THE POPCORN REEL PRESENTS IN THE WORKS: OLIVER STONE'S "W"

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Josh Brolin as America's 43rd president, in pictures released by Entertainment Weekly magazine, which hits newsstands on May 12, the day that Oliver Stone's "W" begins production.    

Mr. President, I Presume?

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

May 10, 2008
 
Josh Brolin is wading into some hefty (or shallow) political waters these days.  Back in January and February he was busy playing San Francisco City Hall board member Dan White, the assassin of that city's Board of Supervisors president Harvey Milk in 1978, in Gus Van Sant's "Milk", which should be ready for release by year's end in the U.S. and Canada.  Now he is about to get in deep playing another notorious and polarizing political figure: George W. Bush, the current U.S. president, in Oliver Stone's "W", which Lionsgate announced yesterday would be released in the U.S. and Canada on October 17, just three weeks before the U.S. presidential election (which as of this writing is all but certain to be contested between John McCain and Barack Obama.) 

Mr. Brolin had a banner 2007 with no less than five films, including the Oscar-winning "No Country For Old Men" and "In The Valley Of Elah" and with his roles as controversial political figures in "Milk" and "W" will no doubt be the talk of the movie town once again. 

He takes on the much-imitated Mr. Bush in Mr. Stone's film (which begins filming on Monday May 12 in Louisiana), a film which the director says will treat the president fairly, if not with complete and utter respect.  As detailed in next week's Entertainment Weekly, "W" will chronicle the early days of George W., from the days of sadness resulting from the death of his sister and his physical-skip-out in the Texas Air National Guard, drug-addled stupors and drunkenness, along with First Lady Laura Bush's accidental running-over of her childhood friend), to rising from under the imposing shadow of his father to the improbable (and much-disputed) presidency of the United States of America in 2000 despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore and having America's top court overrule the Florida Supreme Court's ruling allowing a recount of several Florida counties, an ironic, and in the eyes of many lawyers and law students, dangerous reversal of the long-recognized American constitutional principle of state's rights.  (For the record, on May 25 HBO, another Time Warner company will be airing "Recount", a made-for-television movie about the 2000 U.S. presidential election and the 37 dramatic and arduous days that followed.  "Recount", which boasts a cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary, John Hurt and Bob Balaban, will be repeated on May 26.)

Mr. Stone, who has insisted that "W" is not being put out as some kind of October Surprise to help influence the November 2008 U.S. presidential election, intimates that he wants the celluloid record to be reflected.  In a statement released yesterday, the 61-year-old director of such films as "World Trade Center", "Platoon", "Heaven And Earth", "Wall Street", "Natural Born Killers" and "Any Given Sunday", said: "The impact of George W. Bush's presidency will be felt for many years to come.  Despite a meteoric, almost illogical rise to power, and a tremendous influence on the world, we don't really know much about Mr. Bush beyond the controlled images we've been allowed to see on TV.  This movie's taking a bold stab at looking behind that curtain."  Mr. Stone praised Lionsgate, the studio that released "Fahrenheit 9/11" and distributor of "W" domestically and in Canada as well as in the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, for having "the independence necessary to bring this provocative story to an American audience."
 
Mr. Stone is no stranger to American presidential chronicles ("JFK" and "Nixon") or provocation, or controversy himself, and with Mr. Brolin has shrewdly casted the lead role.  Mr. Brolin did a brief imitation of Chiwetel Ejiofor (whom he met on the set of "American Gangster") when this writer spoke with Mr. Brolin last Halloween for "No Country For Old Men".  When told of the episode in March of this year, and that Mr. Brolin said that the writer reminded him of the "Inside Man" actor, Mr Ejiofor laughed heartily.  George Walker Bush is not, as Mr. Brolin insists in the interview with EW, someone he is trying to lampoon -- Mr. Brolin is, like any other actor, trying to portray a figure whom everyone has an opinion about.
 
Everyone. 

Due mainly to the irreversible events of the last eight years, the current U.S. president has become an unwitting movie star of sorts, partly because of his well-celebrated and oft-lampooned ability to come up with the choicest malapropisms during public speeches.  (One such example: "We got an issue in America.  Too many good docs are getting out of business.  Too many Ob-Gyns aren't able to practice their, their love with women all across this country.")  While in American filmmaking circles Michael Moore has been the primary cinematic source of the rage against the current commander-in-chief ("Fahrenheit 9/11" in particular, and "Bowling For Columbine" and "SiCKO" in general), there are numerous documentaries and films in which he is referenced or seen, including Mr. Brolin's "Elah", and recent films like "Stop-Loss" and "Standard Operating Procedure". 

Mr. Bush, as Johnny Cash's song goes, has been everywhere on the big screen, even in a controversial film in 2006 entitled "Death Of A President", which depicts a fictional assassination of the U.S. president.  In a hideous episode during one showing of the film in San Francisco one moviegoer watching it could be heard cheering and applauding loudly at the moment of the staged assassination.  "Death" in fact rendered president Bush as a sympathetic figure in some cases and interspersed real images of the president into fictional situations, much like president Clinton was spliced into the Robert Zemeckis film "Contact".  The Clinton White House was not amused, and there is likely every reason to think that the current Administration residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. won't be fans of Mr. Stone's forthcoming biopic, just as they have shown disdain for Kitty Kelley's scorching book The Family and once-New York Times political reporter Adam Clymer, whom the president can famously be heard cursing out while talking to vice president Dick Cheney during a public event.

Josh Brolin has been watching video for quite sometime and in the EW interview he is quoted as saying that "I've been watching a lot of video of Bush walking.  It changes over the years, how he walks in his 30s, how he walks in foreign lands, before 9/11 and afterwards.  People hold their emotions in their bodies.  They can't fake it.  Especially him."  Actors can, but their skill is in convincing the public that they cannot tell that the actors are.  Mr. Brolin, who initially was skeptical about why there would be a need for him to play the most well-known resident of Crawford, Texas, was convinced and persuaded by the director.  Mr. Brolin looks the part -- the pictures above are the first to be released, and the relatively quick turn around for the film -- budgeted at around $30 million -- will ensure a lot of buzz and interest, especially during what many in the political arena have deemed the most important election in at least 40 years.

Remember the uproar over "The Reagans" a few years ago?  The television mini-series about the California-based politician was set to show on CBS, but then it was pulled after an uproar in numerous political circles (namely the Reagans and the Bushes) and eventually ended up on Showtime cable television in the U.S.  The reason for referencing "The Reagans" is that James Brolin, the famous father of the younger Mr. Brolin, played former president Reagan in that television mini-series.  So in this famous acting family, father and son will have played presidents amidst the uproar that the respective films will or have already raised. 

Though there will likely be plenty of uproar over "W" there will probably be much less than the volumes of boiling outrage that the Warner Brothers release "JFK" sparked -- especially since the 43rd president will be exactly three months and three days away from leaving office on the date that "W" is released.  With "JFK", some journalists at Time Magazine -- to which Warner Brothers shares the umbrella under the Time Warner media conglomerate -- had raised critical questions of Mr. Stone, as did a torrent of news publications, political pundits and others, suggesting that Mr. Stone was shamelessly rewriting history and undermining the official Warren Commission report of the "magic bullet" theory.  In the interview with EW, a publication also under the umbrella of Time Warner, Mr. Stone appeared weary of the skewering he has received over the years.  "I'm tired of defending the accuracy of my movies . . . I'm past that now.  JFK was a case to be proven, Nixon was a penetrating biography of a complex and dark man.  But I'm not bound by those strictures anymore."

Mr. Stone isn't intending for "W" to be a comedy, but has said that the film's central figure has comedic attributes.  From EW: "Bush is not a complex and dark man, so it's different.  This movie can be funnier because Bush is funny.  He's awkward and goofy and makes faces all the time.  He's not your average president.  So let's have some fun with it.  What are they (the mainstream media) going to do?  'Discredit' me again?"  Additionally in the EW interview, Mr. Stone -- no doubt to some people's surprise -- credits the president in this way: "It's almost Capra-esque, the story of a guy who had very limited talents in life, except for the ability to sell himself.  The fact that he had to overcome the shadow of his father and the weight of his family name -- you have to admire his tenacity."

Given the cheery reaction to the tragic moment in the 2006 film "Death Of A President", come this fall Josh Brolin -- on the big screen at least -- will be a most unpopular figure in San Francisco once "Milk" and "W" are released.

"W" stars Josh Brolin in the title role, Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, James Cromwell as former U.S. president George Herbert Walker Bush, Ellen Burstyn as former First Lady Barbara Bush, Thandie Newton as secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, Jeffrey Wright as former secretary of state and national security advisor Colin Powell, Scott Glenn as former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Ioan Gruffudd as former British prime minister Tony Blair.  Rumors have Philip Seymour Hoffman as a possible choice for vice president Dick Cheney.

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EXTRAS

Entertainment Weekly interview story featuring Josh Brolin, Oliver Stone and Elizabeth Banks (May 16, 2008 issue)

Popcorn Reel audio interview with Josh Brolin (originally published November 2, 2007)

Popcorn Reel feature story on Josh Brolin (originally published November 1, 2007)


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