While Stone rejected much of his father’s belief system, and even had to be bailed out of jail just as W. is in the movie, he’s made peace with his father’s memory. “I never had to be stronger than him because he was strong,” Stone says. “My father was a man who was blunt—he made many enemies by what he said. He used to tell me, ‘Don’t ever tell the truth, kiddo, you’ll get into trouble.’ ”
Stone is a man of the left, but much like Norman Mailer, he’s always been too bombastic, too egotistical, too enamored of his own masculinity to be fully accepted by those who share his views. W. is not likely to change many of these minds. He insists that, regarding his portrayal of W., his large thumb is not on the scale. “You can make up your own mind,” he says. A more vexing question is verisimilitude. Stone’s films have annexed territory previously the province of journalism and history, which is why debates over factual accuracy (as with JFK) have dogged his career. Stone now seems exhausted by these battles. “All the scenes are necessitated by real events that occurred,” he says with a sigh. “There is a list of annotations we can give you.”
But fact-checking W.—which is certainly more moderate than, say, the typical Paul Krugman column about the president—misses the point. And real or imagined, there are some wonderful scenes and performances. The gang is all here, tweaked to a point just south of satire. Thandie Newton plays Condi Rice with a sycophancy that’s almost canine. Scott Glenn’s Rumsfeld is underwhelming, but that may be because the man himself is so ostentatiously Dr. Strangelovean that no actor could ever measure up. Karl Rove (Toby Jones) is amusingly overdrawn, an evil dwarf behind owl glasses, whispering in the president’s ear. “Don’t get cute, Turdblossom, this is serious,” says W., when Rove—really, what Stone has made him is an arch-Republican Truman Capote—cracks wise. “There’s possibly a kind of homoerotic impulse in the way Rove picked up on Bush,” says Stone, putting forth his Brokeback Mountain theory of the administration. “They were opposites. Bush was entitled, he was rich, and he had an air of confidence.” The president, dimly aware that he’s being played by Rove and Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), is careful to keep them in their place, listening to their arguments, then pointedly ignoring them. “I’m the decider,” W. insists. It’s a desiccated idea of leadership, a parody of the strong father.
Stone emphasizes Bush’s vast hungers—long after he’s ceased mainlining bourbon, he’s scarfing sandwiches in staff meetings and choking on pretzels. There’s a heavy load of contempt in the portrayal: To Stone, Bush is a substance-abuse simpleton. “I don’t think Bush was an alcoholic; I think he is a man of excess and recklessness. Norman Mailer said that he was a dry drunk. It’s a little harsh, but the truth is that the habits did not change.”
Stone himself is a man of large appetites. “I understand excess,” he says (reading some of his accounts makes you think of Caligula with a social conscience). Yet he seems to see his own excess as heroic, part of a journey of self-awareness, which also included a good deal of therapy. He is a proud man, and part of that pride must come from the fact that he’s faced his own darkness, understood his own damage, turned his pain into something valuable. For Stone, the ultimate tragedy of Bush is rooted in the sixties sin of not being able to look inward, thus fucking up his American story, along with everyone else’s. As in Easy Rider, he blew it.