PRIVATE Bill Stone requested combat duty. Serving with the United States Army in Vietnam between April 1967 and November 1968, he killed enemy soldiers with grenades and was badly wounded twice. He also formulated certain doubts about America, which he repeats today: “How can you send only the poor to fight? If you’re going to war, go with everybody.”
Stone himself was never poor, and had enlisted under his middle name because he thought “Oliver” sounded too soft and monied. Later, he became a world-famous, Oscar-winning film director with a Vietnam war movie called Platoon (1986), which drew on his most lucid memories of physical pain and animal fear, but also of some other, less material dimension he detected in the jungle. Oliver Stone leans forward to show me the white scar in the back of his head.
“A bullet grazed right across here, ” he says. “A quarter-inch deeper and I would be dead. Call that luck, chance, whatever, but I think there might be a higher reason, beyond my body and skin and flesh. I feel I was given a destiny to act out.” He will insist that this has nothing to do with the Christian God who allowed American army chaplains to bless their own troops for sending communists to hell. But it has everything to do with the man he is, and the work he does.
Stone’s new film, World Trade Center, reconstructs September 11, 2001, from the shared perspective of New York City Port Authority police officers Will Jimeno (played by Michael Pena) and John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), who were buried alive in the collapse of the Twin Towers but became the 18th and 19th of only 20 people to be rescued from under the rubble field. It has already been appraised as his least personal, least political, least cynical, least typical work.
Stone begins this interview by saying, “let’s get it right”, and carries on like a man pathologically determined to explain himself. “I’m trying to light a candle in the darkness. My earlier films were intense and powerful but, with a couple of exceptions, there was always a light in them. And since 2001, things have got so dark that any light seems to burn all the brighter. I’m talking about yin and yang, the universal battle. The European intellectuals who have criticised this movie don’t understand it because they have given up hope. We have to encourage people – the kids – because we’re facing such perilous times. Nuclear proliferation, ecological disaster, al-Qaeda, war, terror, fear, American imperialism, the breakdown of the constitution … ”
Stone wrings his hands as he speaks. He rubs his temples with his thumbs and squints hard, as if trying to see through the back wall of his London hotel room. He employs the phrase “manageable tension” to describe the desired effect of World Trade Center, the balance he was required to strike between the “grit and shit” of what really happened and the sentimental themes of Andrea Berloff ‘s screenplay love, courage, salvation, transcendence. He repeats that phrase so often it comes to sound like a compulsive verbal key to his personality. “Manageable tension” might be the magic words that explain how Stone can be a demobbed soldier and a practising Buddhist, a pro-Castro Marxist and a mainstream Hollywood movie director, a well-bred white New Yorker turned American dissident.
Six years ago, he took a 10-hour psychotropic drug trip under the supervision of three psychiatrists, in an effort to fathom his own depths. It only confirmed a long-standing self-diagnosis. “I’m a tortured soul, ” concluded Stone. “No doubt about it.” Previous and subsequent arrests for possession of various narcotics, as well as his two divorces, might be considered proof. His current girlfriend is Korean, and Stone refers to their young daughter as the best possible product of America “I believe in mixing the races. The melting pot has given my country its great driving energy”. She is the antithesis of everything he hates about the place.
“Capitalism, corruption, corporate fascism -” He will turn 60 in a few days, but laughs at the suggestion that age might be one more thing to fret about. “Fret? No. It’s great to be healthy at 60, touch wood [Stone raps his knuckles on the table]. I feel strong. You pick up more as you go. I’m not so stupid as I used to be.” First-hand experience of actual flak the stuff that brings down helicopters must at least put into perspective the metaphorical kind he tends to draw from film critics and other enemies. And the most “flak” he says he ever took was for comments he made straight after what we came to call 9/11, when Stone sounded something like Malcolm X, who notoriously reacted to the assassination of John F Kennedy by declaring that “the chickens have come home to roost”.
Stone asserted that the CIA had invented modern terrorism with the plots they drew up against Cuba in the 1960s. He referred to the New York and Pentagon attacks as a “revolt” against United States foreign policy, an energy burst of “pure chaos” that would generate “great change”. Many interpreted this as outrageous endorsement, but they can’t have been surprised. Popular perceptions of Stone are defined by such films as Salvador (1986) and JFK (1991) aggressively sceptical and often outright propagandist motion pictures which overturn the official verdicts of modern American history, although not always with the same agenda.
“What, ” asks Stone, “is an Oliver Stone film? People think they know, but then every film is never what they expected. They thought Nixon (1995) was going to be some kind of hatchet job, but it turned out to be a deeply empathetic portrait. There is excitement in being unpredictable, but unfortunately it does lead to a lot of misunderstanding.” Now, five years after he suggested that the ideal film about September 11 would be a realistic and bipartisan procedural thriller without heroes or villains, he has instead made a movie so selective in focus and affirmative in values that it could be construed as an apology for his earlier remarks. Or, perhaps, as a calculated exercise in limiting the damage done to his career by the hostility, mockery and indifference that greeted his 2004 epic about Alexander The Great. Having made several films about colossal male egos, and still struggling with his own, Stone will admit to a certain concern for legacy.
“I have felt the drive to be great. I was consumed with self-interest for a long time. I realised that when I made Heaven And Earth [his 1993 adaptation of two books by Le Ly Hayslip, recounting her abuses by both the Viet Cong and the tormented American soldier she married] and became a Buddhist. And that was a fine example of a Buddhist film in my opinion. But it was ridiculed. Financially, it was my biggest disaster. And that failure really humbled me.” Aware of his reputation as a professional conspiracy theorist, Stone appreciates the irony of accusations that he had “ulterior motives” for making an apolitical film about September 11. “It’s not that I’m not interested in what happened from 9/12 onward. I believe an agenda was in place which prevented us from closing the circle after we got our revenge in Afghanistan.That would make for a great film, perhaps on the level of JFK. But I wanted to make this movie first.”
For better or worse and there is strong evidence to support the view that Stone’s technical skills as a film-maker far exceed his artistic gifts as a self-declared “dramatist” he has put himself in the shoes, and the souls, of all his subjects. Alexander. Nixon. Jim Morrison of The Doors. Tony Montana, the horrifically ambitious cocaine-freak gangster caricature he created in his screenplay for Scarface (1983). Even Fidel Castro, about whom Stone made the admiring, if not sycophantic documentary Commandante in 2003.
“It is true that I become a little bit like these people while I’m making movies about them. I worship them in some way, temporarily.” World Trade Center is in that respect a hymn “to the guys who get up early way out in the suburbs, then drive to work and keep the city hummin'”. I ask him if the risks taken that day McLoughlin and Jimeno volunteered to enter the Twin Towers might have struck a chord with a man who dropped out of Yale University to sign up for military service during wartime. “My Vietnam reasons were a little more fucked up,” he says.
“I had a lot of parental problems, certain suicidal tendencies. But there is a connection, in that this film celebrates the ordinary working man, as Platoon did. And that was part of the reason I enlisted. In my gut I always admired the working man, and wanted to learn about him, because I felt there was a truth in his behaviour I could not find at Yale, where there were, to quote Catcher In The Rye, too many phoneys.”
Now that he mentions it, Stone’s films often seem the products of middle-class guilt. His Reagan-era parable Wall Street (1987), is best remembered for Michael Douglas’s satanic performance as king of the American capitalists, but its heart was devoted to the blue collar goodness of Martin Sheen’s father-figure. Stone was himself born wealthy, his own father, Louis, having been an aide to future US President Dwight D Eisenhower in France during the second world war, who went on to make a fortune in business.
According to Stone’s autobiographical novel A Child’s Night Dream which he wrote in his youth, then threw into New York’s East River just before leaving for Vietnam, but redrafted and published 30 years later Louis committed both fraud and adultery, while his French mother Jacqueline delegated most of the responsibility for his upbringing to a nanny. When he enrolled at Yale in 1966, his overwhelmingly privileged classmates included George W Bush, who was “one of those old school types that made me not want to be there”, but who Stone never actually met until he was invited to a rightwing fundraiser in the late 1990s.
“There was this weird confidence about him, and his handlers. They asked me along, I think, because they were fascinated with me. I didn’t like him at all, but I just knew he would be the next president. I felt like this man was going to be trouble.” Stone doesn’t now feel the need to list the ways he has been proved right. Would he, though, have greater faith in the current administration if the President was a combat veteran?
“Totally. Anyone who has been through war knows suffering. Knows what it means to kill or lose somebody. If Bush had ever seen it he would have thought twice about invading Iraq. Also, this concept of being born again I just don’t buy. How can you say you’re a Christian when you’ve caused the deaths of I don’t know how many civilians since 2001? As a Buddhist, you’re born every day, and you act in accordance with your beliefs.”
STONE appears to be managing another tension here, between making films and finding peace if he ever fixed the problem of his soul, wouldn’t his work suffer for the sudden lack of agitation? “No. I don’t think so. The idea of Buddhism is not to live on a mountain top, being superior. It’s to be involved in this world, here and now, putting light out. So the contrary is true when your spirit is really up to speed, you can be a secret force for change.”
Towards the end of World Trade Center, Jesus Christ appears to Will Jimeno with a bleeding heart while he lies crushed at the bottom of the black hole. Jimeno, a devout Catholic, has said that’s what really happened, and basically, Oliver Stone believes him. In that sense this film is consistent with all his others, even the most visceral of which have contained traces of the metaphysical a vision, a phantom, a demon. “You’re right. There are ghosts all over my movies. You could even say that JFK was motivated by Kennedy’s ghost. And Americans don’t usually like it, because they have no concept of spirit beyond the orthodox. Winning the football game, kissing the cross. But I keep trying to thread the needle between this world and the next. I can’t help it, and it’s hard to explain because it amazes even me.”
I ask Stone how he reconciles the Christian symbolism in World Trade Center with the hysterical Native American shamanist imagery of U Turn (1997) and Natural Born Killers (1994), and his own not-quite-zen conception of the universe. What belief system can accommodate Stone’s life and work? “Details aside, ” he says, “I think the thing that kept me alive in Vietnam may be same thing that saved those men in the Twin Towers. A spirit that makes you go on. A higher reason for your being.”