With three movies about the Vietnam war (including the multiple Oscar winning Platoon), three movies about American presidents (JFK, Nixon, and W.) and two movies about Wall Street, you can never accuse Oliver Stone of shying away from controversy, let alone from majorly polarising issues. eniGma’s Lucia Edwards talks to Stone about all the things he kept unsaid…
Over the last decade, Stone continued his signature search for the truth with a series of jarring documentaries covering controversial topics ranging from Fidel Castro, Israeli-Palestinian relations, U.S. manipulation of Latin America and now The Untold History of The United States. This latest documentary, aired on premium cable in the United States, tells a history lesson quite unlike what is being drip-fed to the masses via CNN or taught to children in the classroom; a history lesson told with the passion for what America was built on and the guts to stand up to what is tearing it down.
Here, exclusively for eniGma, Oliver Stone continues his tradition of exposing the truth by telling us what the American government wishes he’d just shut up about…
As an Oscar winning director and dramatist, do you feel you have a responsibility towards the audience to question, rather than passively accept what is being offered by the media?
Peter Kuznick, a historian, and I, spent five years on and off The Untold History of the United States. We did it because we felt strongly that there was something very skewed in our thinking about American policy. Kuznick felt it earlier in his life because, politically, he was on the left, while I was on the right. My father raised me like that. It took me 30 some years to realise my father’s thinking was conditioned by the time he was living in and I was conditioned by my education.
Vietnam, Nixon’s betrayals, the Church committee revelations, CIA interventions, and coups in first and third world countries (we could easily include involvement in Egypt, as we were strongly against Nasser and helped destabilise him). We had generally been backing fundamentalists throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
Kuznick and I had had enough. Instead of a feature film, I decided to concentrate on a documentary of our true American history in my lifetime. I wanted to lay out for my children, a history unlike the one my daughter and sons studied in high school. It was not all bad history, and some things were accurate, but you can read the whole thing and miss the point, miss the pattern. We are not encouraged in schools to criticise the United States profoundly. The narrative is a triumphant narrative. American history is a Disney-fied version, with all the fear, blood, and horror taken out. We believe this should stay in because that’s what kids would react to. They like horror films, they don’t want to feel it’s a ‘I-told-you-so’ history.
Has your work ever been censored ?
There is no ‘board of censorship’ in the U.S. But they censor you economically, by telling you your product doesn’t meet the economic advertisement needs of the corporations that own the media. Americans aren’t muzzled openly, but they’re certainly muzzled by economics. Getting the documentary on television was a major undertaking and it took an enormous amount of pressure behind-the-scenes to get it out. We’re very lucky to get it on the air.
Some of the facts were rather shocking.
These were all fact checked. We ran it through Showtime fact check, through CBS fact check, as well as our own fact check. Kuznick had eight or nine graduate students at various times working with him. We were a small group, pretty much a guerrilla outfit. That’s why it took so much longer to make than we planned. We took two extra years. We also did an 800-page book at the same time to underline the facts, it goes from the beginning of the American empire, which more or less came out of the 1893 depression. By 1900, the United States definitely took a course towards empire, looking for foreign markets, looking for people abroad to buy products as opposed to paying its own workers at home more wages to spend on home-grown products.
This empire accelerated enormously after World War II. We became a national security state in 1947 with a huge commitment to the armaments industry. Yet, in 1991 when the Soviet Empire fell, we did not change our Cold War policies at all. In fact, we went on to become a global security state. The irony is that most people don’t see it. It’s very subtle the way, for example, the U.S. moved into Kuwait, all of a sudden Saddam Hussein became a “bad guy”. In 1991 when Gorbachev fell, George Bush identified Hussein as a new “Hitler” several times and exaggerated his actions in Kuwait to inflame world opinion. For the first time we put half a million men into the Middle East. We had never done that before, not since Vietnam, which had been a disaster. That was the turning point. The American Empire never backed away for one second or changed… we just kept growing.
In W., Josh Brolin came across as very charismatic and strong. I sympathised with him in the film but in your interviews you’re openly proclaiming he was one of the worst presidents of the United States, this doesn’t come across in the film…
Then I’ve failed. The truth is he did enormous damage to the country. But he is not an aberration. He is certainly in keeping with the policy, domestic and foreign, of the United States, which has been increasingly conservative since WWII, but accelerated under the conservative Reagan presidency in the 1980s. W. Bush certainly made the policy rampantly extreme by declaring war on evil – a crazy idea to wage war against an abstract notion of evil. Sixty countries in the world were put on the hit list for terrorism and became possible targets. W. Bush made it ‘the war against the world.’
W. Bush, you have to remember is not a clown, he had power and that’s what is so amazing. We can all make fun of him like Saturday Night Live did, but my point is more insidious – he was a very disarming man, I met him, he’d charm you, he’s certainly a very American Midwest kind of guy, but he’s kind of funny. His intellect is narrow, but American voters seem to like that, they trust that, they like the guy who’s not too smart in the presidency – unlike Obama – they want a guy they can have a steak and go to a baseball game with.
The American public is largely ignorant of history and are not offered a very good education at the pre-college level. Our television system, because it’s largely commercial, is heavily pro-American and corporate inclined. The American public is basically fed myths, like cows being force-fed for McDonalds. They are bred to make money and spend money; they are not bred to think. So back to W. Bush – I think the movie was subtle, but I think it showed the man people liked. He did get elected twice. In 2004, the second time, on the back of this failing Iraq war, the people voted for him. It was amazing.
At the end of the movie he simply asks Laura, “what did I do wrong?” He doesn’t know because George W. Bush is incapable of understanding the third dimension. He doesn’t understand the pain and suffering he’s caused the Arab world, he can only think of the American soldiers in the hospitals, but somehow he can not get past that and see the world through Arab eyes, Russian eyes, or Chinese eyes. He lacks that. He lacks the imagination.
What made you return to Wall Street with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps?
I’d passed on a Wall Street sequel for years. After the 2008 crash it made sense to do it to understand what happened. When I returned to Wall Street for the second time, I have to say I was amazed at how extravagant and how greedy Wall Street had become. It became worse after the 1980s with this new market. Gordon Gekko was a symbol of that market, but by 2008 Gekko was a ‘has-been,’ a nobody, and what happened was that the central banks became the new Gordon Gekkos. Gekko had been a renegade in the 80s, but in 2008 the banks were the renegades. They were taking money from the public in public trusts and gambling it for huge profits. The banks have lost their normal function, which was simply to be lending and savings institutions. Banks became something monstrous, out of control, and they now have an excessive grip on the world equal to the U.S. Pentagon.
The recent “coup” or “revolution” – depending on your point of view – in Egypt, and more generally, the Arab Spring – what impact do you think all of this will have on the rest of the world?
I can’t give you an opinion that I haven’t thought through. This happened very recently and I can’t give you a quick answer on Morsi because I don’t understand all the specifics of what happened. In general I am against overthrowing anybody who’s elected. If there is a democratic majority, I’m against any coup d’état because once you have a coup d’état, there is no respect for the rule of law anymore. We’ve had a series of those coups, many of them engineered by the United States… I think in its essence the Arab Spring was part of a new sense of protest, of outrage, against the controls imposed on our lives by banks, militaries, and tyrannical, unthinking governments.