Not every child of the sixties was a flower child. At Yale in 1965, when George W. Bush was a young pledge at DKE, the fraternity to which his war-hero father had belonged, Oliver Stone was about to throw away the staid future his investment-banker father had planned for him. The two didn’t know each other, and they were hurtling on different trajectories. While Bush was learning the nicknames of his new frat brothers, Stone was burrowing into his foxhole of postadolescent alienation. “I was 19, and I said, ‘Look, I can’t make it, I can’t go to Yale, I don’t belong in these groups, I don’t belong here,” recalls Stone, who is in a back booth at the Royalton Hotel, looking weary from the exertions of finishing his new movie, W., which comes out next week. He’s a large man, but even so, his fleshy, Mayan-obelisk head looks too big for his body.
Stone dropped out of Yale, and the voyage he embarked on was both outward—to Vietnam and later Mexico, standard stops on the sixties itinerary—and inward. “I wanted to get rid of the ego,” he says. Bush’s trip out of the sixties could not have been more different, but he, too, had something he was running from. “Losing the ego is one reason born-agains are born again. It’s a key of Christianity, Evangelicism,” says Stone. “George Bush is broken, now you take the persona of Jesus.”
The dreams of the sixties often started in unhappy families. Though on opposite sides of the culture war, Bush and Stone were, fundamentally, questioners of the same authority—their fathers. (Stone’s was an aide-de-camp to Eisenhower and a staunch Republican who had a highly successful Wall Street career.) But the world these children of the greatest generation wanted to inherit was not the same one that their elders wanted to pass along. Instead, they chose to Easy-Ride their own paths to adulthood.
With W., Stone intends a kind of semi-comic Citizen Kane of the current administration, flashing back to find the source of the troubles of the past eight years in W.’s youthful hurts—family damage that changed the world. Releasing the film now, in the middle of a campaign in which the president’s failures are topic A, but the president himself seems out of the picture, requires an Oliver Stone–size hubris. We’ve seen this horror show on television—we know the punch lines, the motivations, the backstory. Will people really want to sit through two more hours of a Bush presidency? Stone is more than conscious of the risk. “It may miss completely,” he says, with real nervousness.
But Stone has always worked to force himself into the center of the national discourse. And W. has been a headlong, five-month race to catch up with history. “When we started,” he says, “no one wanted this movie. ‘Who’s interested in Bush?’ was the idea. ‘We hate the guy,’ or ‘He’s gone in January.’ And I kept arguing, ‘You have no idea how important the guy is in the culture.’ ”
W. is essentially the story of a son’s turning the tables on a disapproving father. “I think it’s very hard to be a first son who’s a black sheep, who’s a failure,” says Stone. “All his life, that is a traumatic, emotional thing.” The elder Bush, as played by James Cromwell, is a remote, scolding presence (with little of the silver-foot-in-the-mouth comic logorrhea of the real 41), convinced of his own rectitude, constantly reminding W. (Josh Brolin) that he’s no Jeb. “You’re a Bush. Act like one,” he says in an early scene, after ticking off a list of his firstborn’s many failures.
The fulcrum of the movie, the moment when W. measures himself against his father, is the 1992 election, when Bush Sr. taps his eldest—Jeb was unavailable, Poppy explains, twisting the knife—to run his campaign. “That ’92 election scarred Bush—both Bushes, the whole family,” says Stone. “And when they lost, people could say Bush didn’t seal the deal in Iraq, he waffled on taxes. And the son said, ‘It will never happen to me, I will never be as weak as my father.’ ”
Stone’s own damage is much more operatic. While he certainly has Daddy issues, it’s safe to say that Mommy (still living in New York) was the one who really fucked him up. A glamorous, elusive, free-spending Frenchwoman who had numerous affairs, she eventually left for good when Stone was away at boarding school—though not before teaching him how to masturbate (“I don’t remember that she touched my person,” he once told an interviewer).
An only child, Stone was simultaneously obsessed over and neglected, the center of a world whose center did not hold, and he was propelled out of his adolescence a prodigiously talented, prodigiously damaged seeker. There’s autobiography just below the surface in all of his movies. It’s a species of boundless baby-boom narcissism—he has remade his private damage into what he put forth as the American story.
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.