RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
Oliver Stone has taken on American presidents before, with the conspiracies and darkness of JFK and Nixon. In his latest movie, he paints a picture of a presidency that hasn't ended yet. "W" is Oliver Stone's version of how President George W. Bush came to power and went to war. With such an overtly political filmmaker, it's easy to assume that Stone simply skewered the 43rd president.
MONTAGNE: He is a bully, he's got a huge ego as you can see, he keeps saying I'm the decider, I make the decisions, and he doesn't seem to have much intellectual curiosity, he doesn't seem to have read a lot.
MONTAGNE: OK, so Oliver Stone personally has almost nothing nice to say about the president, but he has real empathy for the main character of his film. There's the sweet romance with Laura Bush, the president's deep religious conviction, the burden of having a too-perfect father with too-low expectations for his son. "W" offers familiar moments in the life of George W. Bush, including glimpses of vulnerability.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "W")
U: Mr. President...
MONTAGNE: (as President Bush) Yeah.
U: After 9-11, what would you say your biggest mistakes would be? And what lessons had you learned from them?
MONTAGNE: (as President Bush) Now, I wish you would have given me this written question beforehand, John, so I could prepare for it. John, I'm sure historians will say gosh, you know, I wish he could have done better in this way or that way.
MONTAGNE: "W" is certainly not a flattering portrait, but Oliver Stone emphasizes, it's culled from numerous factual accounts.
MONTAGNE: There's not one movie in Bush, you could make three movies. The truth is, you know, what kind of man is he? What's the mindset? At first he comes on as a simplistic, you know, black and white guy and then as you go through the movie, the idea was back and forth you'd understand, with an understanding - with a dramatist's understanding; you'd walk in his shoes. My politics may not be his, but as a dramatist I do try to be unbiased and many people have said fair, I've been fair to the man.
MONTAGNE: There is a scene where the young George W. Bush is pledging a fraternity at Yale, and he's in the midst of a kind of hazing, and it's pretty nasty stuff there - they're being, you know, being forced to drink tons of alcohol and what, what. And he ends up using what appears to be a special political talent, and that's - he can name all the fraternity members in the room?
MONTAGNE: Yes, that's a true story. Bush had a amazing quality even then as a young man to remember what mattered, which was politics and personality, popularity, and he had - he actually named 50 members of the DKE fraternity at Yale. As I said, born politician, born salesman.
MONTAGNE: I gather you wouldn't have been pledging any of those fraternities while you were at Yale at the same time that George W. Bush was?
MONTAGNE: Yeah, I was in the class of '68, but I didn't make it. There was a whole new breed of people that were not interested in fraternities, so there was a change - there was a great period of change at that time. But Bush was a throwback, and he came from an entitled family and that's another thing about George Bush; he never really - when you talk about intellectually, he never questioned his roots. He always went the family road in terms of politics, you know.
MONTAGNE: There has been much made of the Oedipal issues between the two Presidents Bush, generally out there. You chose this father-son relationship as one of the major ways of getting into his story. And one of the things that you carry it through as part of the story is George W. Bush's desire to finish, it would seem, the driving-out of Saddam Hussein that his father, for many good reasons, didn't.
MONTAGNE: That's part of it. Well, remember, the film is presented in context, the - you see, for example, the father's defeat in 1992 to Clinton and how astounding that was to the Bush family, and Bush Jr. by all accounts took it very personally, hated Clinton, hated the whole thing, hated the concept of losing, very competitive. So, we got a situation where the son bypasses the father in '92 after the father loses, the father retires from public office and now the son becomes governor. Very interesting situation.
MONTAGNE: You know, if one were to look up Bush quotes, which we did on the Web, you can put together the quotes you can find very easily on the Web and come up with a couple of scenes - a few scenes in your movie.
(SOUNDBITE OF "W")
MONTAGNE: (as President Bush) Well, then you go, you fool me once, shame on you. Now fool me twice and you can't get fooled again.
MONTAGNE: Oh, there is so many. I mean, this man is awkward, and goofy, and he's not very good with the English language, but Americans like him for that, you know, he's - we had quite a bit of fun with it, but, you know, it's not the - we didn't set out to do a parody, you know; that wouldn't have worked for two hours. It's a real character and Josh is - Josh Brolin doesn't overdo it. And sometimes you're laughing - well, really you're laughing at him through the movie, but at the end of the day it comes down to, you know how did we elect this man? Who was he? How did we get here? Where are we going?
MONTAGNE: I don't believe he's seen it, but Karl Rove has told the New York Times, and I'll quote him, I don't think they made any attempt to have this conform to any reality except that which exist in the cerebral cortex of Oliver Stone. The opinion of Karl Rove.
MONTAGNE: You know, well, you know, he joins a long list of the people who attacked me without having seen my movies, by which I mean Richard Nixon really had at me on "JFK" although I know he never saw the movie. George Bush Sr. attacked me on - I think it was "JFK," yep. This is a nice long tradition of people who do not choose to see the movie.
MONTAGNE: You know, I just have one last question and that is, you know, seeing George W. Bush as a human being...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MONTAGNE: Flawed though he may be, on screen in your film. What does the audience walk away with?
MONTAGNE: Well, you know, I mean that at most basic level I guess, you know, you'd say wow, you know I never knew the guy that way, I only heard this, I heard that, but I never understood what he went through, now I understand how he got there, but here it explains the steps, the ways of the cross.
MONTAGNE: You know, when you say steps, you mean somehow living through it in a sense?
MONTAGNE: Because so much of - in this film, we know.
MONTAGNE: You know, why did the ancient Greeks go to these crazy theaters to watch things like Oedipus, you know, a guy who is blind, who doesn't acknowledge anything until the very, very end of the play when he goes crazy, practically, because he realizes he killed his father and he made love to his mother, I mean why we would go see a movie like that? Why would we go see a play like that? It has nothing to do with my life, you think. Well, you may be wrong, and there's - and when I made the Bush thing, I have to say with, I hope, humility that there are many things in Bush that I have in myself and I think we all do, I mean there is arrogance. Everyone thinks he's the good guy of his life. We all create this narrative when we wake up and, you know, you're Renee, I'm Oliver, we try to do good every day. I think George wakes up the same way, bringing good to the world. He doesn't see the bad. Same is true for all of us.
MONTAGNE: Director Oliver Stone, his movie "W" opens today. This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.