Filmmaker Oliver Stone Talks to Jacobin About His Life and Politics
We talk to legendary director Oliver Stone about his career, Fidel Castro, Edward Snowden, Vietnam War movies, and why he takes the side of the oppressed in his work.
- Interview by
- Ed Rampell
Few American filmmakers have careers as wild and successful as three-time Oscar winner Oliver Stone. And even fewer do it on their own terms as Stone did — forging an unapologetically left-wing cinema right in the heart of Reagan-Bush-Clinton Hollywood.
Now that cinematic scourge of the powers that be has a new memoir out. Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game recounts the writer-director’s life and career, from Stone’s childhood in New York City up through his classic and controversial work in Hollywood in the mid-1980s. And for the first time ever, Stone delves into his personal experiences as a combat soldier in Vietnam, out of which exploded movies that joined the ranks of the silver screen’s greatest antiwar masterpieces.
In 1979, he won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Midnight Express, his first of three Academy Awards. But it was in 1986 — the year Stone turned forty and where his memoir ends — that the filmmaker truly came into his own as an auteur. It was the year Stone directed two of his own original screenplays, Salvador (co-written by Richard Boyle) and Platoon. The scripts for both films were nominated for Academy Awards in the same year, but Stone instead won the Oscar for Best Director for Platoon, based largely on his own experiences as an infantryman in the Vietnam War.
As the Purple Heart winner observes in his memoir, Platoon — which also won the Best Picture Oscar — had “power, vitality, originality, and something not seen often in American film . . . a radical and dramatic political commitment reminiscent of some young playwright of the 1930s or 1940s, a Clifford Odets or an Arthur Miller, bursting to tell a truth in a blunt, dynamic way.”
Jacobin contributor Ed Rampell recently spoke with Stone to discuss Fidel Castro, Edward Snowden, Vietnam War movies, and his cinematic legacy.
Scarface opens with newsclips about the Mariel boatlift that brought thousands of Cubans to America, including shots of Fidel Castro, whom Tony Montana, played by Al Pacino, repeatedly disparages. This seems to prefigure your documentaries about Fidel, 2003’s Comandante and 2012’s Castro in Winter, plus 2009’s South of the Border.
And there’s Looking for Fidel in 2004. You missed that one! [Laughs.]
What do you think about Fidel?
Listen, what I wrote in the screenplay for Scarface are not my views of Fidel. The only way you could make it in Miami, which is a highly right-wing, anti-Castro society — as you know, [Florida’s] Senator Marco Rubio is one of the biggest war hawks that we have — so, at that time, especially in 1980, my god, the hatred for the Castro experiment was extremist. And I don’t share at all those views.
On the contrary, I think that Castro brought great change to Latin America. He’s a huge symbol of reform — land reform, and all ways of reform. And, of course, he’s always attacked, and we still have an embargo from those years. It is insane. The unpopularity from the people of the world — the world community has condemned that embargo at the UN for years now. No one in the United States seems to hear it, to pay attention. I think we have two or three allies that vote with us [at the United Nations] every year on that embargo.
[As far as perceptions of Cuba,] there are a lot of elites who come to this country who are corrupt and running away from revolutions in their own countries. Whether it be Vietnam or Cuba . . . many of them become terrorists in their own right and try to go back and screw their own countries.
In making and releasing Castro documentaries did you encounter any censorship issues from Cubans or Americans?
Yes, I did. Comandante was about to air on HBO, and they took it off, without even telling me. They did it abruptly, in response to the Cuban extremist right-wing letters that they said came in promising to cancel — it was cancel culture — their subscriptions to HBO. There was a huge influx of that, they said. Nobody had seen the film, except at the Sundance Festival, where it had been shown a month before. It went very well, but the word got out that it allowed Castro to speak. It wasn’t taking editorial sides at all; it was simply a platform where I interviewed him for several days, and he gave a lot of interesting comments. He gave Castro’s Cuban Revolution side of the argument, which we never hear here.
Why do you often take the side of underdogs who are sometimes unpopular in the United States, like Castro and Edward Snowden?
Because that’s my nature. I don’t like bullies. I don’t like people to be bullied by governments and others. I’ve always been like that. I feel it strongly, I don’t know why. I think a lot of people are like me, too. I just don’t think it’s fair. When something’s not fair, it brings out some gene in me that wants to fight.
In your 2009 documentary South of the Border, one of the Latin American leaders you cover is Hugo Chavez. What do you want to say about Chavez?
He got 70 percent of the people in Venezuela out of extreme poverty. He gave them an education, he gave them hope, he gave them a sense of participation in the governance, he gave them a safety net — none of which they had before. Venezuela was one of the poorest, worst-run countries in South America. By example, he of course influenced so many other countries to change. Under him, there was a tide of change. You saw it in the movie — I visited some six or seven other presidents in different countries to show the influence that he had. It’s like Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Of course, the United States is trying to turn back the tide, and it has effectively done so in some of those countries. As in Roosevelt’s New Deal, the people will never be the same again. They were raised up by Roosevelt and Chavez and these other presidents.
Why did it take so long for films about the Vietnam War to find an audience in America?
They’d seen some movies before my movies, which were the Sylvester Stallone version [the Rambo franchise] and the Chuck Norris [the Missing in Action] version. There was The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Coming Home (1978). Coming Home was very realistic but didn’t do very well. Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter were very successful but at the same time not very realistic. They were strong, metaphoric films. The other films that were notable were jingoistic and garbage.
In the push to get Vietnam on the screen, did it have unintended consequences in depicting the war as a kind of “brutal” coming-of-age cinematic tradition, pushing the politics and the atrocities committed against the Vietnamese to the side in favor of focusing on American GIs’ struggles?
Yeah, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, they do not take into account the Vietnamese point of view. I think I did in Platoon — there was a big issue about killing villagers told from that point of view. The same issue appears in Born on the Fourth of July. But in Heaven & Earth, I go fully into the Vietnamese point of view. There’s a Vietnamese heroine. But the film did not do well in this country. I think it’s one of my best films. It’s very emotional. The story of a woman, Le Ly Hayslip — she ended up experiencing almost everything, like being on both sides, and finally ending up in America, married to an American, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who brought his problems home.
In Chasing the Light you mention Costa-Gavras a lot. Do you think of yourself as the American Costa-Gavras?
Well, I admire him greatly. Z (1969) was one of the most evocative films for me at film school. It told me this could be done, this kind of editing could be effective on the screen. He showed me the way. His movie, if you look closely, in some ways has a structure that resembles JFK (1991). He came to our school, one of the highlights of my years there at NYU. I think Missing (1982), too, was a very good film, very effective. But it didn’t make a big impact either. All films about Latin America have been ignored, haven’t had a big success. But Costa-Gavras is certainly a hero, yeah.
Did you always have such political aims with your films?
No. I always had a political bone in my body because my father talked about it. Learning the craft of film — learning how to write screenplays, drama, that’s really crucial stuff. For me, that’s really what my education was about. I made two horror films [1974’s low-budget Seizure, 1981’s The Hand starring Michael Caine], and then I wrote Midnight Express, Scarface, Year of the Dragon. I was a screenwriter and wanted to be a director. But it wasn’t until Salvador and Platoon — those two back-to-back — that I really felt like a writer-director.
But that was not my intention. Platoon was not about politics — it was just about showing the day-to-day drama of what it’s like. Same thing with Salvador. It does have a scene where he [James Woods’s character Richard Boyle] preaches at the CIA. I agree. But he’s an interesting journalist who’s kind of nuts. You approach the story from a Hunter Thompson point of view, not a political point of view.
Hey, I’ve tried in all of my films, including JFK, to keep it entertaining, keep it moving, keep it tense — those are my objectives. If we come to any kind of political skeleton, it should be coming out of the story, not imposed on the story.