Ten years ago, Oliver Stone’s “W.” cast a critical eye on the second Bush presidency while Bush was still in office. With Josh Brolin as the charming, reckless naif at its center, “W.” fit right in with Stone’s ongoing look at the corruptive power of American government, and the complex network of mistakes that its leadership tends to make. Of course, in retrospect, the dysfunction portrayed in “W.” looks downright quaint compared to today’s climate — but Stone thinks that’s a misnomer. With the newly reissued 10th anniversary DVD of”W.,” he spoke to IndieWire about the impact of the Bush presidency, his relative ambivalence toward Donald Trump, and why he can’t make movies at the studio level like he used to.
Bush was still president when this movie came out. How would you say the context of “W.” changed since then?
We made the film in the last year of his presidency, but the film ends in 2004 when he goes into Iraq. We know it’s going to be a disaster and a tragedy. Certainly nothing changed. From my viewpoint, this whole 18 years since Bush has gotten elected has been a massive tragedy for the country, an endless global war on terror, a confusion of identities, an overbudgeting of the military, the militarization of the country, the police force. Everything that could’ve gone wrong went wrong in 2000. Frankly, it’s eating away at the country in a big way.
A lot of people say they miss Bush in the age of Trump.
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Of course, the media changes like the wind. I called it “man-made weather” in “Natural Born Killers.” Frankly, the media may have softened on W., but I don’t agree at all. I think he has been the root cause of this overall national failure.
I guess you’re not a fan of his paintings, then.
I don’t buy it. That doesn’t matter to me, that he’s a painter or that he comes to national events as an ex-president, and is respected. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just pomp and circumstance, parading around. The truth is that he was a disaster. He put this country into a deep hole. He’s put us in a national emergency basis, he had no experience to do that. We’ve completely lost our perspective as to what’s dangerous. Our national security has become an emergency as opposed to being the strongest country in the world, militarily.
We should not be scared, but we’ve operated out of fear, and our imagery has been manipulated to create constant fear. I don’t see any positive. The media is not going to change my view of Mr. Bush. I know that Mr. Trump is supposed to be far worse, but I just find that’s distraction. The macro forces are much more important here. We should be getting along and partnering with people — China, Russia, Iran — but instead, we’re making enemies. It’s not good.
What do you make of the speed of today’s news cycle? It seems like a lot of the controversial acts on the part of the presidency could fill one of your movies, but they’re here and gone in a day.
I’m not an expert on time, but it does seem ridiculous that it just goes faster and faster. I think we dealt with that on “Natural Born Killers” in 1994. If you look at the film closely, you’ll see the media is partly to blame for the sensationalization of violence. The same is true now. It’s superificializing most issues. It’s impossible to have a serious media. Of course, there are all these charges of fake news. I have to say, Trump has been pretty great at it. He’s like teflon. It just bounces off him. He’s been able to absorb the news cycle completely. It’s a trivialization, unfortunately, because nothing gets dealt with. The forces of economic change, like the ones suggested by Bernie Sanders, were ignored.
You made “W.” during the last year of the Bush presidency. Could someone make a similar movie about Trump?
Yes, but it’s too early. W. ended in 2004. I do think you need some perspective. There will be documentaries about Trump and so forth. I haven’t even seen a book that’s really intelligent about him. It seems like the books are more about the scandalous things he does. I haven’t read them all, but I think he’s a black hole. Everything goes into that hole. Our society is extremely image obsessed. I saw it in 1994. I thought the country was losing its marbles when the O.J. Simpson trial was going on. Remember when Clinton was being scandalized with all the impeachment bullshit, the sex trials? Meanwhile, we were bombing the shit out of Yugoslavia and no one cared. It was a disastrous mistake.
What do you make of the situation with Saudi Arabia right now?
We’ve always had the worst alliance with Saudi Arabia. It binds us with Israel. One of the most nefarious goals we have in our foreign policy is the destabilization of the Middle East. It’s a completely disaster. If Trump goes to war against Iran, or economic war, it’s going to lead to even more disaster.
What was your take on the Kavanaugh hearings?
Hearings are completely image-obsessed. I don’t think they’re healthy. They talk about details. It’s true that many of us get drunk and pass out. That’s not the issue. The bigger issues were what Kavanaugh had done as a human being — that he’d worked for Bush for so long and promoted the drone warfares, the torture programs. Everything that was illegal under Bush was also passed through him in some way. The papers were buried by one side, the Republicans. That’s what I found far more disturbing. Why can’t we air out this war on terror bullshit that we started under Bush? Why can’t we get to the bottom of it? Why couldn’t Obama end Guantanamo and torture? So much happened during those years, and American’s not looking at it. They’re looking at how the guy blacked out while he was drunk.
You made a whole string of politically themed movies at studios. How feasible is it for you to do that now?
It’s very hard to do. From 2000 on, I’ve had this obsession with national security, which I find sickening. In the Bush movie, you saw a lot of mentions of national security. In its name, you’re allowed to cover up anything. That’s not the right America. This country has lost its perspective in that sense. We’re the richest, most militaristic country, and yet we’re constantly scared that someone’s going to creep up on us and do us in. This is very sick.
I’ve done documentaries, but frankly, I probably couldn’t do films like I used to do because the climate has changed. Most of the films have to be pro-America, as opposed to being honest. Certainly all the military films have to get Pentagon approval. It’s very jingoistic. You can criticize, but you have to go lightly — you can show things, but you can’t show the basic mission being fucked up, you have to show that we can control the world and police it. I don’t agree with that.
You must have had some awkward studio meetings.
Yeah. Look at the corporate order we have. Clinton did us no favors by signing the Communications Act in 1995. He put into play this monopolization of media, so essentially corporations control what we think and say on television. The news we know is corporate news. But on the deeper level, it goes to all our culture, what PBS or Frontline puts their money into. You cannot go against the grain of American thinking. That’s wrong. There are other ways of doing business. There’s a Putin way, there’s a Chinese way, there’s an Iranian way. It may not be the American way, but that doesn’t make it evil.
But Putin jails journalists. That was the issue a lot of people had with your Showtime documentary about him.
It is what it is. It wasn’t media, it was a documentary, a Q&A. It was fresh for us to hear what most people didn’t want to hear. I’m glad I did it. It’s a document in time. I think it was prejudged. They cut me off on some of the networks, like NBC, because they just didn’t want to hear about it. I also did “Untold History of the United States,” which I put 12 years of my life into. That was a 12-hour documentary on Showtime that finally got onto Amazon and Netflix. But it’s a point of view that’s not aired in America, a history of the United States that goes back to 1896. It’s pretty radical. I think Howard Zinn would’ve liked it.
If American classrooms all had Howard Zinn on their curriculum, young people would have a very different impression of this country.
That’s true. It’s very hard to get into the education system, because again, it’s corporate owned. Corporations control the books that are allowed to be studied. They order those books. You can show a series like “Untold History” in the classroom, but as a book, you can’t get it out there.
What is your impression of “Vice,” the Dick Cheney movie coming out this year?
Who’s making that?
Oh, Adam McKay. He’s a good filmmaker. I hope he can tell the truth. I know that Sy Hersh is working on a book about Cheney. He can’t get it out now because there’s so much classified information. Cheney is a bad man. I put him into the “W.” film. I thought Richard Dreyfuss did a great job of creating that characterization. Everything that stinks about the Bush administration, you can go to Dick Cheney to get to the heart of it. I haven’t seen the Adam McKay film. Who’s playing Cheney?
Oh. Well. Adam did some good work with “The Big Short.”
How do you think the midterms will go?
I’m not a prognosticator. I try to think long-term. I would hope that it goes Democrat. I think the Democrats have provoked so much anger from the so-called base that they’re really fighting mad. Attacking Trump is not the right way to go. We have to have a measured response. It doesn’t really matter who wins unless we change our policies. We’ve supported terrorism. We’ve created this tremendous divide, with Russia, China, and Iran, that’s very dangerous. It won’t end well if we try to get our way.
That’s a very grim prediction.
That’s one of the reasons I was voting for Jill Stein. I thought that Hillary was going in the direction of backing Iran, and Russia, and being pro Israel, and we’ve gone too far with Israel. We’re following a madman with this fellow, Netanyahu, who has been a real disaster for the world — in the same sense of the Saudi Arabian prince Salman. He’s the same kind of monster. They’re two sick people, and they’ve got ahold of Trump now. I’m scared about it. Trump does not want war, I don’t think. He’s a businessman for whom making money is more important. But when he surrounds himself with people like Bolton and Pompeo, I get worried.
Meanwhile, your next narrative project, “White Lies,” sounds more like a personal project than anything with a political context. So are you taking a breather?
That is personal, yes. I don’t consider myself only a political dramatist. I consider myself a dramatist. You have to work inside a system to try and survive that system. I have some hopes to make more documentaries, but I really have no plans now.
Do you feel like you’re getting the financial resources for the projects you want to make?
No. “Snowden” was difficult. That was made with mostly German money, some American. “W.” had Lionsgate pre-“Hunger Games,” but it was also foreign money. But I’ve been here before. I’ve done 20 movies. Maybe I’ll make one or two more, but it’s tough. The climate has changed radically since corporations have become bigger and more powerful.