Wed, Oct 08, 2008 - Page 14 News List

Stone, to say the least

They were born just months apart, studied together at Yale University, then their lives diverged — Oliver Stone went on to fight in Vietnam, George W. Bush dodged the draft. Now their paths are crossing again

By Oliver Burkeman  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

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Almost nobody has yet seen Oliver Stone’s forthcoming movie about US President George W. Bush, but already it’s hugely controversial. A White House spokeswoman has predicted that it will be full of inaccuracies, and says the president plans to ignore it. Right-wing columnists and bloggers have condemned it as a vicious smear. Leaked pages from an early script have been picked apart by the media. Before interviewing Stone, I rewatched several of his darkly brilliant conspiracy films, and once you’ve marinated for a while in their pervasive sense that unseen forces are at work in the world, it’s hard not to look at the pre-release controversy and wonder: to whose advantage, ultimately, does it accrue? Who’s pulling the strings here? Follow the money. Cui bono? Who benefits?

But maybe that’s unfair: Stone insists he can’t bear the label “controversial” and says he doesn’t benefit from it at all. “To be ‘Oliver Stone,’ whoever that is, is to provoke feelings in people before they’ve met me,” he says with some exasperation, hunched forward in an armchair in his tidy Santa Monica office. “[People say] ‘I don’t want to work with him — he’s controversial!’ But I’m not controversial. I make people think, sometimes.” Stone sighs. “Maybe making people think is controversial.”

Far from being commercially helpful, Stone’s reputation for controversy made the film almost impossible to produce: no big American studio would touch it, and funding had to be cobbled together from several European sources. The actor Josh Brolin, who plays Bush, nearly declined for fear of the potential professional repercussions; other cast members took a lot of persuading, too. “Maybe I’m going to get nauseated and never do another movie,” Stone says. “Because they’re so hard to do! This was so tough, in terms of getting it together, rushing, getting all these people to work for so little in the hope there’d be a profit. I won’t say I’m box office poison, because I’m not, but ...” He seems tired. The movie industry, he explains, “is fucked. Really fucked.”

Given all this, the surprise is that the film, entitled W, doesn’t seem to be an anti-Bush tirade. (I saw brief clips and read detailed production notes.) It’s strikingly light in tone, bouncing back and forth between the president’s privileged, alcohol-fuelled youth and his first term in the White House, up to the invasion of Iraq, which is presented in oedipal terms. Naturally, it’s not a flattering portrait: Bush emerges as an angry loafer, oppressed by his father’s achievements and his family’s sense of honor, at one point drunk-driving his car on to his parents’ lawn and challenging his father — “Mr Perfect, Mr War Hero, Mr Fucking God Almighty!” — to a fist-fight. But Brolin’s Bush isn’t a mocking parody. He’s fundamentally human, even likable, as are some of his inner circle, including US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Karl Rove, formerly Bush’s chief political adviser, played by the British actors Thandie Newton and Toby Jones. At least in part, W — co-written with Stone’s collaborator on Wall Street, Stanley Weiser — is a good-faith attempt to answer the core question about the president, which Stone frames thus: “How did Bush go from an alcoholic bum to the most powerful figure in the world?” (Hint: Jesus was involved.) It also delivers a frisson, reminiscent of Stephen Frears’ film The Queen — which Stone cites as an influence — of being a fly on the wall during recent major affairs of state. The cast of W was chosen to be “feelalikes,” not lookalikes, Stone says, but either way the similarities are sometimes close enough to startle.

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