Friday, October 17, 2008

Oliver Stone has proclaimed that his new feature film “W.” aims to be an “empathetic” psychological portrait of President Bush.

The president’s younger brother has a different impression.

At the heart of “W.,” opening nationally in theaters Friday, is a psychological portrait of George W. Bush as living perpetually in the shadow of his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and driven to invade Iraq at least in part by a desire to prove he is as tough as the elder statesman.

“The Oedipal rivalry is high-grade, unadulterated hooey,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told The Washington Times.

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Exploring such a complicated family dynamic might have benefited from direct conversations with, say, the president’s younger brother who, in the telling of Mr. Stone and his “W.” screenwriter, Stanley Weiser, was regarded by his parents as the more promising sibling.

“I didn’t receive a call,” Jeb Bush said.

Likewise, many of the other central characters in the film say that neither Mr. Stone nor Mr. Weiser made any effort to contact them, check facts or get their input on events they witnessed firsthand.

The collaborators, who did not return calls seeking comment from The Times to the agency that is spearheading publicity for the film in the Washington, D.C., area, appear to have relied heavily on secondary sources such as Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial” and Stephen Mansfield’s “The Faith of George W. Bush.”

Mr. Weiser told Reuters news agency earlier this year that he read 17 books about the president while researching the film. Yet the movie lacks any eyewitness verification - even for incendiary charges that the Bush administration, especially Vice President Dick Cheney, exploited the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and exaggerated the threat of Iraqi nuclear capability to establish hegemony over the Middle East and Eurasia, regions rich in the oil that would fuel a 21st-century American empire and deter emerging rivals like China.

Keith Urbahn, spokesman for former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said: “No one from the film gave us a call. Donald Rumsfeld has neither the intention nor interest in seeing ‘W.’ Judging from what I’ve seen from the trailer, it doesn’t seem like veracity and the historical record were high on Stone’s priority list.”

“W.” is what the publishing world would call an “unauthorized biography.” It purports to be not necessarily a literal historical re-enactment but, rather, a vehicle for informed speculation and the revelation of psychological and symbolic truth.

Still, the film carries no disclaimers warning viewers to expect deviations from historical realism in the interests of narrative economy or dramatic “truth.”

In contrast, the TV miniseries “The Path to 9/11” - criticized by leading Democrats for making the Clinton administration appear negligent in its response to al Qaeda - carried an extensive disclaimer warning viewers, among other things: “The movie is not a documentary. For dramatic and narrative purposes, the movie contains fictionalized scenes, composite and representative characters and dialogue, as well as time compression.”

It is not unusual for filmmakers to seek firsthand testimony on productions based on real events; such cooperation need not entail explicit “authorization” or a right of script approval. Both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for example, have provided consultants and technical experts on myriad Hollywood features without exerting ultimate control over their content.

Mr. Stone has a reputation as an antiwar liberal, and the president and his top aides had little interest in promoting his movie by responding to it.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said, “I think your readers would understand that we don’t have time to comment on Mr. Stone’s latest endeavor.”

But not even Colin L. Powell, the secretary of state during Mr. Bush’s tumultuous first term, who comes off in “W.” as something of a heroic internal dissident, received a call from Mr. Stone and Co.

At press time, Mr. Powell was traveling abroad, but his spokeswoman, Peggy Cifrino, said: “We have never heard from Mr. Stone, nor had any contact with anyone associated with the making of the film.”

Actor Rob Corddry, who plays Ari Fleischer, did contact, on his own initiative, the former White House press secretary for tips on how best to fill the role.

Mr. Fleischer said that, while “I’m a fan of Rob Corddry, he’s a great guy, I declined to do it.” He doubted Mr. Stone was making the movie in good faith. “I believe in President Bush,” Mr. Fleischer said.

“Hollywood exhausts everybody,” he added. “It pretends to be serious, but it’s just an anti-Republican, anti-Bush bastion that is making an October campaign contribution to Barack Obama.”

Whatever their personal political preferences, Hollywood executives saw “too risky” written all over the “W.” script as it was being developed. Political thrillers dealing with the Iraq war and terrorism have largely tanked at the box office — and “W.” seemed destined for a similar fate.

A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that Mr. Stone was forced to turn to foreign investors to finance the production and help pay for marketing.

One thing is certain: Mr. Fleischer and the rest of the gang dramatized by Mr. Stone aren’t likely to be altering their weekend plans to fit in a screening of the director’s latest film.

“I’ve got a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old,” Mr. Fleischer said. “I’m busy. I think I’ll change my sock drawer instead.”

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