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New Yorker Festival: Oliver Stone's Got Guts

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“I’m a dramatist, not a journalist.” This is currently Oliver Stone’s favorite mantra, repeated at the Director’s Guild Theater with David Denby and, for instance, on Bill Maher’s HBO show last week. I take it as a sign that his aims have become more modest than in his JFK days, if not an outright shield against the legions of fact-checking critics who, in W., will doubtless find much fault with Stone’s unique use of composites and rearranged chronology to drive home this or that emotional or political point.

“Nixon’s the grandfather of Bush, in a sense. Reagan’s the father,” said Stone. (I await the Reagan biopic that would complete the trilogy. Actually, that idea’s not half bad.) On the poor box office performance of Nixon, Stone said, “He evokes guilt and paranoia, and those qualities are not much in demand.”

Apparently refusing to absorb that maxim, Stone has produced a movie more than a decade later about George W. Bush. Three lengthy clips were shown, dating from 1978, 1988, and 2002. The first takes place at the barbecue party at which the erstwhile Laura Welch (embodied by Elizabeth Banks) and W. meet. Bush swigs throughout from a beer bottle and appears somewhat cowed by Laura’s identity as a librarian. It’s worth pointing out that Josh Brolin is pretty awesome as W. In the Crawford section his callowness doesn’t quite convince, but as W. ages, Brolin really finds his way to the heart of the character. We’ve all lived with the president for the last eight years, and Brolin’s impersonation won’t distance anyone in the slightest, I think.

The 1988 scene takes place in his father’s vice presidential office, Rove and W., clearly not among the veep’s core advisors, engage in a bit of crosstalk about the rise of the religious right (Poppy is not down with the program). After everyone else is ushered out, W. shows his father the as-yet-unaired Willie Horton ad, and then comes the sort of anachronistic dialogue for which the movie will surely become renowned. W. observes that what with this ad and “that picture of Dukakis in a tank,” Bush’s election is assured, an observation scarcely imaginable without heaps of hindsight, of course.

The 2002 scene demonstrates all of the weaknesses and strengths of Stone’s project. The setting is the Situation Room, and all of the familiar players (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Wolfowitz, Rove, Bush) discuss what to do about Iraq. (In person, Stone persistently calls the former secretary of defense “Rumsfield.”) In the scene, several different characters deliver extended speeches explaining this or that point of view. The showdown between Powell (Jeffrey Wright) and Cheney (a marvelously restrained Richard Dreyfuss) is the scene’s climax. As before, statements known to be made in other places and at other times are heard to be uttered here, including the terms slam dunk and misunderestimated.

To Denby, Stone defended these quirks by pointing out the utter opacity of the Bush administration’s decision-making process until quite recently; only in the last two or three years have journalists produced books shedding light on these meetings. (Of course, herein lies the case for waiting until a president is out of office for such attempts at retrospective assessment.)

For all of his excesses, at heart Stone remains almost touching in his idealism. If one asks, “does Stone engage in character studies or works fomenting political change?” The answer I think must be that Stone believes the former to lead to the latter. That is, there is a faith at work here that if audience members can only grasp the “real” person in question (mediated in whatever fashion, using whatever dramatic shortcuts are necessary), then political change will result. And the ascent of Obama is at least a partial proof that the true nature of the Bush administration has penetrated the public at large.

Subtlety was never Stone’s strong suit; he’s the type who underlines words three times. Yet from all appearances this movie is not the hatchet job one might expect. And he’s not exactly fashionable right now, if that’s even the right term for Stone’s status during his peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His ability to impose his will on the national discourse is not what it once was. But despite it all, he puts himself on the line as much as in 1988; he has recently produced a documentary about Castro and has another project, since stalled, about My Lai, and mentioned Hugo Chavez and Ahmedinejad as potential future subjects. Somehow you’ve got to admire the old SOB.

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree