Truth and Oliver Stone’s planned George W Bush biopic

OLIVER Stone has started shooting a biopic offering a “fair, true portrait” of George W Bush. Anyone who has seen a Stone biopic and been acquainted with any relevant facts will know that a fair, true portrait would constitute something of a departure.

By Sarah Churchwell (Life)

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Published: Sun 6 Apr 2008, 8:31 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:10 PM

Claiming objectivity (”I’m the referee,” he said, sounding rather like Bush ”the Decider” himself), Stone explained the film’s donnee: “How did Bush go from an alcoholic bum to the most powerful figure in the world?”

As investigatory premises go, this is not exactly unbiased, but it does seem a fair question -- if a trifle belated. Some of us have been asking it for seven years, and would still like an explanation. The question is which one Stone will offer. He promised that his film will “surprise” both “Bush supporters and his detractors”, but refused to share his own views of the president. “The film-maker has to hide in the work,” he explained. While an understandable impulse, this seems a risky strategy for dealing with the temper tantrums of someone who continues to defend extraordinary rendition as the appropriate method for dealing with “bad men”.

On the plus side, Stone has long been denounced by Republicans as unpatriotic. As most of them seem unable to distinguish between the president and the nation he represents, the rest of America can continue to love the country while despising its leader without being overcome by cognitive dissonance. Worryingly, however, Stone also likened Bush’s story to “Frank Capra territory”. Remember the one where a Capra hero contributes to the Depression while starting the war? Neither do I. That’s usually the corrupt capitalist played by Edward Arnold whose power grab is always thwarted before he gets into office. No such luck in this story.

Stone has also promised to reveal Bush’s “demons” and “his conversion to Christianity, which explains a lot of where he is coming from. It includes his belief that God personally chose him to be president, and his coming into his own with the stunning, preemptive attack on Iraq”. Reading this astonishing statement, I could only hope that Stone is employing what rhetoricians call a zeugma, so that the phrase “his belief” covers both parts of the sentence: Bush’s belief that God chose him, and his belief that he came into his own by starting a catastrophic war. But I suspect not, because Stone is a very American film-maker, and this peculiarly egotistical view of the world, blending religion, violence and rites of passage, has something of a tradition in my country.

Conversion narratives are equally egotistical, and equally American: Bush credits God not only with handing him the presidency (I thought it was the other “supreme court”), but also with personally saving him from the demon liquor. Bush neither confirms nor denies persistent rumours that he was also saved from white paradise -- or star-spangled powder, as we like to call it back home. The impression given by preliminary accounts of Stone’s script is that he will treat these unconfirmed rumours with his usual laissez-faire approach to evidence.

Which is fine by me. Normally, as a scholar of biography, I deplore a lazy approach to evidence. But in the case of a subject who has himself played so fast and loose with the truth to such disastrous effect, who actually thinks himself above accountability and defends deceit, I can only quote Bush’s bedtime reading. “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” In Texas, they have a saying for this: the chickens coming home to roost. And poetic justice may be all we can hope for in this world.

Sarah Churchwell is a senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia, England

©Guardian News Service

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