with experts during the writing of the script) but do they really give us a glimpse into who this man truly is? For starters the mainstream media has already had a field day with Bush’s shortcomings over the years and rather than simply follow suit Stone could use this film as a way to reveal the real George W. Bush. What led him to where he is today? Why the choices he made? How about his strong religious beliefs? What role did his father play in his life?
The greatest and most unexpected part of Stone’s film Nixon was that it took on one of America’s most despised political figures and gave us a sympathetic and complex look at who this man was and what made him choose the path that led him to so much trouble and humiliation. 2006s The Queen gave audiences a glimpse at the Queen of England’s struggles to shed the negative press about her response to Princess Diana’s untimely death and more importantly presented an intimate look at who this misunderstood woman is. While it’s clearly too early to judge W. which hasn’t even finished production, it seems like Stone’s agenda is rooted more in humiliation than examination.
In interviews Stone has commented that the project came together rather quickly from a loose script he and his Wall Streetco-writer Stanley Weiser had been toying with between larger projects (he’s also working on another Vietnam era film about the bloody My Lai Massacre). The W. cast was assembled right away (all but the role of Dick Cheney, which supposedly was offered to Robert Duvall and most recently Paul Giamatti) and Stone has said that he could potentially have the film ready for an October release, amidst the heart of election season and while Bush is still behind the wheel.
Sure releasing a highly potent piece of political controversy during an election and departure of a two term President is a way to make a splash but is it really the most mature and intelligent move? Due to the uncertainty of the future status of this country and the world a Bush biopic would make more sense five or ten years from now when people truly know the severity of his footprint in history.
Stone’s previous film was 2006s World Trade Center, a decent but fairly uninspiring retelling of the morning of September 11th. While Stone’s honoring of the courageous port authority cops and fire fighters was moving it held no real substance and was perhaps a little too much too soon (the more refined United 93 portrayed the chaos and horrors of that morning with greater depth and emotion). With W. it could be that Stone is again rushing to make a statement that is already apparent in most people’s minds and is trading his artistic merit for the prospect of a controversial splash in the pond.
It’s still very premature to tell what Stone has in store for the world with W. but unlike his past projects, which took bold positions on tough issues (the media in National Born Killers, conspiracy theorists in JFK, the Vietnam war protest in Born on the Fourth of July, and the world perception of Castro’s Cuba in Comandante), Stone’s W. comes off as nothing more than a way to stick it to our current commander in chief. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was without a doubt a left-leaning, scathing look at Bush and his cabinet but also helped to unveil a lot of need-to-know information regarding our President’s business prospects and relations in the Middle East. Whether or not Bush is worthy of a beating for some of his childish wrongdoings is entirely up to the viewer but you could argue that finger pointing and petty character assassination from a seasoned director such as Mr. Stone is just as juvenile.