Oliver Stone on 'W.'

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Released in the run-up to the US presidential election, Oliver Stone’s latest political biopic, ‘W.’, like its subject, is certainly causing controversy. Time Out meets the director to find out why he felt compelled to unpick Dubya’s presidency, and why he had to do it now

Ever since Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’, there’s been an explosion of films about America and its foreign policy. W.ere does ‘W.’ fit in?

‘Yes, that’s true, but there’s been no serious film about George Bush made as drama – apart from a TV movie. This is the first, and I’m sure there’ll be three, four, five others in the years to come. W.en we were preparing the film, all the documentaries were very helpful. W. looked at everything. Certainly Michael Moore’s film created a stir: maybe it almost backfired by creating too much anger from the other side, but I empathise with Moore, I really do.’

You show many stages of Bush’s background before he becomes president: his education, his professional failures, his drinking… But when it comes to the presidency you focus on the war in Iraq.

‘Yes, I’m interested in the fact that Bush went along with the Dick Cheney argument for geo-political domination because it fitted, in his mind, with the need for revenge after 9/11. W.en Bush made that “You’re either with us or against us” comment, it fitted nicely with the Cheney doctrine, which says that the US shall allow for the emergence of no global or economic rivals.‘If there had been no Iraq, I think it would have been Venezuela or Iran or somewhere else. Bush was inclined to be militaristic in his response. His heroes are Churchill and Reagan.’

I remember a few years ago seeing news footage of him in the W.ite House, patting a bust of Churchill on the head while being interviewed by Trevor McDonald.

‘He’s emerged as the president with three wars behind him. Three wars – and a huge deficit, and he’s stripped the Constitution of its meaning, disgraced us legally and overreacted to 9/11. He’s really fucked up the place!’

You haven’t been energised to make a film about contemporary events since ‘Salvador’ in 1986

.‘You’re right. It’s right on top of us, and I made “W.” quickly and in the spirit of “let’s get this done” because this is urgent, this is the zeitgeist. Bush has gone but he’s not really gone: his policies are going to be around. He’s the most important figure of the past 30, 40 years – bigger than Reagan, bigger than Nixon. Look at the things he’s done. He wanted to shake up the Middle East as a show of strength. This is big stuff, but not for him. For him, it’s just another country somewhere in the world where he can fool around with the toy store. He’s an entitled boy.‘I wish he’d gone to Vietnam with me and seen war for what it is: the destruction of civilisation. He would have thought twice about this whole American concept of aggression.’

You and Bush are of the same generation. You’re the same age; you even went to Yale at the same time. Did these things help you empathise with him?

‘I feel like I know him, yes, and that I understand him. I knew that he’d be president when I first met him in 1998. He had the machinery, he had the confidence. I met and knew Al Gore and he was always uncomfortable with the ego part of the job. Bush had no problem. He didn’t have a clue what he was getting into. He certainly wasn’t qualified, whether by temperament or study.’

The film is coming out as his presidency ends…

‘Yes, it’s the end of his presidency, but his policies are still in place.’

Do you think he’s relieved to go?

‘I’m told he’s very happy to get out of there. But he has no sense of guilt or grief about it.’

At one point you show him leaving a difficult press conference to go and watch baseball, eat pretzels, drink beer…

‘That was a non-alcoholic beer. People have got confused about that, especially here in England. They say he was drinking again. That’s not true. It’s a label called O’Doul’s.’

You suggest there are things he’d rather be doing than dealing with politics. Like watching baseball.

‘He could be commissioner of baseball. If only he’d go back to that. ‘W.en Nixon left the W.ite House, he went into disgrace and had to fight his way out of it. Bush is going into disgrace, but whether he feels the need to fight his way back, I don’t know. I think he will stay in opposition. He’s a young man. And the moment there’s another American us-versus-them situation, whether it’s Russia or Iran, there’ll be a call for people like that. He’ll always be a force for military response, unless he changes.’

W.y do we need your film now? Because people have short memories?

‘Yes, I think we have to deal with it right away. His policies are in place, the Bush doctrine is there, so is the military expenditure. Hopefully we can turn the tide and start to reform it. It’s a good time for this movie. I think the film will last; the election may overshadow it. But his legacy is more important than the election. I hope it will be valid in five years. A lot of my films get better as time passes, as there’s so much heat around them when they come out.’

You decide not to tackle the allegations of drug use, his disputed National Guard service, the election of 2000. Did you want to avoid distractions?

‘No matter what you say about the 2000 election – and I do believe that Gore won and the Supreme Court fucked up – you’re going to get into endless sidetracks with that. The same with the issue of drugs: it’s very difficult to go there because nothing is proven, although I do believe it’s true. W. show the excess of the childhood: the drinking especially. You don’t have to shoot fish in a barrel. If you start to fish for those things, that’s when you get attacked.’

Compared to ‘JFK’ and ‘Nixon’, ‘W.’ feels moderate in tone.

‘It’s moderate, but it’s extreme. Because what Bush does is far worse. Yes, the Kennedy assassination was a horror show, but creating three wars is far worse. He’s ruptured the concept of the Constitution. It’s pretty extreme for a guy who doesn’t look very threatening.’

Your last film was ‘W.rld Trade Center’, a celebration of the heroism of firemen on 9/11. How do you see ‘W.’ sitting with that?

‘One ends on 9/11, the other begins about a month or two after. They both exorcise. W.th “W.rld Trade Center”, we went into the terror, into the bowels of that darkness. Looking into fear is my thing. Bush is a monster to many people – but you should look at the bogeyman and exorcise. Maybe that’s what’s going on: I don’t want to live my life in fear of these subjects. Bush overreacted to 9/11, he politicised it, and I wanted to show this revenge thing taking place.’

You don’t show Bush during 9/11.

‘I think Michael Moore covered that very nicely. You get the point: he was terrified and bewildered.’

Does it bother you when people sling mud at you?

‘Imagine what John Kerry went through. To have served in Vietnam and be discredited, and then there’s Bush, this fella who didn’t serve who ends up being considered the security hero. It’s insane to me. Perception has become reality, and he’s very good at it. And it’s happened to me in my smaller way, yeah. This has been going on for years. These armchair patriots attack me, but these are men who never go to war, the Cheneys and the Bushes. And the right wing has been ferocious in its assaults, smearing people left and right.’

As well as ‘W.’ and ‘W.rld Trade Center’, in the past five years you’ve made a documentary about Fidel Castro and a feature about Alexander the Great. You’re hard to pigeonhole.

‘I love redefining. I don’t want to be caught in a box. Freedom is crucial to my nature. If tomorrow, I had tremendous success again, I’d probably feel trapped and want to go in a different direction. I don’t know what I want to do next. I don’t know if I want to do anything next. But if I do, I want it to be fresh so I can wake up every day and look forward to it.’

Do you have a thick skin?

‘No, my skin is thin. I hope I stay sensitive; I don’t want to become too callous.’‘W.’ opens on Friday.

Author: Dave Calhoun. Photography Rob Greig



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