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In defining Bush, Oliver Stone goes where others fear to tread

June 29, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

SHREVEPORT, LA. — It's A conversation any father and son might have -- a quick chat about baseball, families and world affairs. But when the speakers are President George H. W. Bush and his son George W. Bush, even a seemingly innocuous conversation can suddenly carry great weight, especially when Oliver Stone is at the controls.

With sweat cascading down his face on a steamy June night in Louisiana, the Oscar-winning director was directing James Cromwell (playing the elder Bush) and Josh Brolin (starring as President Bush) through a critical moment in "W.," Stone's forthcoming -- and potentially divisive -- drama about the personal, political and psychological evolution of the current president. Although the father-son patter was ostensibly friendly, the subtext was anything but, hinting at the intricate parent-child relationship that Stone believes helps to explain George W. Bush's ascension.

While the Bushes in this scene from 1990 were talking about the Texas Rangers (of whom George W. once owned a share) and Saddam Hus- sein (against whom George H. W. was about to go to war in Kuwait), there was much more at stake, as Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser saw the fictional conversation unfolding.

"You need to back him down and take him out -- like you did Noriega," George W. tells his father about Hussein. The elder Bush wasn't sure he was going to be that rash. "You know I've always believed in leaving personal feelings out of politics," the 41st president told his son. "But Saddam -- this aggression cannot stand. Not gonna allow this little dictator to control 25% of the world's oil."

As the architect of the outspoken dramas "Platoon," "Salvador," "Wall Street," "Born on the Fourth of July" and "JFK," Stone stands apart as one of the most openly political filmmakers in a business where it's usually the actors who wear their beliefs on their sleeves. A longtime backer of Democratic candidates (recent donations include a gift to Sen. Barack Obama), Stone is either the oddest person to chronicle the life of the current president or the most inspired.

Whatever the verdict, the marriage of director and subject has left nearly as many people running for the sidelines as wanting to be a part of the director's undertaking.

Indeed, "W.'s" combination of story and filmmaker and the poor track record of recent biographical movies scared off at least three potential studio distributors and any number of actors, including, initially, star Brolin, and even Major League Baseball, which declined to cooperate with the production.

Yet as Stone guided Cromwell and Brolin across Shreveport's Independence Bowl stadium, doubling for the Rangers' home field, it was possible to see that "W." could be, in a complicated way, sympathetic.

The father was belittling a son, George H. W. cautioning George W. to stick to simple things: "Maybe better you stay out of the barrel," the senior Bush told his son, and leave the family's political legacy to younger brother Jeb. "Well, son, I've got to say I was wrong about you not being good at baseball," the father ultimately said, tossing him a scrap of a compliment.

The future president didn't quite get what the reproving "barrel" idiom meant, but he realized his father didn't respect him. Brolin took in the snub, but then his bearing grew determined: George W. would have to prove himself beyond anyone's imagining.

Stone said it's part of what drove the younger Bush into the White House: to show his doubters wrong. "Someone who could step into that path and out-father his father," Stone said in his air-conditioned trailer during a break in filming. Racing to film, edit and release the film before the November election, Stone was not always getting five hours' sleep. Even though it was nearly midnight and the crew was just finishing its lunch break, the 61-year-old director grew increasingly animated talking about "W."

"I love Michael Moore, but I didn't want to make that kind of movie," Stone said of "Fahrenheit 9/11." "W.," he said, "isn't an overly serious movie, but it is a serious subject. It's a Shakespearean story. . . . I see it as the strange unfolding of American democracy as I have lived it."

Stone, Brolin and the filmmaking team believe they are crafting a biography so honest that loyal Republicans and the Bushes themselves might see it. Given Stone's filmmaking history, coupled with a sneak peek at an early "W." screenplay draft, that prediction looks like wishful thinking.

Still, it's a captivating challenge: Can a provocateur become fair and balanced? And if Stone is, in some way, muzzling himself to craft a mass-appeal movie, has he cast aside one of his best selling points?

Locating an inner voice

Dressed IN a suffocating Rangers warmup jacket earlier on that scorching June day, Brolin kept running into an outfield wall, trying to make a heroic catch as part of the film's baseball-oriented fantasy framing device.

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