Will W. clumsily stoke the partisan flames, with Bush haters cheering and Bush lovers jeering, or will the infamously incendiary director upend our expectations? Are we in for a conspiracy-laden diatribe along the lines of JFK or something more sober and serious, like Nixon? To discuss all that and much more, editor Evan Smith and senior editor Jake Silverstein convened a diverse group (film critic, campaign strategist, screenwriter, presidential historian, indie film guru) over dinner at Louie’s 106, in Austin. On the menu: fact versus dramatic license, how to tell a story whose narrative arc is ongoing, and what the last scene should be before the credits roll.
Douglas Brinkley is an author and a professor of history at Rice University, in Houston. He has written biographies of Jimmy Carter and John Kerry, edited Ronald Reagan’s diaries and a three-volume collection of Hunter S. Thompson’s letters, and chronicled Hurricane Katrina’s effects on New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Matthew Dowd was a senior strategist for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and the chief strategist for the president’s reelection bid, in 2004. He currently serves as an analyst for ABC News and is the author of Applebee’s America: How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect With the New American Community.
Christopher Kelly , the chief film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram , is one of Texas Monthly ’s writers-at-large and the magazine’s Hollywood, TX columnist. He has written for Slate, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, Film Comment, Premiere, and numerous other publications. His first novel, A Push and a Shove , was published last year.
John Pierson , a clinical professor in the Radio, Television, and Film Department at the University of Texas at Austin, played a pivotal role in bringing the earliest work of filmmakers Spike Lee, Michael Moore, and Richard Linklater to the big screen. He is the author of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema.
Anne Rapp is a screenwriter who has spent sixteen years as a script supervisor on more than twenty feature films, from Tender Mercies to That Thing You Do . Her screenplays for Cookie’s Fortune and Dr. T and the Women were directed by Robert Altman. She also co-wrote the musical A Ride With Bob with Ray Benson, of Asleep at the Wheel.
1. Full Disclosures
SMITH: Let’s begin by stipulating that none of us have seen W. We’ve only seen the trailer and read stories about it, but that’s okay. We can still have an intelligent discussion before seeing the film.
DOWD: Well, you can make the argument that the film was made before seeing the end of the presidency.
SMITH: That’s right. So what I want us to get at is the theory of the film. Don’t we know, since this is an Oliver Stone movie about George W. Bush, everything we need to know? Don’t we know, without even having seen a frame of it, what its point of view is going to be?
KELLY: I think that’s a reasonable-sounding statement that Oliver Stone should be taking advantage of, because he’s certainly developed his reputation for being incendiary and left-wing. If he was smart, he would totally upend all of our expectations. The trailer we’ve seen certainly doesn’t suggest that he’s going to do that.
BRINKLEY: It’s almost irrelevant if we’ve seen the film. Oliver Stone is someone we all know. He’s made a series of films that have had a huge impact. At times, they’ve been frustrating for me as a historian, because I’ve found them to be historically inaccurate—but then what film in Hollywood is accurate? I look at an Oliver Stone film the way I look at a Michael Moore film: It’s incendiary. It’s something that’s meant to create controversy. There are people on the right who make similar films. When Mel Gibson does a film about Christ, people who haven’t seen it still get worked up.
PIERSON: Sight unseen, we don’t know if this is satirical or serious. Nixon is not satire in any way, shape, or form. It’s a very serious consideration in a nuanced way of Richard Nixon, someone Stone had been obsessed with for a long time. We don’t know, despite the trailer and the materials that are out there, what the tone of this film is going to be.
DOWD: I don’t think you need to know the answer. Has any Oliver Stone movie affected, in any kind of real way, how Americans think or what they believe about a president? Do his movies have any historical or present-tense value? They’re popular entertainment vehicles, but they don’t add anything to the historical view of presidents. And in the present day, I don’t think they’ve affected anyone’s view of a president.
KELLY: You don’t think people view the JFK conspiracy differently because of JFK the movie?
KELLY: I’m case study number one. I was in high school when that movie came out. It informs my understanding of the Kennedys more than anything I’ve ever seen.
DOWD: The average American already knew there was some weird, crazy conspiracy going on. They already thought, “Yeah, we don’t really know what happened—he gets shot, and there’s Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby.” I don’t think the movie added anything to that in Americans’ minds.
BRINKLEY: The Kennedy movie has had a profoundly negative effect. Nobody knows what John F. Kennedy’s policies were on foreign affairs or what he did with GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade]. They just know, “Well, I heard . . .” Stone’s history is often very schlumpy. But I admire the fact that the guy is a bomb thrower who makes us rethink things.
PIERSON: Just as a point of clarification, JFK isn’t really about the Kennedy presidency. It’s about Jim Garrison.
RAPP: There’s a line in Nixon that says