LOS ANGELES—For the first 113 of the 232 years that a United States of America has existed, there wasn’t anything called cinema. So movies about Washington, Lincoln or the peccadilloes of Grover Cleveland weren’t really an option—not, at least, while the men were still in office.
It seems the lone president who simultaneously occupied the big screen and the Oval Office was John F. Kennedy: “PT 109,” released five months before the 1963 assassination, starred Cliff Robertson and concerned the young JFK as war hero, self-sacrificing leader of men and Adonisian model of greatness-to-be.
“W.” is none of the above.
Directed by protean Hollywood muckraker Oliver Stone and starring Josh Brolin as a blithering George W. Bush, “W.”—which opens Friday—is not just a critique, it’s a critique of a sitting president. Coming as it does after the satirical media treatment Bush has gotten from Will Ferrell, Keith Olbermann and via the animated “Lil’ Bush,” the film isn’t all that surprising.
But “W.” is something extraordinary in its own right: a fairly big-budget production starring credible actors, distributed by a reasonably credible company (Lionsgate) and directed by one of America’s more respected, albeit controversial, film directors.
The question? It’s not really about whether Bush is so out of steam politically that going after him is like shooting fat political fish in a big ol’ Texas barrel. The issue seems to be whether the film will have any effect on the election to come.
And what Stone hopes to accomplish with what is, to a large degree, historical fiction.
In a recent interview, Gore Vidal, America’s pre-eminent practitioner of the genre (“Burr,” “Lincoln”), said his intention was to “show up the ... historians. Because I thought the academics were wrecking history, and I was going to be as accurate as I could be with what historic figures actually did and said.” Stone said the dialogue in Stanley Weiser’s script—between George and Laura Bush, for instance—was lifted from various books and much of it was pure speculation. While Vidal put words in Mary Todd Lincoln’s mouth, she’d been comfortably dead for about 100 years.
The “W.” cast is almost scarily on point: The versatile Ellen Burstyn plays Barbara Bush; the effervescent Elizabeth Banks is Laura Bush; and Toby Jones—whose breakthrough role was Truman Capote in “Infamous”—portrays Karl Rove.
Reportedly, the most difficult part to cast, and one of the more crucial, was Vice President Dick Cheney, who is played by Richard Dreyfuss. James Cromwell, always patrician but capable of playing craven (see “L.A. Confidential”), is Bush the elder.
“My politics aren’t part of the movie. The movie is not a screed; in fact, it’s very balanced,” said Cromwell, who said he interpreted George H.W. Bush as a distant, remote man who at the same time was not in control of his emotions.
As for portraying live public figures, he noted that he’d done so already (as the Duke of Edinburgh in “The Queen”) and said “W.” is accurate, in that “it’s based on things people really do know.”
“They’re a public family, a family of privilege who don’t allow any glimpse of their private affairs,” he said. “But we know the father and son have a confrontation (over foreign policy), that George Sr. did have Scowcroft release the letter because he didn’t agree with what his son was doing. People know about some of the matters the Bushes have been involved with: They might not know about the family’s connection to the Nazis, but they know about Enron, they know about Saudi Arabia, they know what Bush Sr. did at the CIA.”
But the focus of “W.,” of course, is W. “It’s about a guy who was flailing around, who pulled his life together at 40 and became president, and asks if he really wanted to be, should he have been, would it be better if he hadn’t been and whether we all would have been better off if he’d become baseball commissioner,” Brolin said.
Brolin’s career has been on a purely vertical trajectory since he blasted off last year in the eclectic quartet of “No Country for Old Men,” “Grindhouse,” “In the Valley of Elah” and “American Gangster.” He would seem to be taking a very un-Hollywood approach to career cultivation: Regardless of Bush’s unpopularity, taking on a role that could be considered derisive of a sitting president requires a certain daring. And, depending on how successful you are, a risk of typecasting.
“I felt trepidation,” he said, “but not for the reason you might think. It was more about whether I could live up to the character.
“And what are we creating?” he asked rhetorically. “Some leftist hammer? Are we going to annihilate the guy when he’s on the way out?
“What I think is, we created a portrait of a guy that might make people think differently about the election. Not necessarily whether they’re going Democratic or Republican but just about how they vote. Not, ‘Gee, it would be nice to have a beer with the guy,’ but what our national leadership really means.”
Basically, Stone’s motivation seems to be a begrudging acknowledgment of how important George W. Bush has been. And may continue to be. “He changed the country,” Stone told Larry King on CNN last Monday night. “And he’s a young man. We’re going to have him for a long time.”