By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
I think he does represent a mind-set that’s very popular in America: American exceptionalism. In this case, it became very dangerous, because it was post–Soviet Union, so it became about what he calls “preemption.” It’s a policy that was set in place in the ’90s, actually, by Cheney, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, and it became formalized in the think tank called Project for the New American Century. It’s quoted by Wolfowitz in the movie when he says, “We will not allow the emergence of any economic or military threat against the United States.” That’s a big statement: “We will not allow.” And then you have Cheney’s one percent doctrine — the idea that if there’s so much as a one percent chance of a terrorist strike, we have to act. It’s about American paranoia. I’ve been attacked for that, but the flip side is that I grew up under paranoia. I grew up during this hysteria that a Communist conspiracy was going to take over the world. That’s what drove my childhood — the idea that Russia was not just Russia, but rather that China, Russia and everybody else were united. There was no acknowledgment that Tito and Mao were fighting with Russia. It was just one big monolithic thing. And that’s paranoia. America has been prone to paranoia for so long, way back to McKinley and the bombing of the USS Maine in the Spanish-American War, the Tonkin Gulf resolution with Johnson, and now the WMD business with Bush. What’s most dangerous in politics — and in the world — is vigilante mob mentality. I think one of the greatest films ever made, story-wise, is William Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident. One little story sums up the madness of a mob.
Another key scene is Bush’s conversion to evangelical Christianity. Some directors would have seen that as prime material for satire, à la Bill Maher’s Religulous documentary, but you play it more or less completely straight.
You have to take it prima facie, because it was the deciding event in his life. So, you respect your character. I’m not doing any kind of a hatchet job. I truly want to understand George Bush. I tried to walk in his path. Evangelicalism is a very powerful force. I talked to four ministers who are big shots in the South, and they’re almost like salesmen in the way that they tell you that you can be touched by God at any moment — one moment is all you need. There’s this power of the touch, and it’s in the name of Jesus. Jesus is the key figure when you break from yourself. You’re no longer George Bush; you’re the broken one, you have no ego. The irony of Bush is that he became evangelical but maintained this enormous ego. It’s clear from his presidency that when he walked into a room he was the decider, he took up the biggest space. Everyone says that about his life, going back to his cheerleading days. He was a bully; you had to make space for him. That said, there is a bit of a wink in the evangelical scene, because the minister is played by Stacy Keach, and Stacy is a bit of a scoundrel — he has that glint in his eye, that Burt Lancaster quality. And a lot of evangelicals — not all — have had shaky pasts.
Have you given any thought to how this film may or may not operate as a political instrument?
I hope we get noticed in the ongoing blender of events. I think people have a tendency to say, “He’s gone,” and that’s not so. This man has changed the world and impacted us forever. He’s changed your generation. The next 20 years, you’re going to be paying for this thing. Iraq is not going away. It’s not simple to get out of this. We’re not going back to 2000. And he’s a young man: Even when he loses power in January, he’s going to be around on the right. Any time there’s an us-versus-them situation, I can see him as a voice for using force. He’s going to be a tough opponent.
In the scene where George is meeting Laura for the first time at this backyard barbecue, as this mutual friend is walking George across the lawn to introduce him to Laura, you cut to this close-up of the woman’s high-heeled shoe stepping on a corncob in the grass. That struck me as an iconographic Oliver Stone moment.
People mention that scene — it’s so bizarre. I really cracked down on myself, because I got so noticed [in my other movies] for stuff like that. Frankly, I tried not to put myself in this movie, because Bush is a sensitive issue for many Americans, and I don’t want to insult or hurt Bush. My mom, who’s a Republican, said, “Don’t demean him.” I did cut the corncob thing. I said, “Let’s get rid of this. It’s a nice touch, but I don’t want to have people noticing this.” And all four of my editors lobbied for me to put it back. The other day, a young critic said, “What is that about? Is that about ethanol?” To me, it seems a sign of excess. People grow up on excess in Texas.
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