Stone hopes the film will prompt pre-election reflection.
LOS ANGELES — Oliver Stone thinks George W. Bush was unqualified to be president. However, the filmmaker found him an irresistible figure for drama.
After months of speculation over whether Stone’s film biography would be a hatchet job on Bush, “W.” arrives as a surprisingly empathetic — though hardly sympathetic — portrait of the president.
Stone, the historical revisionist behind the presidential sagas “JFK” and “Nixon,” this time plays the provocateur by not doing what’s expected of him, namely, putting Bush on a pillory.
“W.” does present Bush as a man unfit to lead. And while Stone cannot resist injecting that theme with moments of sharp satire, he generally casts the president as a deeply tragic figure in far over his head, whose personal demons hold consequences for everyone else on the planet.
“I don’t know who George Bush is, really. But I can tell you, it feels like him from everything we read, and we did a lot of reading,” Stone said in an interview. “The guy has good, bad and ugly qualities like everyone else, but I can understand that things can get out of balance if you have the power. Certain people, if they have the say-so, can really exert their uglier side, and that is what came out, I think.”
Played by Josh Brolin, Bush is presented as the black sheep of a political dynasty who surprised his own family by becoming the prodigal son that made good.
“W.,” in theaters Friday, follows Bush from his boozy frat-boy days at Yale through a string of failed jobs and business enterprises and an early unsuccessful stab at politics. Perpetually in the shadow of his disapproving father, the first President Bush (James Cromwell), he eventually finds two anchors, wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) and his born-again Christian faith.
Bush gives up drinking, though not his taste for beer. He’s seen throughout his later years tipping back a bottle of nonalcoholic O’Doul’s.
The film focuses on Bush’s private life, a loving relationship with Laura, a competitive edge with brother Jeb, a contentious air with his father and mother (Ellen Burstyn).
Stone also crafts prolonged sequences re-creating meetings at which Bush and his advisers shaped their war-on-terror policies after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bush and company bat about language to come up with their “axis of evil” trademark for terrorist states. They backpedal to justify the invasion of Iraq after intelligence on weapons of mass destruction proves false. Vice President Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) delivers a chilling monologue about the aims of American imperialism.
The key actors on “W.” share Stone’s liberal leanings and came to the film already convinced Bush was a bad president. They came away from it not necessarily thinking he was a bad man.
“Everybody will be surprised in one way or another, no matter how differently you see it. It’s a very human depiction of this guy’s life,” Brolin said. “It’s an interesting, very behaviorally intense, somewhat funny, somewhat satirical, somewhat sardonic story about how this flailing guy became the president of the United States. Twice. ...
“I strangely found a lot of respect for the guy in his ability to tackle his demons. The opposite side of that is him feeling maybe that his demons were exorcised, when indeed they just came out in a different form through his presidency. The opportunities he saw that may have manifested through those, war being one of them.”
Though Bush talks of being called by God to run for president in “W.,” Stone speaks of the movie as destined to be made.