Does 'W' screenplay trip over its own words?
EmptyPresident George W. Bush is a foul-mouthed, reformed drunk obsessed with baseball, Saddam Hussein and the conflicted relationship with his dad. At least that's how he's portrayed in the script for Oliver Stone's upcoming feature "W."
But how accurate is that depiction?
As the film preps for its April 21 start date, The Hollywood Reporter sent a copy of the screenplay to four Bush biographers for their comments. The draft is dated Oct. 15, 2007, and has recently been circulated to talent, though a person close to the film said the script has since gone through at least two drafts.
Naturally, what a director does with a script is how a movie ultimately is judged, but because this screenplay depicts a sitting president and the run-up to the war in Iraq, its authenticity is becoming a hotly debated subject — not to mention the fact that any historical material Stone has touched has become controversial.
Reactions to the script from the biographers were mixed. They said specific scenes are largely based in fact but noted that the screenplay contains inaccurate and over-the-top caricatures of Bush and his inner circle.
"It leaves you with the impression that the White House is run as a fraternity house with no reverence for hierarchy, the office itself or for the implications of policy," said Robert Draper, author of "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George Bush." "Everybody calling everybody else nicknames and chatting about whether to go to war as if they were chatting about how to bet on a football game really misses the mark of how many White Houses, including this one, are run."
Jacob Weisberg ("The Bush Tragedy") was skeptical about Stone's claim that he wants to make "a fair, true portrait" of Bush. "His saying he is going to be fair to Bush is like Donald Trump saying he is going to be modest," Weisberg quipped.
"W," which is set to begin filming in Shreveport, La., with Bill Block's QED financing a budget of about $30 million, stars Josh Brolin and James Cromwell as Bush 43 and 41, respectively. The film is being closely watched in entertainment and political circles, in part because Stone has said his goal is to release it while Bush is still in office and possibly in time for the November election.
In the script — then titled "Bush" — the president's policy judgments often are manipulated by his White House staff, a depiction several of the biographers said does not ring true.
"The problem here is it goes to this notion of Bush as being the passive receiver of policy and the White House being run by (Dick) Cheney, (Donald) Rumsfeld, (Karl) Rove and others," Draper said. "Bush's adversaries have been ill-served by this belief that Bush is an observer to his own presidency. This notion that his schedule is driven by what's on ESPN is ludicrous."
The biographers were split on the accuracy of some eye-popping details in the screenplay, including scenes in which Bush nearly crashes a plane while under the influence of alcohol and another in which he tells wife Laura he wishes his father had not been elected president.
"That story was running around," said Skip Hollandsworth (Texas Monthly's "Born to Run" profile). "But he was extremely upset later about (Ross) Perot entering that race and very angry. That doesn't make sense."
Stone declined comment for this report. Screenwriter Stanley Weiser, who wrote "W" and also co-wrote Stone's "Wall Street," said, "I have no comment other than the fact that I have read 17 books on Bush."
Said Moritz Borman, one of the film's producers: "We've done our homework. 'W' will not be a documentary. It will be a compelling account of the actions and motivations of this president, fully guided by facts that have been established and documented."
What ends up in the final draft could have a big impact on the market for the film, whose financial prospects actually might depend on how many feathers it ruffles.
"Controversy can only help this film," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of boxoffice tracking firm Media by Numbers. "It's a tough marketing challenge because none of the politically charged films or films about the war have been doing well. But Oliver Stone's bread and butter is controversy. It's part of his brand."
Stone's previous presidential examinations, 1991's "JFK" and 1995's "Nixon," became cultural lightning rods. They grossed $70.4 million and $13.7 million domestically, respectively.
A film analyzing the life of a lame-duck president might be a tougher sell, especially if Americans are more interested in the man or woman who will replace him.
"But the country is in really rough shape," Dergarabedian said. "So maybe people will want to know how we got here and what Bush's legacy might be."
QED's Block acknowledged that controversy would help market the film, which he said he presold to some foreign distributors during the Berlin International Film Festival in February and will continue to sell at the Cannes market next month.
The QED CEO, who is also one of the picture's producers, said he was in talks with a major Hollywood studio to distribute it domestically. He declined to name the studio.
Because no domestic deal is in place, it is uncertain whether the movie will be released in North America before November. Such a release date would drop the picture squarely into the presidential election debate, where it likely would be picked apart by commentators across the political spectrum.
All four Bush biographers cast doubt on one scene in which a wave crashes on a rocky promontory as Bush reveals, "There's this darkness that follows me …"
"He doesn't think or talk like that," Weisberg said. "The darkness sounds like they've been listening to too much Springsteen. It doesn't ring psychologically true to me."
The movie, which cuts between past and present and follows Bush from his 20s to the White House, begins in the Oval Office with the president and his staffers discussing the term "axis of hatred" and deciding that "axis of evil" sounds better.
"That phrase did evolve," Weisberg said. "There was a funny debate about who got credit, which is hilarious when you think what a disaster it was."
The biographers were torn over the portrayal of Bush's relationship with Cheney, depicted as far more competitive than generally acknowledged. "Just keep your ego in check. I'm the president. I'm the decider," Bush tells Cheney privately at one point, employing the term he actually used in a news conference.
"What that gets wrong is, Cheney has been absolutely astute in reading Bush's insecurities, and Cheney knows very well how not to make Bush feel that his status as decisionmaker is in doubt," Weisberg said.
Peter Schweizer ("The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty") disagreed. "I would say: true on the conflict," he said. "I don't know specifically about the 'ego in check.' But there is no question you are dealing with strong personalities, and there was tension and conflict, as there was between George H.W. Bush and Reagan."
All four biographers confirmed the accuracy of one striking scene in which a young Bush challenges his father to a fistfight after coming home drunk. And while they recognized the nickname "Turdblossom" for Rove, they were less familiar with "Balloon Foot," which Stone's Bush uses for Colin Powell. And some felt that "Pooty Poot" for Vladimir Putin was taken from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, not Bush himself.
Overall, the biographers said they were not opposed to the story of America's 43rd president being told by Stone.
"I understand this is a movie, not pure history," Schweizer said. "But if Stone wants to portray this as an accurate accounting, he has some serious work to do."
Block, for one, said accuracy was vital to the filmmakers. "When you embark on something as important as this," he said, "the truth is extremely important, and Oliver is relentless about the truth and facts."
Added the QED exec: "It is not going to be simplistic at all. It is powerful and not trying to be skewed to the left but to be real. The truth is surprising and, frankly, shocking enough."