- Oliver Stone spoke to Business Insider for the 10th anniversary of his George W. Bush biopic, “W.”
- The filmmaker reflected on “W.” and the impact of US militarization, compared the Bush and Trump administrations, and discussed his recent documentary series, “The Putin Interviews.”
As a veteran of the Vietnam War, Oliver Stone has a distinctly critical view of war and of US militarization.
Reflecting on the legacy of George W. Bush’s presidency as it relates to our current socio-cultural moment, Stone spoke to Business Insider in a recent phone interview for the 10th anniversary of his 2008 Bush biopic, “W.”
Labelling Bush the “worst president we’ve ever had,” Stone discussed the release and reception of “W.” and how he approached it, along with the two other presidential biopics he’s released in “Nixon” and “JFK.”
The filmmaker also touched on his recent documentary series of interviews with Vladimir Putin, “The Putin Interviews,” and how increased militarization in the US is “far more dangerous” than President Trump.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
John Lynch: I’ve read that you sort of rushed to produce “W.” Why did you feel you needed to make and release it during Bush’s presidency?
Oliver Stone: Actually, no. I made it at a time that I felt we should make it. In 2008, we were in the middle of the Iraq War. We were not going to get out. I saw that it was a complete disaster. So, Stanley Weiser and I wrote with the idea that the film would end in 2004. We were not trying to make a current history. We were going back four years. When he goes into Iraq, the film ends because we know it’s going to go badly. We kind of leave it at that. He has failed. We sense that in the parallel story with his father, and so forth, and in his own life.
Although he’s an empathetic character, I think we understand him because he’s stupider than us in some ways, or at least much of the audience. You kind of feel like he’s a klutz. And it was always done as kind of a satire, somewhere on the edge of humour, so it wouldn’t be rubbing raw in the political wounds of the country. That was the idea. And in that sense, it was never intended [to be] as heavy a film as “Nixon” was, or “JFK,” for example, because frankly, he wasn’t at that same level of thought. I called him at the time a two-dimensional character, as opposed to Nixon’s three dimensions. I was trying to explain that he is a victim of his own limited worldview. He sees the world as a black-and-white cowboy movie, but the people around him, Cheney and so forth, are a different breed and darker.
But the idea was, get it out, because it’s just not going to get any better. We could have released it in Obama’s administration, but the film was made at a budget when Lionsgate was not as big a company. That was pre-“Hunger Games,” as I remember. So they were in a rush to get it out because they thought it was timely. Now [laughs], that was really bad thinking because, frankly, no one foresaw the economic crisis of 2008, which was a disaster in September, and if you remember, we came out in October. We were finishing making the film and then the economics hit. I was hoping the opposite. I was hoping that it would be an argument in 2008 between Obama and McCain about national security. But that argument got buried in the dramatics of the economic meltdown.
Lynch: You said in an interview at the time of the film’s release that you wished Bush had enlisted in Vietnam because he “would have seen history in a different light” and “didn’t understand the nature of war.” Could you elaborate or reflect on that?
Stone: Well, that’s always the case. John Kennedy had been to war. He’d been in a very tough situation, and he’d seen men die. He understood the gravity of it. And he was the last president, as I know, who served. No, Bush did. The father. George H.W. Bush. But there was a seriousness about him, and you didn’t see that in his son, George W., who skipped Vietnam. He dodged it with his shaky Texas airguard bulls—. Or Alabama, wherever he was. It was a horrible story, and I think CBS got killed for it, but they really had the story. But that’s another story.
Bush was a juvenile about it. As was Cheney, who had a deferment. Rumsfeld did serve, but he’s a bloodhound, one of those right-wing guys who’ll never change. But Cheney and Bush were living in another reality, where you can move things around, invade a third-rate power like Iraq, and call it a victory, and “Mission Accomplished,” and all that, and in the process destabilize the entire Middle East, which is still going on. The same thing is true of Trump, which worries me. And, to some degree, Obama. But Trump himself, he dodged Vietnam with some kind of medical excuse, as I remember. You know, there’s reason to worry. We need people who are tested and have seen battle. Not that we want right-wing people like McCain in office. Absolutely not. But we need people who have heart and soul after war. It’s very important that they serve the country.
Lynch: Many reviewers at the time of the film’s release called “W.” a sympathetic portrayal of Bush, but I really think it’s a stark reminder of his failures. Especially now, when there’s almost a desire in the media to portray Bush as a sympathetic figure, compared to Trump – how do you see your portrayal in retrospect?
Stone: Jesus Christ. What a distortion that is. First of all, let me just say, it was done as an empathetic portrayal, which is to say, as a filmmaker, I’m making a drama. I’m not making a documentary. So, I’m walking in the shoes of. As a dramatist, that’s my job, to understand the person. Nixon, also, I was not in favour of or sympathetic to, but I certainly tried to understand him. The same is true of W. It’s very important to realise that there’s a difference between empathy and sympathy. But that was unfortunately not understood. Certainly, in all my public statements, I was not at all in favour of anything he did. He was a disaster for the country in his reaction to 9/11. Everything he did set the whole tonality of this century. 18 years of Bush. Worst president we’ve ever had. But in line with the mentality of Reagan and the people who started it in the 1980s.
To say that Trump is similar is ridiculous because it trivialises the situation. Trump could get more serious if he goes to war in Iran, absolutely. But we’re not there yet. He’s got enough nutcases around him between Bolton and Pompeo that I would worry very, very much. But to say that he’s George Bush is to miss the point. You’ve got to look back at George Bush, and look at the movie, for example, and see what an idiot we had as a president, and understand what a mess he put us into. We have not gotten out of Iraq. We have not gotten out of Afghanistan. We have not gotten out of the War on Terror, this global war on terror, which is the greatest fiction since the Cold War back in 1945. It drove me crazy, his administration, and it made me do “Untold History of the United States” in 2008. It took me until 2013. Came out on Showtime, 12 hours long. It’s on Netflix now, and Amazon, and so forth, and it’s the most powerful documentary I’ve ever made. It goes from 1896 to 2013 with Obama. Obama could not make a countermove. That was the problem. Obama could have been the difference maker, but he wasn’t. He followed the policies of Bush, as Ari Fleischer himself said, in 2012 or ’13. He said, the guy has done what Bush would have done.
Lynch: Bush recently reappeared to whip votes for Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. You tweeted recently that Kavanaugh is “everything I disliked about Yale when I left in ’65.” I was wondering, is Bush that too? And what is it about Yale that you disliked?
Stone: Oh, it wasn’t specific to Yale. I went there. I got in, and my father had been. I never met Bush there, but he is a kind of entitled personality that was one of the reasons I left. I felt there was a lot of that going on. It was all-male when I went there, too. So you had a lot of legacy candidates, people who were C students, who in a way had it made, who knew where they were going in their life. I was the opposite. I was 19, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I was very much into experience and finding out. So the best thing I ever did, probably, was leave after my freshman year.
But I ran into Bush later in time, when he was running for office, and he was the one who reminded me that he was there with me [laughs]. I mean, in person, you can’t not like him. He’s a character. He’s got a comedic side, you know. He’s kind of goofy, is what I’m trying to say, like he was in the movie. You won’t dislike him like you would a Cheney or Rumsfeld. But that doesn’t make him any good.
Lynch: In making “W.,” you drew on the behind-the-scenes books and exposés that were written about Bush’s administration. You’ve touched on this a bit, but how do you think those accounts compare to the accounts we’ve seen thus far on Trump?
Stone: I don’t know quite how to answer that, because the books on Trump so far have not been heavy. I haven’t read them all, but they seem more like out for a quick buck, you know, a shark bite, blood in the water kind of thing. Because it’s easy with Trump. The problem with Trump is that he absorbs the news. And as a result, it trivialises the news. So now, in this media, we all end up talking about Trump, which is a huge mistake, as opposed to talking about the forces, the “macro” forces that are running the thing that are far more dangerous than this guy.
He’s dangerous, yes. But having a military budget the size we do in proportion to every other country in the world is insane. I keep going to the militarization of this country as being the most dangerous thing that’s going on, in my opinion, having been in the military. This thing we do, naturally, where we just hike the budget and give the military everything they want, and they spend it and waste it, and it’s not going into the health of this country. That is the major thing that is going wrong. Health, education, welfare, all these things are crucial, and we’ve lost sight of that. So I think that’s far more revolutionary and radical than a contempt for management, for government, for the good things that the government can do.
Lynch: Your most recent work, “The Putin Interviews,” I found riveting, and toward the end, particularly hard-hitting. What did you take away from his perspective of power?
Stone: Whose perspective?
Lynch: From Putin’s.
Stone: Ah, “particularly at the end,” you said? OK. I’ll tell you, Putin is the most mature statesmen in the whole world right now. He’s been there for four American presidents, since Clinton. He’s learned in office. He was a technocrat when he got in on Yeltsin’s appointment, and he worked his way into this knowledge. He’s been everywhere, met everybody. And he sees the world as needing balance. It’s not a uni-polar world, dominated by the United States. He’s been very clear about that since he made that speech in Munich in 2007. He’s been very clear that we need balances of regional power. Unfortunately, the United States just doesn’t want to believe that.
That’s what makes it a dangerous situation, because we’re slipping as an empire, economically – certainly not militarily, but we’re slipping. And it’s our military side that scares the sh– out of me, because when you slip, when you feel like you’re no longer number one, as we tend to be arrogant, that’s when you become very dangerous. Somehow we have to learn that we don’t have to be number one. We can be partners with the world [laughs]. That’s what I think Putin sees, very clearly. And he’s trying to counter it in every way he can to keep his own region alive. He’s in jeopardy. I mean, we have had our sights on him heavily since 2007 or 2008.
Lynch: You did press Putin, though, in the interviews, about why he’s stayed on for as long as he has, comparing him to other world leaders who have held power for decades. Why did you push him on that aspect?
Stone: Well, it’s certainly a question that Americans will automatically think of him as a dictator and so forth. I don’t see him as that at all. I see him as a man who is an authoritarian, and he’s achieved great respect in Russia. By the polls in Russia, which are supposed to be accurate, everyone has said that they were internationally, he is popular. Not so much because of his pension plan, now, but he is very popular because of what he’s done. And he did it by the law of Russia, which was of course, two terms, and then he became prime minister, and then went back to being president for two more. So he’s doing his fourth term, which is what Roosevelt did, by the way. I think he’s been in the equivalent sense a Roosevelt for that country, and he’s very much admired. I don’t think it’s going to be easy for him to go beyond his four terms. I think he’s going to have issues. But I do think he’s created enough of a political system that will work in his absence. He doesn’t have to rig elections, no.
Lynch: In your films on US presidents, you’ve said that Nixon was a three-dimensional character, Bush a two-dimensional character, but that you were able to find humanity and empathy in both as characters. Could you find that same level of humanity in Trump to do a movie on him, or would you have no interest?
Stone: Sure. I mean the interest is something else, because I don’t know if I do. But certainly, I think everyone has a human side. Even the worst of them, the Stalins, and the Hitlers. I mean, come on, everyone has humanity. No, absolutely. But whether I want to spend the time doing it, no. And also, whether you could do it, because financially the system has changed for me. It’s become worse, and partly because of Clinton’s communications act in 1995, that was no favour to the film business. In other words, everything became bigger, more monopolistic. You can’t have corporations controlling everything that’s being made in America, on television and in movies. You can’t. These corporations are killers.
If you look closely, after 2001, it’s harder and harder to be critical of the United States, in our system, in our television or film system. You can show killing, you can show everything, rape, violence, all that, but you cannot criticise the government and the military, and so forth. These are control points. [sighs deeply]. I mean, I got into trouble just for doing documentaries on Chavez and Castro, and the South American revolution in 2008.
Lynch: Is there anything you can tell me about what you have in the works going forward, what you’re interested in?
Stone: Well, not really. I’m kind of quiet about that. I’ve been quiet. It’s been a long haul. I’ve done 20 movies. “Snowden” was my last one, and that was a tremendous amount of work, and very critical of our cyber warfare issues, and so forth. And Snowden is an admirable figure. As is Julian Assange, who has completely been black-balled here. But the point is, that “Snowden” film was made with difficulty with French and German money, and very little American money, and didn’t get a great distribution either, in America. So, it was tough. It’s tough to make those kind of movies. They take a lot out of you.
I did “Putin,” as you know. Thank God Showtime gave it a break. Where am I going to go now? I don’t know. We’ll have to see, if it’s doable. Also, I’m 72 years old. I’m not that young [laughs]. But I don’t know that you can say things that you could say. We have more choice, yeah, but it’s a narrower target. They don’t allow you to do things. Unless you’re doing things that are socially acceptable, like documentaries attacking Putin, yes, that’s fine, you can do that. Or attacking Trump, and so forth. But there is sort of a political correctness in the air that is very difficult for me to work in.
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