Through most of the undistinguished history of films about American presidents, concern for truth has been in short supply. From "Young Mr. Lincoln" (1939) to "Wilson" (1944) to "Sunrise at Campobello" (1960) to "The Missiles of October" (1974), to the many other, often cheap and cheesy films that populate cable television and direct-to-video products, the purpose of these movies has mostly been hagiography, propaganda or both. "Young Mr. Lincoln" (with Lincoln played by Henry Fonda) portrayed a saintly lawyer engaged in an idealized and implausible battle for justice. "Wilson" is a mediocre and now justly forgotten film that won five Academy Awards because of its usefulness to the debate over the aftermath of World War II. "Sunrise," drawn from a Broadway play, was a tribute to Franklin Roosevelt's courageous conquest of polio (a conquest that in reality never occurred) and a portrayal of a "great American love story" that was in fact the story of a broken marriage never repaired. "The Missiles of October" conveyed not the muddled confusion of a seemingly intractable crisis, but a stark moral conflict in which wisdom defeated rashness.
Oliver Stone, whose new film, "W.," is his third examination of a modern president, has aspired to be different. His first two presidential films—"JFK" (1991) and "Nixon" (1995)—were products of the fascinations of his youth, but also of his attraction to the conspiracy theories that have washed over the memories of both presidents. Speaking with me last week, Stone referred to "JFK" as his "j'accuse" film—and rightly so. It latched onto some of the most explosive and least well documented of all the Kennedy assassination theories, alleging an effort by the CIA and perhaps even Lyndon Johnson to assassinate Kennedy so as to prevent Kennedy from ending the Vietnam War or making peace with Cuba or blocking opportunities for others to lead.
"Nixon," according to Stone, was a "sober, winter" movie that attempted, mostly empathetically, to capture the loneliness and occasional despair of an unloved man. In it, too, Stone connected his subject to the documented conspiracies that helped destroy his presidency, as well as to other plots for which there is little credible evidence. Both these films were accompanied by elaborately annotated books to display the extensive research that shaped the screenplays. Both have been highly controversial with historians and others who have questioned the reliability of Stone's sources and the plausibility of the conspiracies he appears to embrace. But credible or not, Stone set out in these films to make real contributions to history, or as he put it, "to help create an understanding of our time." He stands by the accuracy of his work and does not often use the easy excuse of "it's just a movie."
Portraying a sitting president may be an even harder task. As often as not, large portions of such efforts are later contradicted by archival research. Political passions often shape interpretations. Warren G. Harding was mourned as if he were Lincoln when he died in 1923; history now sees him as one of our most inept and oafish presidents. Dwight D. Eisenhower was dismissed as a dull mediocrity by historians in the 1950s and 1960s; his reputation today is very high. But the popular appetite for immediate conclusions about presidents and other leaders is almost irresistible, so it's little wonder that filmmakers, like many historians, rush to enter the fray.
Almost all of Stone's important movies are dark and pessimistic, reflections of his own (and much of his generation's) disillusionment with American politics and power. So it is somewhat surprising to see in his portrait of George W. Bush a relatively sunny and sympathetic picture of perhaps the most reviled president in American history. Stone claims that almost everything in the film is based on solid research—that all of the scenes, with the exception of a few dream sequences, can be reliably verified. (A Web site making his sources clear is under construction.) Stone is certainly not an admirer of Bush. He is appalled by the administration. It has, he argued, "upset and endangered the world … There is no end to their arrogance … Their policies are insane." But he also claims to find Bush strangely and somewhat perversely likable. He is, Stone said, "impatient, narrow-minded … a bully," but also "magnetic … a good father, good husband and good friend."
Opponents and supporters of Bush alike will find things to complain about in "W." Bush haters will be startled, and perhaps irritated, by Stone's sympathetic portrait of the young Bush—convincingly portrayed by Josh Brolin—who struggles with (and sometimes bravely stands up to) the intimidating example of his father. (In the film, Bush Sr. continually belittles his son and at one point almost engages him in a fistfight.) Viewers may be annoyed as well by Stone's uncensorious and even admiring chronicle of Bush's struggle to overcome alcoholism and his embrace of Christianity, and by the director's portrayal of Bush's 1994 campaign for governor as a skillful and charismatic effort (albeit carefully orchestrated by Karl Rove). Stone's portrayal of earnest, idealistic conviction among Bush and his advisers about the wisdom of the Iraq War is also inconsistent with the widespread belief that zealotry, deception and ambition were the real drivers of the conflict.
The president's dwindling body of admirers will likely resent the portrayal of Bush's occasional scrapes with the law. ("Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?" the senior Bush asks contemptuously as he deals with one of W's many screw-ups.) While Stone may respect Bush's ability to overcome alcoholism, he dismissively notes that "the drinking stops, but the recklessness stays." Bush cements his relationship with Laura by ramming his car into a garage door because she has criticized a weak campaign speech in his first, unsuccessful campaign for Congress. And some loyalists will take umbrage at Stone's merciless portrayal of a highly vulnerable Bush at a White House press conference, trying and failing to answer a question about what mistakes he had made—stumbling, hesitating, evading and later reproaching himself for his inarticulateness.
In one of Stone's dream scenes, W confronts his own failure in Iraq and faces once again his father's withering disappointment; and toward the end of the film, Stone occasionally portrays Bush much as he portrayed Nixon, as a depressed and lonely man tortured by his unpopularity. In the prevailing image of George W. Bush, nothing is more entrenched—and more admired by his supporters—than his serene self-confidence, his refusal to second-guess, his unwillingness to reconsider convictions or decisions. But Stone presents him as a man beset with insecurities. "I dug myself out of the depths of hell to stand on my own two feet," he shouts at one point in the film when things are going badly, as if his frustrations and failures were somehow unfair given how hard he had worked to redeem himself.
People on either side of this uniquely polarizing figure may be uncomfortable with the naive optimism that Stone attributes to Bush in his decision to go to war—his sincere belief that he is advancing "freedom," transforming the Middle East for the better and bringing peace to the world. In a scene portraying an Oval Office meeting, Colin Powell defends the containment doctrine that had shaped and restrained American foreign policy for more than 50 years, including in the 1991 gulf war that Bush's father refused to extend into Iraq. W dismisses containment, brusquely and almost contemptuously, as a doctrine of weakness and moves decisively and seemingly heedlessly toward the decision for war. Stone implies that this was all part of an effort to outdo his father, but he simultaneously suggests that the president was acting in response to his own deep convictions. "There's good and there's evil," the film version of W says as the war approaches. "Good always wins out, but you have to fight for it."
Stone insists that he was "not out to demean or hurt the man … We set out to show his reasoning for the Iraq War." And the film does make a plausible case that Bush himself conceived, promoted and justified the war, fought off objections to it and did not simply acquiesce to the arguments of others. In a particularly eerie scene with Dick Cheney (brilliantly played by Richard Dreyfuss), the Iago-like vice president ingratiatingly places an authorization to torture prisoners before Bush, confident that he will sign it without objection, only to be questioned sharply by the president before leaving empty-handed. As he goes, Bush tells him that in the future, when they are with other people, Cheney is not to talk. This imagined encounter between an almost pathologically secretive older man and his gregarious younger boss suggests a more complex and competitive relationship between the two men than the conventional vision of Bush as a passive enabler.
Stone, like most others trying to chronicle their own time, has undoubtedly made educated guesses about Bush that will turn out to be wrong. But "W." is, nevertheless, different from most earlier movies about presidents (including Stone's own). Whatever its qualities as a dramatic film may be, however its portrayal of Bush may fare in the light of history, it is on the whole an honest effort to find some truth in the blizzard of partisan battles over almost everything associated with this presidency. There are no conspiracy theories, no wild speculations, no paranoia. Stone's film is not hagiography. It is not propaganda. It is, surprisingly, more or less fair.