Oliver Stone waited almost two decades to make a movie based on his Vietnam War experiences, but he couldn’t wait till President George W. Bush was out of office to immortalize him on film.
“W.,” which opened Friday, is a rarity: a biopic about someone in the public eye still doing basically what he’s doing on film.
“Ripped from the headlines” is a phrase more often associated with “Law & Order” episodes than feature films. Movies generally take too long to make to be responsive to current events, and we generally consider film to be more about posterity than television anyway.
We watch TV to see what’s going on now, and we’ll tune in next week to catch what happens next. We expect movies to arrive more or less gift-wrapped with a tidy beginning, middle and end.
The ending of George W. Bush’s presidency is still being written, yet Stone wanted “W.” to come out while its title figure is in office, either before the election or the next president’s inauguration. With so much “dynamic” research having been done on the administration’s build-up to the Iraq War - and with the country still involved in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the general war on terror - Stone wanted to move quickly.
“It’s dynamite what came out, the concept of manipulation to war, so now that we know it, let’s get it out there fast,” Stone said on the phone last week.
As for the release date, he noted, “I could’ve delayed this to January, but I thought it was ready. I was happy with the movie. Sometimes like with ‘Salvador’ or ‘Talk Radio,’ you do these things fast, and you feel like it fits the spirit of it.”
“W.” is not the first political movie to come out during a presidential election. Michael Moore released his searing documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” in the summer of 2004 to try to prevent Bush’s re-election. It didn’t work.
Stone, though, said he wasn’t intending his film to influence the current race.
“The election is between two other people,” he said. But he added that the current president won’t be out of our world for many years. “This guy’s influence is major. It impacted the world, he changed the way America works, he changed our foreign policy, he has the Bush Doctrine in place, so he’s not going away in January, unfortunately.”
Still, the lingering question is whether this movie is too soon. Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” met resistance for vividly depicting the events of Sept. 11, 2001, a full five years after the fact. Stone’s “World Trade Center” also came out in 2006.
Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips favorably reviewed “W.,” but Variety’s Todd McCarthy planted himself in the “too soon” camp, writing that the movie “feels like a rough draft of a film it might behoove him to remake in 10 or 15 years. ... It’s questionable how wide a public will pony up to immerse itself in a story that still lacks an ending.”
“I don’t agree with Todd,” Stone said. “It’s like ‘Salvador.’ It’s immediate.”
“Salvador” was Stone’s breakthrough 1986 film, depicting a photojournalist covering the El Salvadoran civil war in 1980. It came out months before “Platoon,” which won Stone Oscars for best picture and director.
“‘Platoon’ was a different situation,” Stone said. “I had lived through that myself, and I had to evolve, and I was a younger man. Now I’m older, and I have more experience. I’ve had eight years of George Bush. I’ve had plenty of time.”
Of course, the pitfalls of interpreting current events on film aren’t just artistic. An ever-growing number of movies related to the war on terror have been dying at the box office, including “In the Valley of Elah,” “A Mighty Heart,” “Rendition,” “Lions for Lambs,” “The Kingdom,” “Grace Is Gone,” “Redacted,” “Stop Loss,” “The Lucky Ones” and the new “Body of Lies.”
The problem, said “Life: The Movie” author Neal Gabler, is that popular culture serves not just to entertain us but also “to enable us to dominate something, to put boundaries around something and help us to understand and digest it. That’s something you need some distance to do.”
With still no resolution, either on the ground or in our minds, of the U.S. incursion into the Middle East, “you can make as many Iraq War movies as you want but people are not going to respond,” he said.
Yet Gabler does not think such reasoning necessarily dooms “W.”
“The verdict on him has been rendered, and the verdict on Iraq has not been fully rendered yet,” he said. “Depending on the nature of the film, it could be a way of getting the national mind around George Bush.”
On the other hand, he added, “when the president has got a 23 percent favorability rating, the public could also say, ‘I see this every day, and it’s not funny. I don’t see why I would spend $8 to $10 dollars to see this in the theater.’”
Although Stone made “W.” quicker and closer to the actual events than his other two president movies, “JFK” (1991) and “Nixon” (1995), he thinks the new film should maintain its relevance over the long haul.
“That’s the way I make movies,” he said. “I took the point of view as a dramatist, not a polemicist. I think we made a movie that’s going to hold up in 15 years.”
Meanwhile, “Wall Street,” Stone’s 1987 effort that earned Michael Douglas a best actor Oscar, has gained renewed relevance amid the country’s current financial meltdown. Despite the movie’s critical tone, Gordon Gekko’s mantra “greed is good” retained a perverse chic for years. No longer.
“We’ve reached a limit on that, I think,” Stone said. “I’m shocked it got so out of hand.”
So Stone won’t be making “Wall Street 2”?
“No, because these guys, who cares about them? Jesus Christ. Give me a break. I find these people disgusting.” He laughed. “Greed sucks.”
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