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'We Tried Not to Cross the Line of Truth'

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By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

NEW YORK -- Oliver Stone is perhaps best known as the purveyor of compelling cinematic narratives of JFK and Nixon that had a loose association with the historical record. This time around, he is eager for his audience to understand that he is a rigorous fact-checker.

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"Everything in the movie is annotated," Stone asserts during an interview Wednesday as he asks an assistant to retrieve a notebook containing the backup for all the scenes in "W.," his new biopic about George W. Bush, which opens Friday. The material will be posted on the movie's Web site, he says, and the world will see that though the director has taken certain liberties for dramatic effect, his basic findings and themes flow directly from the considerable body of work already published about Bush and his presidency.

"We're dramatists. I don't claim to be a historian or a documentarian," says Stone, looking intense and a tad disheveled the morning after the red-carpet premiere of his movie in Manhattan. "But we did read everything we could, and we tried not to cross the line of truth."

That proposition will surely be questioned for a movie that invents dialogue between Bush and his advisers in the Oval Office, speculates about the dreams that may haunt the president and presents a Freudian explanation for the invasion of Iraq as some kind of payback for a life-long series of resentments Bush has nursed against his dad, former president George H.W. Bush.

The release of "W." will also test whether there's any remaining commercial interest in a president whose approval ratings have bottomed out in recent months. By Stone's own telling, a number of Hollywood studios passed on the project, convinced there wasn't a market for a movie about Bush, leaving the 62-year-old director to finance the enterprise through foreign investors.

Even so, Stone is convinced that he still has a fantastic story to tell, the details of which he claims are still unknown by many Americans. "He's a character that you couldn't make up, bigger than fiction," Stone says, a fleck of his preppy upbringing in Connecticut and New York still audible in his voice. "He's bumbled his way into this mess -- into this extraordinary nightmare. Frank Capra could not make this up. He's the reverse of 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' "

"It's a great story, for Chrissake," Stone goes on. "Mark Twain would tell it. Dickens would tell it. How could you ignore this guy? They ask me about Obama and McCain every day. . . . God, these are pygmies compared to what he has done. They are going to live in his shadow for a while."

Stone's obvious interest in the psychological roots of his character, a fascination Bush and his father famously detest, has Bushworld ready to trash a project few have actually seen. "From what I have seen from the script and from I have seen of the trailers, this is how the lunatic asylum inmates would write it," says Karl Rove, Bush's onetime political adviser. "It is so laughable to suggest that the actions of this president are driven by a dysfunctional relationship with his father."

Asked for her reaction, White House press secretary Dana Perino says only that "The Post's readers will understand that we have more important things to do than comment on this ridiculous movie."

Still, Stone's movie is probably more nuanced than the president's defenders might expect from a director they see as a kooky left-winger. Stone has tried to debunk some of the traditional stereotypes about Bush -- in particular the notion that he's been led around by the nose by Dick Cheney or Rove. A number of scenes make clear Stone's view that Bush is the dominant player in these relationships and that Bush is shrewder than his critics will concede.

As portrayed by Josh Brolin, Stone's Bush, while perhaps goofier than the real president, also conveys the powerful charisma that propelled the onetime black sheep of the Bush family to the presidency after his alcohol-dominated younger days. "He's oddly likable," Stone says. "I am empathetic, not sympathetic."

The empathy may stem from some shared personal experiences. Both Bush and Stone grew up as the children of privilege (Stone was the son of a wealthy stockbroker). Both matriculated at Yale in 1964, though Stone would drop out and later volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam. Bush finished his degree and headed south, where he avoided the war by serving in the Texas and Alabama Air National Guard.


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