Oliver Stone and Josh Brolin take us behind the scenes of the life and times of George Bush in this weekend’s W.
Is there any chance President George W Bush might ever watch Oliver Stone’s movie version of the life of 43rd incumbent of The White House? Either now, in the closing weeks of his occupancy of the Oval Office, or in the years to come?
Oliver Stone’s answer comes without a single second of hesitation. “I very, very much doubt it”, he says, “I can’t see him reaching for the DVD as they gather around the Bush family hearth, and him saying ‘Hey, look what I’ve been sent – let’s see this. Settle down with the pretzels and the popcorn, this is going to be a bundle of laughs!’
“Besides, I think that he’s firmly established himself as a man who is pretty thin-skinned, and he doesn’t examine himself very much. He’s not a man of great tolerance and he certainly doesn’t understand psychobabble that well. But we are not throwing missiles at the man – however great a temptation that may have been, nor are we taking the p*** out of him. I hope that I’ve delivered, with my cast, a rather compassionate view, a non-judgemental one. A lot of people have criticised me for being too soft on him but the truth is that I’ve left him to speak for himself. And I certainly did not go into this movie intending to do a malicious demolition of him. That is not my way!”
He was highly selective about what does, and does not, appear on the screen version of the President’s career. He takes him from a spoilt and privileged student being inducted into a Yale University Fraternity House club right up to the present day. And while his portrait gets a lot of uneasy laughs, everything the President utters in official situations is a truthful transcript. Stone leaves out some key moments (like the famous moment when he is told of 9/11 in front of a class of young schoolchildren) and includes many more, intimate ones. Like the time he almost choked on a snack in front of a ball game relayed on the TV.
There’s the heavy social drinking and his eventual rehab, his romance with a girl that his family thought socially incompatible (and the allegation that she became pregnant with his child) his conversion to born-again Christianity, the devotion to his wife Laura, and his complete and utter inability to be a success with any choice of career. He leaves a trail of failed ventures and projects in his wake, and all the time his father is pulling strings and bailing him out. George W’s life is a succession of train wrecks.
Until he decided to dabble with politics. And even there George Junior came second in the ballot when he initially stood for Congressional office. His parents thought that this too was stupid (or a typically dumb) career move.
He went on to help his “Pappy”, George Sr. in his campaign for the Presidency, continued his political quest by becoming Governor of Texas (coached by the wily Karl Rove) and then took his own pot at the Presidency after Clinton’s uneasy single term incumbency. He won – and, mindful (and apparently scornful) of his own father’s decision not to “finish the job” in the Middle East and Iraq, took the US and a handful of allies into a war which – far from being over in less than a year – is till going on. “Until he went into politics, he was the black sheep of the family, there’s no doubt about that”, laughs Stone, “there were so many failed businesses, it is all mind-boggling”. Stone, it turns out, was at Yale at the same time that George W was there – although the two never (knowingly) met.
There are three key British players in an otherwise uniformly north American cast. Ioan Gruffudd (in a cameo scene) is Tony Blair, the erstwhile Prime Minister (oddly enough, he was once the flatmate and is still the close friend of Michael Sheen, the actor who has twice turned in his own take on Blair, most notably in The Queen), Thandie Newton is Condoleezza Rice, and Toby Jones is the Machiavellian Karl Rove, the President’s trusted political advisor.
Josh Brolin who plays George Bush himself confesses “I was a bit confused when I was told that Oliver wanted to see me for the part, I didn’t understand the offer at all. For a start, before the script arrive, I thought that the film would deal with the last seven and very momentous years – I never expected to be playing a man from 21 until he was into his late fifties. But after meeting with Stone, and talking to him, I saw that this was far from being a leftist hammering…Oliver is extremely fair, and in tune with sensitive social issues. His attitude to showing Bush as a man was ‘How can we learn from this and (hopefully) make it better?’, which I admired.”
Stone goes on to compare W. to his 1995 movie ‘Nixon’ which starred Anthony Hopkins – “Nixon is in a lot of ways Bush’s ‘Grandfather’. They both used power (as did Ronald Regan in Grenada and Bush’s own father in Panama and then in the Gulf) to manipulate an irrational military response. Regan comes close to being his political ‘Uncle’. Power is very real, and one man can change things. Bush, however has people around him who are far more militaristic. I made a film on Fidel Castro, and in complete contrast, as he has matured, he turned out, in his mature years, to be far more like a Kennedy or a Roosevelt. George W Bush? Well, I think of him as a combination of Oliver Hardy and John Wayne – always putting their feet in it, but dangerously so. I made my film about Alexander the Great, and Bush is a bit like Alexander, dreaming of conquest, but at least Alexander was a scholar and was interested in books and history. Alexander was interested in acquiring knowledge.
“Know who Bush’s heroes are? Reagan and Churchill.
“Make no mistake. We are in an urgent situation. American has bases in 120 overseas countries. We are a worldwide Empire, however unpalatable that sounds. As a nation, we spend one TRILLION dollars every year on all the implements of war. And we are edging more and more, closer and closer, to the fear of nuclear attack that we last felt half a century ago, in the 1950’s.
“And if all that doesn’t give you the occasional sleepless night, I don’t know what will!”
W is now showing at Irish cinemas nationwide!
We’ll have an interview with Thandie Newton (who plays Condoleeza Rice) on Monday.