Stone, cast in a new light
The director of World Trade Center hopes the audience won't let his divisive image detract from the film's substance.
By STEVE PERSALL
Published August 6, 2006
The question haunting Wednesday's release of World Trade Center isn't whether it's too soon for Hollywood's version of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Instead, it is whether Oliver Stone should be the filmmaker doing it.
Stone carries the artistic credentials for the job - two best director Academy Awards and a third for screenwriting - plus a reputation for muckraking. Weeks before the film's debut, Internet users wondered what conspiracy he would mine from ground zero rubble and how much mud he would smear on the day's heroes.
World Trade Center does neither. Stone sticks to the facts chiefly provided by its main characters, Port Authority Police Department officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, and families who endured their daylong entombment under Twin Towers debris. The film is an occasionally terrifying tribute to the officers' courageous rescue and a sober memorial to 9/11 victims.
Even conservative voices accustomed to vilifying Stone's political and historical stands on film are praising his latest work.
For once in his often-divisive career, Stone has made a movie that might unite.
"From the dis-uniter," the 59-year-old director says during a recent Miami visit, smiling at the irony and making up a new word. "But I never intended to be a dis-uniter. I never saw myself in the way they pictured me. I never intended to rewrite history, only the myths."
Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July defied traditional Vietnam War impressions steeped in old John Wayne movies and political spin. JFK challenged the lone gunman theory of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Nixon dared to propose that a disgraced ex-president had as many shining qualities as flaws. Natural Born Killers accused everyone of the potential for media-fueled blood thirst.
When Stone tackles sensitive subjects, detractors call him crazy. When he creates mere entertainment such as the pro football drama Any Given Sunday; the odd U-Turn, a film noir under the desert sun starring Sean Penn; and last year's lamentable Alexander, critics accuse Stone of not trying hard enough to be controversial.
Stone constantly works under a shadow cast by his desire to shed light. Now that shadow extends to World Trade Center.
"The worst thing I could do with this movie would be to let the character called 'Oliver Stone' come between the audience and the film," he says. "That would be a disservice to the people in the film. I would say the same thing about JFK, but it happened, and my name grew through the years, and I became something other than what I am.
"I've had to deal with this 'Oliver Stone' out there, but it's not me."
Determining who Stone is would require more than the time allotted on a sunny day in a hotel suite overlooking Biscayne Bay. Stone recognizes the view of the city where Tony Montana lived dangerously in his Scarface screenplay and football players partied in Any Given Sunday. He looked fitter than ever at age 59, a seriously worked-out physique topped by suspiciously black hair. Stone's tan face is deeply creased these days, perhaps in part from all those slings and arrows of outrage.
Mentally, he operates like a hopped-up sniper, focused in a scattered sort of way, aiming at the questions then delivering a kill shot somewhere else. Answers begun about World Trade Center wind up in Iraq, or John Ford movies, or back to earlier films he says were misunderstood. At times he sounds like that other Oliver Stone, the one he says doesn't exist.
The obvious question - whether movie audiences are ready to revisit 9/11 - leads to impassioned commentary on America's place in the world.
"We'd better be ready," he says. "The consequences of that day are far worse than what happened on that day. There has been far more death through terror, more fear. We have constitutional breakdowns in this country. We have huge debts.
"On Sept. 12 America was loved around the world, everybody sympathized with us. There was a feeling around the world of wanting to help each other. We were in a different place, united and really pulling to overcome the suffering and the setback.
"What happened on 9/11 was made political baggage right away. People are tired of that. Fear got us where we are now, five years later. The fear, the breakdown of the Constitution, it's so much worse than it was then."
Sounds like an idea for an Oliver Stone film.
"Sure, if we can figure out what's going on," he says. "The eavesdropping took us by surprise. The bank records took us by surprise. We've reached a state of secrets, secrets, secrets, and we know that. We've known it for a long time, but now we see it, and it's scary.
"We've become the enemy. You fight Nazism and you become the Nazis. You fight the Russians, you become the Russians. There's always that element. America has changed, especially in the last five years. The America I knew growing up was doing a lot of bad things in the world, but we knew the ideals we still had. Those ideals have now been encroached upon and falsified."
The next minute, the contradiction of being Oliver Stone comes full circle when he complains about "so much noise about the name." He claims to genuinely not understand why his muckraking reputation endures.
"I don't know why. It's sad," he says. "I do seem to create even more controversy than Spike Lee or Francis (Ford Coppola) in the old days. It's amazing because if you look at the whole body of work, if you screened all my films back-to-back for a week, it's a zigzag, it's a growth. There's so much going on in America that a simplification of everybody takes place. It's easier to pigeonhole, and that's so unfair."
Stone compares his situation to legendary director Frank Capra, whose name became synonymous with feel-good Depression-era movies despite his serious intentions.
"He painted for me a very interesting picture of the 1930s that seems to conform to what I saw in the documentaries," Stone says. "It's not orthodox by any means. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a very searing look at corruption in our legislative body, way ahead of its time, a very tough, dark film. Look at Meet John Doe and how fascism disrupted America in those days. Yet Capra has been simplified as a sentimentalist.
"In certain ways there's so much depth in what I've tried to do in my films that to be dismissed as a conspiracy theorist, a fabricator, is sad. You can't listen to it. You just have to find your own inner strength, and it's hard."
Strength for Stone is his supreme confidence that truth is on his side, regardless of what his critics say. World Trade Center may be Stone's most irrefutably historical film yet, based on hard information, not speculation, without a conspiracy in sight.
"I never intended to do that," Stone says. "I respected the men. That was the story I was bound to do. I wouldn't go back on my oath.
"The same methods went into this movie that I always have used: the pursuit of realism, talking to witnesses, following up the facts. That's my style.
"The memories were fresh in the minds of policemen, firemen, and especially the Port Authority because this is a Port Authority film. The rescue issues were filled with confusion, because the day was filled with confusion. We checked out the stories and we had enormous technical nightmares trying to match it."
If anything, World Trade Center sanitizes the horror, showing only one computer-generated victim representing dozens who leaped from the towers to escape the flames. Stone wanted a PG-13 rating - the first in his career - to widen the potential audience.
"We've seen the (news) footage of it," Stone says. "We could've shown a lot more.
"You have to take into account that people who will see this film are not just people who know about the event. There are people who don't know anything about it; peasants in Peru, young people who were 7 years old at the time and didn't know what it was all about, or kids born today who'll see (the film) in 15 years. You have at least some information you have to share.
"When all the cops are looking up (at the jumpers) you have to show, at least once, what they're seeing. We didn't use any real footage so as not to offend anyone. Who knows who might spot who in there."
For all its reverence and meticulous detail, World Trade Center is still an Oliver Stone film. That's enough to make a lot of moviegoers wary.
"If that got in the way, I would be very sorry," Stone says, sounding weary of his shadow's weight. "That would be a shame. It would be a case of image overcoming substance again.
"Honestly, if I could have been like (authors) John le Carre or Graham Greene, who when they wanted to write novels that weren't the kind they're known for could just use a pseudonym, I would do it. You can't do that in the film business because it's too visible, too transparent.
"I would've changed my name years ago. I don't want it to get in the way. I work so hard, then I get in the way of my own film and I trip it. It's ridiculous. Does that mean I have to make something holier than thou every time in order to avoid the stigma?
Stone considers his question for a moment and smiles:
"I did make U Turn, right? I guess there's hope here."
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org.