Here we go again. Hollywood is doing their best to meddle in the 2008 election — and tinseltown is already all atwitter: “Although Oliver Stone’s biopic on George W. Bush won’t start filming until next week in Shreveport, Louisiana, Lionsgate has picked up the rights and already set a release date — October 17th, 2008. You heard me right — they’re releasing W just a few weeks before the election!” This will be the third election in a row that a highly charged political film was released right before the nation heads to the polls, so I guess we can call it a trend.
Personally, I couldn’t be more excited. With political films now quadrennially in vogue, perhaps my agent can get someone to take a meeting about my script, Wide Stances, Narrow Minds: The Larry Craig Story. But on another level, I’m excited because the only thing more entertaining than a Hollywood summer blockbuster is watching Hollywood flail around in the political arena.
Oliver Stone’s new Bush biopic, starring Barbra Streisand’s son-in-law in the title role, is certainly shaping up to be entertaining, though likely not in the way he intends. Stone, the noted paranoiac visionary behind JFK and Nixon, will take a stab at tarnishing the legacy of George W. Bush by rushing out a film while he’s still in office. Conceived as a mean-spirited parody, the film projects to be laughably predictable.
We’re only three pages into the script, as previewed by Slate, when this scene introduces us to a young George W. Bush at Yale:
The script calls for young W. to pour “cheap vodka into a large garbage can” while a fellow pledge “mixes in orange juice.” Classy. Then W. “takes a snoot-full” (presumably of cocaine, though the script doesn’t specify) and sings the chorus of the Yale Whiffenpoof song: “We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way. Baa! Baa! Baa!”
How’s that for subtlety? Now, the extent of Bush’s youthful dalliances has been the subject of much speculation, but having Oliver Stone of all people sit in judgment of someone’s college drug use is a bit much. According to this book by Natural Born Killers producer-turned-liberal-blogger Jane Hamsher, Stone’s idea of “scouting locations” is scarfing hallucinogenic mushrooms and driving aimlessly around the desert — and that was when Stone was pushing 50.
But hey, we’re quoting selectively, right? Surely the script reflects the eventual growth and maturity of man who, whatever you think of his politics, got his act together well enough to become governor of Texas and eventually leader of the free world? Nope. Check out this sparkling dialogue on page 11 of the screenplay:
Bush: “We’ll move these terr’ists to Guantanemera.”
Bush: “Right. [Pause] Vice, when we’re in meetings I want you to keep a lid on it. Keep your ego in check. Remember, I’m the president.”
Scintillating. With character insights like that, the audience will feel like a fly on the wall of the Oval Office. Considering how terrible the W script seems to be, I’m puzzled by the logic behind rushing the film out before Election Day. After all, Hollywood has a lousy track record at influencing voters.
In 2000, Gary Oldman, one of the stars of The Contender, alleged in Premiere magazine that studio execs were using the film to manipulate the upcoming election. Supposedly, it was rewritten and re-edited, “turning the political drama upside down to make it mesh with their pro–Al Gore agendas.” Oldman claimed that his character — a Republican Senator — emerged far less honorable and sympathetic than originally scripted and filmed. Producer Douglas Urbanski backed Oldman, lamenting that, apparently, “you can’t have a film with a Republican character . . . who is at all sympathetic.”
The film hit theaters on October 13, weeks before the Bush/Gore election. And its plot was an allegory of the Clinton scandals. A female senator (Joan Allen) is nominated to serve as vice president after the current VP dies in office. Oldman’s evil Republican, seeking to place a friendly governor in the position, leaks a vicious rumor to the press. Allegedly, when Allen’s character was 19 — I wish I was making this up — she spent an evening being passed around the frat house.
Believe it or not, this film about a Congressional investigation to determine whether or not a senator once participated in an orgy was not a comedy. At least not intentionally. Oldman’s villain comes off as a southern, suspender-wearing Idi Amin. As the tough-guy Democratic president, Jeff Bridges chews so much scenery that he’s more termite than overactor. In one memorable scene, Bridges revels in the perks of office, telling Joan Allen’s character that he can call up the White House mess anytime to order anything. To prove it, he rings up a shark sandwich — he’s so tough, he eats sharks. In light of his performance, Bridges should have ordered a ham-handed sandwich.
There are no words to describe how bad The Contender is. Yet somehow, in the heady political atmosphere of 2000, a number of respected critics gave the film positive reviews. Oscar nominations for Allen and Bridges followed. Those involved in the film even thought it might tip the race for Gore, such was their hubris at the time. For that to have happened, of course, people would have needed to see the movie. But it bombed at the box office, failing even to recoup its budget on initial release.
More folks saw Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 — a box office smash that took in a record $119 million, unheard-of for a documentary. That film was also trumpeted as the death blow to the Bush campaign. Moore was so insistent about the film’s mission to unseat Bush, he encouraged piracy of the film on the Internet to reach the maximum number of eyeballs.
Fahrenheit 9/11 was such a sensation, though, that the more people saw it, the more it was justly criticized. Moore’s film was geared toward a narrow left-wing audience, and thus was larded up with flimsy conspiratorial nonsense about Bush family business dealings and terror connections, rather than serious political critiques. The film’s exploitation of a grieving family whose son died fighting in Iraq — taking them to the White House to film their tears and scattershot rage — remains unforgivable. Despite its box-office success, Fahrenheit 9/11 obviously failed to unseat Bush — but it did inspire the creation of a cottage industry to point out factual errors in Moore’s films. However devout his core audience, Moore’s documentaries are now dead-on-arrival when it comes to influencing opinion.
The propaganda blitz to end the Iraq war is Hollywood’s most recent failure at playing politics. If you’ve seen Redacted, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Stop Loss, Lions for Lambs, Home of the Brave, etc. — judging by their box-office receipts, my guess is you haven’t — you’ve been hit over the head so often, you probably wear a hard hat. Hollywood keeps pounding away at the military, though: In August, Academy Award–winning screenwriter Alan Ball will release a new flick he’s directing that centers on an abusive pedophile veteran of the first Iraq war who rapes a young girl of Middle Eastern descent. It’s called Towelhead, in case my brief plot synopsis doesn’t do justice to the film’s understated allegory. Expect that feel-good summer popcorn movie to do boffo box office.
Oliver Stone’s W is heir to this wretched Hollywood tradition. America’s movie moguls seem to think they can not only insult our intelligence, but remake it in their own image. Indicting the judgment of more than half of your potential audience doesn’t generally serve the goals of influencing votes or selling movie tickets. However unpopular he is now, the majority of the country voted for George W. Bush, and has supported the Iraq war. That doesn’t mean films shouldn’t be made that are critical of America or its leaders — quite the contrary. But political filmmakers take note: If you can’t respect the President, the least you can do is respect your audience.
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.