It’s midafternoon when we meet in Manhattan, but Oliver Stone looks sleepy. He’s been rushing to complete a final edit of his new film ‘W.’ – his take on the picaresque life of former Yale classmate George W. Bush – in time for a pre-election release, on October 17, 2008. Already, though, the Internet is abuzz about a Stone biopic of a sitting president. That’s in part because of a very funny summer trailer, with Josh Brolin as W and James Cromwell as Bush Sr. (Best line: “Who do you think you are? A Kennedy?”)
“I think if the movie’s good,” says Stone, 62, sipping a Starbucks coffee, “we can look at Bush and laugh at him – this guy who wore cowboy boots, who mispronounced the English language, who didn’t read a lot – but also realize it says a lot about the American people. I tried to turn the lens of satire on ourselves. In the end, hopefully, you’ll realize the joke’s on us.”
When you decided to make a film about George W. Bush, did the lack of historical distance from the subject give you pause?
Yes and no. I was fascinated by W the moment he got into office. He’s the opposite of what I saw our generation as becoming. There’s also a quality of myth to his story, something Capra-esque. It’s ‘The Great Gatsby,’ but in reverse, because he started off known.
During your research, did you find anything that changed your opinion of him?
I don’t want to be the judge of any man. I’ll judge a president in terms of his policies. In ‘W.,’ much of the dialogue comes directly from him. And we didn’t set out to demean or hurt him. I don’t think that’s a proper motive for a film. We try to re-create human beings with respect for virtues and defects both. People have said to me, “Why don’t you do a movie about the Iraq war?” I always say, I went to Vietnam. Iraq isn’t my generation’s war. The only thing I could contribute is perhaps trying to understand the mind-set that drove us to war.
Critics hailed ‘World Trade Center’ as being “mature” because they expected another type of movie from you. Is ‘W.’ more in the spirit of your earlier, more deliberately provocative work?
Well, it’s human to be paradoxical. I like ‘W.’ as a kind of wild Salvador-like ride through the mind of the American male in his full power. ‘W.’ feels like a new kind of species.
The film has a comic tone. I wonder if Bush – unlike, say, Nixon, another of your subjects – simply didn’t rise to the level of a tragic figure?
Let’s face it: George W. was a lot more fun than Dick Nixon. Nixon was not known for his charm. Whereas W, he’s more of a soufflé. He’s a lighter president. There are tragic consequences of his actions, but the spirit with which he did these things can be perceived by some as funny and entertaining. It’s a uniquely American, cowboy way of looking at the world. With Nixon there was so much self-loathing, and he was really prone to vilify himself. There was so much guilt. But the evidence from W is there is no guilt. That press conference was amazing. We shot it in the movie: “Mr. President, what mistakes have you made since 9/11?” And his response wasn’t a sort of mind block. It really was: “I don’t get the question. I didn’t make mistakes. I did the right thing.” I’ve never seen him doubt. That’s why, as a character, he’s not really tragic. Because to be tragic, you need to be capable of changing.
You met him in 1998 when he was governor of Texas. What were your impressions?
He had asked to see me. I was curious. It was a pleasant enough chat. He reminded me we’d been at Yale together [they didn’t know each other there], and we talked about Vietnam a little bit. He’s very charismatic. He knows body language. I don’t think he reads so much as he reads you.
You hear that a lot, that he is no good at speeches, but has charisma one-on-one.
Well, you know, Hitler was magnetic, too. [Laughs] I would say that in terms of impressiveness – and other people have said this, too – W can be in the room and you won’t notice him. He’s like a junior chamber of commerce salesman. He doesn’t stand out, except that he’s president. He creeps up on you. Whereas Clinton is tall, stately. Reagan was handsome. George H.W. is a very handsome man. Bush is probably closer to Truman in his physical appearance. He isn’t the guy who overwhelms you.
Do you hope the film will impact the election?
No, I really don’t expect it to. The movie is about W.
As a fellow Vietnam vet, what do you think of McCain?
I’d rather not comment on that. People have strong feelings.
How about Obama?
I support him. I think we need change. Whether he can do it is a whole other issue. I thought the 2000 election was so key. I got really bummed out after that. I left the country for about three years to do Alexander. [Laughs] I just didn’t want to be here. And the war in Iraq – for a Vietnam veteran, I can’t tell you how difficult that was, to see leaders doing the same things as during Vietnam.
Recently you joined Venezuela president Hugo Chavez as he met with FARC rebels in Colombia, to try to negotiate the release of some hostages. How did you get involved?
I was there for Mr. Chavez. [Stone is doing a documentary on U.S. relations with Latin America.] With the hostages, we came very close. There were a lot of political shenanigans going on, and I was told Bush made a couple calls to Colombia. But it was great being down there. Chavez is an incredible guy. It’s just not fair, the way he’s been portrayed.
He’s been criticized lately for what’s been described as a power grab. Is that legitimate?
The constitutional amendment – the “grab for power” – seems different if you know what he was up against. There’s been a coup d’état and an oil strike, both fomented by the United States. I’d say he’s reacted with tremendous restraint. He has the right to try to change his term limits, the same way Michael Bloomberg has the right to do that in New York. And when Chavez’s amendment was voted down by a very small minority, he backed off right away. It’s a very difficult situation, and a lot is at stake: the entire South American region, really, which America has always used as its backyard. Chavez represents a new form of regional control, and he’s been a symbol for Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia. America has lost control of the region, and now Colombia is the only foothold we have, and we support that regime with antidrug money, so-called, and we created tremendous paramilitaries. We’ve created huge death rates. This is a dirty story. I’m not saying the FARC is not responsible, too. But there is a civil war.
When you met with the FARC, were you ever worried for your safety?
No, not really. I was more worried about the Colombian military. They have American spying equipment, so it’s very easy to get spotted. And judging from the collateral damage in Afghanistan and Iraq, you don’t want to be close to one of those Predators when they go off. I’m always more scared about my own government doing something. When you read about these renditions and what they do to people and even the way they treat you at an airport if they don’t trust you – it’s very scary, to be American and to be treated by other Americans in this high-handed way.
When was the last time you were arrested?
A few years ago. But that doesn’t matter. I see this happen all the time. In the South, while we were filming W., there was that brawl at a bar, right? Brolin got arrested with six, seven others. I was there that night. The cops were insane! They were mad men with guns.
What happened exactly?
Well, I saw Jeffrey Wright [who plays Colin Powell] being arrested. I guarantee you, that man was not drunk, and he was not disorderly. There was a white bartender who had taken a dislike to him a few days prior. And Jeffrey is a tough guy, in the sense that he’s proud, the way Denzel Washington is proud, and he’s not going to take shit from anybody. He was escorted out of the bar and treated in a rough manner by these policemen. That’s when Josh and his group went out to protect him. The cops said, “Step back, sir!” One time. Josh said, “Sir, why are you arresting him?” And then, boom! Maced him in the eyes. They tasered Jeffrey twice, once in cuffs. And they beat up my assistant. They threw him on the ground and cuffed him. He did nothing. And they cuffed two girls. One of them had a bruise on her head. These people were really rough. [The Shreveport, Louisiana, police chief has said he found no violations by his officers.]
You were out there, too?
No, I stayed in the bar because, frankly, they told me to stay inside. I would have been arrested. I would have been out there to protest in a second. But no protest was going to stop these men.
When was the last time you were in a fight?
A physical fight? Not a verbal fight? Probably in my 20s. A long time ago. I was making a movie, and somebody got out of line with a machete. Tried to kill me.
Can you say more?
No, I don’t want to. The movie was called Seizure. And the guy with the machete was drunk. I’m not a great pugilist. I won’t back down from a fight, but I’m not looking for one either. I don’t believe in violence. I hate violence. I’ve seen enough of it, and that’s why I mentioned these policemen. They’re so scared. The smell of fear – you know it right away. I’ll remember fear the rest of my life from Vietnam. You smell it, and you’ve got to slow everything down: Be cautious, be cool, don’t panic. It’s grace under pressure, as much as you can, because it can get really scary fast. Look at 9/11. People lost their minds right away.
Is that a misconception about you, this sort of air of machismo?
Machismo? That’s good. I love sports. I had a ranch. I loved riding, I loved horses. But I gave all that up. Bush doesn’t ride horses, you know? He doesn’t like horses.
Huh. A cowboy without a horse. What do you see him doing after he gets out of office?
He’ll do the presidential thing: speeches, open his library, perhaps consult. His father made a fortune with the Carlyle Group, which is a highly nebulous business. There’s a lot of influence peddling in the Bush family dynasty. The other way W could go – and this would be an interesting thing – would be a Dostoyevsky-type reversal, where, at the age of 70 or 80, he might have another rebirth of consciousness. I’m not saying what exactly that would be. I’m just saying he may change. That would be the biggest shock of all.