Revolution #150, December 14, 2008
Interview with Oliver Stone, November 11, 2008, by Michael Slate on Beneath the Surface, KPFK FM 90.7
A Note on the Interview
We are publishing this interview courtesy of “Beneath the Surface” radio show hosted by Michael Slate on KPFK, Los Angeles . The views expressed by Oliver Stone in this interview are, of course, his own, and he is not responsible for the views expressed elsewhere in this newspaper.
Michael Slate: Anybody who has been breathing and sentient over the last 25 years knows Oliver Stone and his work and has some opinion on it. He's one of the people who has told the story of a really significant period of history, the story of a generation of people, as the world has moved on and how they've interacted with the world. He's unlike any filmmaker who’s come before him. He's been involved in about 20 films, films that have shaped the world as well as interpreted it.
His latest picture is W. It was one that I was waiting for and was very pleased to see. Oliver, welcome to the show.
Oliver Stone: I'm happy to join you. Larry Everest sends his best. He was the guy that got me on this show. I'm a good friend of his and I was using his book, Oil Power and Empire. Larry's work was put into the film to some degree. It's a very interesting thesis.
Slate: Well, let's jump into this. You made a film that I think has gone against the grain for a lot of people, and I think it was extremely important. Clearly you felt the same, because you have said there was a real urgency you felt in making this film, and it wasn't an easy film to make. But you actually did it and you were driven by a sense of urgency and maybe the greatest urgency you've ever felt about making a film. Why was that?
Stone: It's not the urgency of changing things in the election. I mean, honestly, 2000 to 2004 was a very rough period for many veterans of Vietnam like I am. We saw this thing coming and a lot of us were very depressed at that time and angry. People said, “Why aren't you making an Iraq War movie?” and I didn't want to because it wasn't my generation. I fought in another war. It's younger people. They should do that movie, but I am interested in the mindset that put us in Iraq. And that mindset is an old mindset to me. It goes back through many generations, back to Nixon and Johnson. And Reagan, too, and Bush Sr. But that mindset is what I can address at this age of my life. But unfortunately, that information that people take for granted now, it wasn't that available in 2004. It started to seep out in ’05 and ’06, the books were written, about 12 books, ten books, and those investigative journalists gave us the right to go to those areas in the third act of the movie, the first four years of his presidency.
So what was I thinking? I was thinking, this guy has changed history. This guy, whatever people think of him, they underestimated, or in his words, they misunderestimated him for a long time. Like Napoleon in French history. I just think he's going to have an impact way beyond his time. He wanted to be “consequential,” that's his quote, a consequential president. He became it. The absent-minded president became this really weird force in American history.
Slate: There's another aspect to this. This wasn't a film made for any specific event, whether it's the election or anything that's actually sort of right within our grasp, but your view was this man has set things into motion that are going to be shaping the world for a long time to come.
Stone: This is serious. I mean long term. People are pissed to some degree: “Why didn’t you tear his head off?!” It's like shooting fish in a barrel. It's just, like, how do we get out of the Pentagon thing? How do we get out of a trillion dollars a year? How do you get out of a war on terror? He's announced a war on terror. What is it? What does it mean? It seems like an insane overreaction to me. The concept of the unitary executive and the power that he's assigned is way beyond anything Nixon ever dreamed of.
This is still in place. I don't know how Obama is going to go back on it. It's not going to be that easy for Obama to give up power. The balance, of course, what he's done with the Supreme Court, I mean those guys. Now, it's a really tricky constitutional issue of where the balance lies. So Congress is going to have to pull everything with the president and it seems like it's not going to be easy to change the rules. How do you get back to the FISA, what that meant, the Church Committee—how do you get back to that? Where are we now? We're not going back to 2000. We're here.
Slate: Right. I think even this sort of reweaving the fabric of society. It's really horrendous when you look at what has been set into motion, and exactly your point of, how do you reverse that? Short of massive upheaval in the streets, you’re not going to be able to reverse a lot of these things.
Stone: You're much more revolutionary than I am. I'm still trying to be evolutionary. Unfortunately, the economy became the issue in the end. Because up until there it was a feisty campaign, and it was pretty even. And it was a lot about the war state and the national security state. That was a real issue that's of crucial importance, as is the economy. But it got overshadowed and then that gave all the media, the central establishment people, the right to say, “Obama won because of the economy.” But not so. I think he might have won on the national security state. But if you noticed on the day he got into office, the first thing CNN was down his throat with was, “So, Mr. Obama had to confront today the first, most important priority of his administration, the national security, ergo, the war on terror, ergo, Afghanistan.” That was the first thing down his throat. They pushed it on him, the war on terror. They made Afghanistan issue number one. Not health care reform. Not the health, education, welfare of the American people, no. It was Afghanistan. By asking the question that way, it makes it impossible for the guy to even set his own agenda practically. Why can't he say, “Hey, Afghanistan is not my first issue. My first issue is this.”
Slate: I think you have the unique position of having a lot of people on the right who are POed about, “You’re just attacking Bush,” and then you have people on the left, I've seen people who have this sort of knee-jerk reaction without even seeing the film of, “Oh, well, I heard that it's really soft on Bush, that it really gives him a pass and it does all this stuff.”
I went to see it twice, because I was really intrigued by how you did this. In the film you do build a very strong piece where Bush as an individual comes off as offensive in a social sense, but for a large part of his background, he's a boob, and not one you would necessarily like, but not one you're necessarily offended by.
Stone: There was one friend of mine, who's a very strong liberal, she was down my throat. She said, “He knew about the WMDs.” I said, “Come on. Even if he did know, what difference does it make?” Because the whole point is, he was going to war anyway, whether it was Iraq, Venezuela, Iran, Georgia, he would have found a war. WMDs was just one of many covers that were used. It becomes an issue, “Why didn't you tear his head off?” Well, frankly, we don't have proof of that. It's hard to prove that. The Downing Street Memo is still a question in point, the English intelligence. It will come out, I'm sure. Why go after him for cocaine? You can't prove it. Why go after him for stuff you can't—whereas if you just go after what we know for sure, you see, that makes it—it allows us to believe, and credibility was always an issue in this movie. I didn't want to lose it because we were on the edges of satire. And I say satire not as comedy, but satire—he's an outrageous president.
We were trying to like bring into a two-hour condensation the essence of this man, and how he sees life and you've got to get up in the morning, and you've got to be George Bush, you've got to walk to the mirror. I'm a dramatist, not a journalist. I'm walking to the mirror and I say I like the guy in the mirror. You've got to like yourself to be George Bush. And then by understanding what he's like, what he's thinking, the way he sees the world, the way he sees his mission as freedom and democracy, like a missionary. The way he sees that he's shaking up the Middle East—by 2035 it's going to be OK.
And then you see Cheney's point of view which is completely different. It's not at all abstract. Cheney's point of view is very geopolitical. And you see Powell's position and you see Rumsfeld's pro-Pentagon position. You see, you get a feeling for each of these players that I think Bush is just one of, and he gets caught because he's not as intellectually incurious as these other guys. And Rove is into politicizing 9/11 for the issues of the 2004 election. He has to win. So winning the election becomes Rove's issue. Geopolitical domination of the world, the global hegemony theory of Perle, Wolfowitz and Cheney and those guys is there. And you've got Rumsfeld wanting to modernize the Pentagon and so forth. I think all that comes to play in the perfect storm as we said in the movie and Bush didn't know what he was in for. He was underqualified for the job, and then guess what? He found his role as Winston Churchill in his head, as a war president. He became the war president and that's fun. Then you have your toys to move around. I don't think he thought about things as people thought he did. He wasn't Machiavellian in that sense. He was just, “Hey, I like this role.”
Slate: I do think that the fact that what you've ended up doing by portraying him in the way that you portrayed him in the beginning is, it does end up being something where you have to accept that people do very bad things, not because they're inherently evil,…
Slate: …but because they have to follow the dictates of the thing that they serve, of the system they serve.
Stone: So in Bush's case, I hope we made it clear that he has a big ego. From the beginning he's a bully and he needs to be the guy in the room. He tells Cheney, “Hey, I’m the decider.” And he tells Rove, “I make up the ideas.” The truth is he doesn't, but he has to look like he does, so there's a tremendous insecurity in Bush, which we see numerous accounts of, by the way. It seems like he has to be the boss, but he doesn't know what's going on. He's a CEO who doesn’t manage the ship too good, too closely. But as long as he's perceived as the captain, he's happy.
Slate: One of the other things which I think is really important is—that empire scene. There's two scenes that really capture this idea of he's sort of chained to the dynamics of it, and he's acting on it and these others are acting on it too, and in some ways actually there's that intersection between Bush and whatever his agenda is personally, and Cheney and Wolfowitz and all them, and Rumsfeld and Powell, but there's also this thing of the system itself is working on this, and this whole explanation for why we're there.
Stone: Larry Everest does talk about empire, and I got taken to task for that by people like Bob Woodward, who liked the movie but didn't believe the empire scene. This is a crucial point. And it's hard to prove that. That's Larry's contention. And we don't have Cheney saying “empire” anywhere else, and we were obviously putting words in his mouth, but we did go off his speeches to the Petroleum Society in London and so forth and various things he's said through the years about Iran, and we pieced together this idea that, hey, come on, everybody's making a big deal about Iraq, but Iraq's just a small deal in Eurasia. Iraq is 10% of the world's oil reserves, but it's also like, look at the map, man, look at the map. Look at all of the American bases we have all over Eurasia now, and look at where the big hole in the wall is, it's Iran. We don't have anything in Iran. The movie takes place in 2003 in that scene, 2002, so that thinking at that time, you've got to look at the geopolitical picture. Iran has to be the big number. And our behavior toward Iran in those six years is, as you know, very confrontational. We refused to do business with them. They helped to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan with us. They were ready to do business. James Dobbins will back that up. And we did not respond. We cut them off. Bush cut them off at the knees, the Iranians.
I'm accused of making that up, but that's just not true. Iran is a big player here. I think a bigger player than Iraq at that time. Now it's off the boards, at least for now.
Slate: I think there's actually a chance that it will really heat up soon. Here's a question I would ask you because…
Stone: I'm afraid you're right. I don't want us to, but it's just crazy, because we could be allies with Iran. We really could. The American people and the Iranian people do have a natural inclination to mesh. They really do.
Slate: You've dealt with this in a few of your films, but it really comes into play again. You talked about this whole idea of the need to control the world, and the idea about American paranoia. And you said two things. You talked about American paranoia and American exceptionalism. I’d like to ask you to talk about that a little. You said, there's the legal constitution, then there's Oliver's constitution, and that's the idea in the world where Wall Street meets Natural Born Killers meets W.
Stone: That I forgot. Well, I do believe there's a jungle, the tiger in the jungle theory. You know it's a tiger when you see it. The big guys win. In these meetings, why does Rumsfeld dominate? Why did he have to dominate his press conferences? He was the big lion, right? Why did Condi Rice back off and why is Bush the big lion? All these guys have their role to play. Cheney plays like the wolf in sheep's clothing. He's very smart, Cheney. He goes farther than Rumsfeld. I love all those dynamics of behavior; I think you see it in the movie, in those actors. I think each one does it.
But the bigger issue as you say is hegemony. I think it's a pact for the new American century. It says it in no unclear terms. William Kristol, those guys, they wrote it. Cheney pushed it in '92, when he was secretary of defense and didn't get anywhere. Then he brought it back in '98, there was another draft. Tom Donnelly is mentioned. Oh, there's a good book, The Pornography of Power, by Robert Scheer. He goes after Donnelly, and he mentions how this pact came together. And so does Larry Everest. A lot of people talked about it. It's a big issue. Because after the Soviet Union fell, there was a very deliberate decision by the neocons not to let any power emerge, military or economic, to rival ours. That was a big decision. It got tied into the war on terrorism, and then it became preemption, and then it became Iraq as one example. You heard the story about how Wolfowitz, when he was at State back with Reagan, was very affected by the Marcos situation in the Philippines. I was shooting Platoon over there, and when Reagan took out the bowling pins from under Marcos, that was a big deal, because the authoritarian regimes were supposed to be left in place according to Jeane Kirkpatrick. It gets into that whole theory about, you know, we started to knock out the Shah of Iran, we started to knock out the Marcos people. Wolfowitz was saying, we can go on with it, taking out authoritarian governments, we could tie them to human rights.
The neocons, in other words, changed from Reagan into what they are now.
Slate: Part of what you've done with this film, you've talked about it being Shakespearean, about it being tragicomic. I was really struck by the comedy in it. But as you're laughing, suddenly something struck me, and that is the banality of evil. There are all these horrendous decisions about torture being made over a bologna sandwich. Or the fact that a pretzel could have altered recent history. And this band of war criminals walking down this path, getting lost down this road on Bush's ranch, and “Robin Hood” is the theme song. They reminded me more of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Stone: I'm glad you got that. If you think about it, they were a cabal of like twelve guys it seems, with Rice, on the inside. There was less access to the inner sanctum than ever in this White House. It was like a form of Orwell. Apparently people didn't see the president, they couldn't get to him. This was written about by a lot of people. Paul O'Neill was the first one to break the ice, with Ron Susskind. Ron Susskind did a great job on that book, of starting the process of questioning this guy. Like little King George, King George the IV. He doesn’t read the memos, he didn't read much.
Did you read Angler? Did you read the other one, Jane Mayer's book?
Slate: I read Jane Mayer's book.
Stone: Yeah. Angler, too, and Ron Susskind, The Way of the World, from Cheney through Bush. But nobody's seeing it. Even Powell didn't see stuff. And Rice was asleep, or not asleep, but she was intimidated by Rumsfeld and Cheney. So it's unbelievable but Cheney is actually the guy who could get to Bush.
Slate: I know everyone has told you this, but you have done amazing casting on this film. From James Cromwell to Josh Brolin, to Dreyfuss to Thandie Newton.
Stone: Wright, too, he did the Powell thing.
Slate: You did give him the benefit of the doubt, which was one thing that troubled me. But on the other hand, you also didn't shy away from the fact that whether he had differences with what Bush was actually planning and Cheney was planning, he still went along, including giving the most convincing speech in the whole buildup to the war.
Stone: All of the actions are there. Just because we go light on Bush doesn't affect his accountability. He still goes to war. Everything he does wrong is done, whether he knows about it or not. Do you understand what I'm saying? At the end of the day we didn't distort history. We didn’t cross the line. Everything happened that happened in that movie.
He caved. Whatever he thought, he caved.
Slate: Powell's another debate. I know you were working on a film on My Lai, and Powell began his career with the covering up of My Lai.
Stone: He was a good soldier. He went along with it “A good soldier picks his battles.” That's what he said in his memoir. The sad thing about Powell is he didn't pick the biggest battle. He missed it.
Slate: Or he's fighting for the wrong side.
Stone: He should have resigned at that moment.
Slate: I thought you treated Bush's religious conversion with a lot of seriousness. It was very fitting because this became a major force in Bush's life. You kept it almost private, even though he had the influence—you have people praying after every meeting. There is a lot of damage that he has done in terms of the theocratic moves, doing away with the separation of church and state, for instance. Why did you leave the religion at the more personal level?
Stone: That's a good question. I don't know that his faith-based initiatives have added up to that much. They've been rejected and apparently there hasn't been that kind of damage. It's a lot more damaging to pray all the time for the United States and god to be on our side. That's much more damaging to the psyche for me, to say, “God bless America, we're going into war, and god continue to bless America.” That's sickening stuff. Why should god continue to bless only the United States? Don't you think there's a larger god? That I find very offensive to me. But, aside from that, the bigger issue is that we don't know what happened. He's claimed the conversion. We gave him the benefit of the doubt, with the conversion. We had another scene with another preacher, too. It took two years, so a movie has to simplify, but there is another scene in the deleted scenes coming out.
The point is that he did change at that point in his life in the sense that he cut out his excessive recklessness, at least in his drinking and his behavior. But if you look very closely at the movie, evangelicism is based on the destruction of the ego. It was to be, “George Bush is broken and you no longer exist. You exist as a partner of Christ. You exist through Christ only.” That is the fundamental tenet. Your ego is supposed to be out the window. And when I talked to all the evangelicals I talked with in the South. I talked to four leading ministers plus their congregations. I'm surprised at Bush. He hasn't publicly said he is, but he's converted to born-again—he has this huge ego, still, in place. So there is a fundamental disconnect, for me, between what he claims to be and what he is. I would suggest reading Jacob Weisberg. I think Weisberg's much tougher on him, but Weisberg does have something to say about his evangelicism, and questions it thoroughly.
Slate: I will do that. And Oliver, I wanted to go back to the Colin Powell question. My view of Colin Powell—and I'd like to know why you gave him the break you gave him—is that this man is actually a war criminal, and the equivalent of all the others that were in there, too. He may have had some tactical differences with how they were doing it, but his whole career has been built on what the American empire is doing around the world.
Stone: That's correct. There's no question about that. He was chief of staff and he did his thing in Iraq One. He had the relationship with Schwarzkopf, and he let Schwarzkopf get the credit and all that. But he's definitely a major player.
In the movie, Wolfowitz says, “You agreed with us in the 1990s about the pact for the new American century.” Powell was going along with it. In the 1990s he signed off on that plan. He was involved in Bush, Sr.'s White House. He was chief of staff. He went off with it. But then something, and I'm going off of accounts, Woodward among them, saying that there was a lot of fighting behind closed doors between Powell and Cheney. You get that from the other books, too. Powell was out of the loop. He was a problem. And the other guy, Armitage, although Armitage has his own history. But these guys were very upset with the White House and Cheney's power and the way it was being run. Rumsfeld was taking over the powers of state. We assume there was some battle. And Powell stood up for that moment in time and tried to make some sense out of—what we're doing here is crazy. And he was not for Iraq, as you know. He thought that was a stupid war. You break the place, you're going to own it. He did say that and he was against it.
So somewhere along the way, he caved, and he bought into the Tenet thing with the uranium, and Africa, and the UN. And it was sad. But that's what he did at My Lai. He's a good soldier in the end. And that's what we portrayed him as. I think he has a conscience. He's got some nobility, although you might not agree with his objectives. If you believe in empire as far as that goes, he's a man who at least is a warrior.
Slate: Oliver, I want to thank you very much. I have one other question. You said that you consider yourself a dramatist over being a political filmmaker, and you said, “We need above all, a theater that wakes us up.” I want to know if you can sum up what you were saying with that. Because that's been one of your great contributions in art.
Stone: Thank you very much. That means a lot to me, Michael. I wish everyone on radio were like you. It would be great. “Waking up.” That was an Antonin Artaud statement from the 1920s. He was a French playwright and director, actor, wonderful. He said the theater that wakes us up, body and soul, nerves. It's good. The trick is to make the movie or the play interesting, not didactic or preachy, but make it involving. You get involved in the Kennedy assassination, or the Nixon story or Salvador, and you just live it.
If I'd made Bush into a more monstrous creation, maybe it would work. I just believe what we did was enough: the banality of evil, you called it earlier, to see him on an everyday basis. This is the guy we elected. He's the wolf that came along. We bought into it. Who's the next one going to be? Are we going to recognize him? Is it going to be a guy you want to have a beer with? Is it going to be Sarah Palin? Is America going to be so gullible?
It goes back to militarism, and it goes back to this aggression, this desire for vengeance, after 9/11, this culture of complaint. This, “I'm angry and what am I going to do about it? I'm going to fight.” That's not the answer. It's not the answer, and that goes to the horror that I started with. For me this trillion dollar budget is insane. If somebody in the damned election had said, “Let's cut 25% from the Pentagon budget and start with that money and try to fix the infrastructure of America,” that would have been a very challenging and provocative statement because we all know we could cut 25% out of the Pentagon, and we wouldn't burp. You should read The Pornography of Power, by Scheer, and push it, because it's about how the Pentagon became so insane. They don't know what they're doing over there. They have more money than Fannie Mae and all of them put together, all of Wall Street. And here we are supporting them and we don’t even blink. We're talking about Wall Street bankers, but we don't even think about the Pentagon guys. All we do is praise them, Petraeus and all these guys. It's disgusting.
Slate: Come back again some time. I'd really like to spend some time talking with you about all of your work.
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