Oliver Stone: "I didn't want to be the bad guy again."

Oliver Stone's World Trade Center: cop out or honest response to 9/11?

A month after the 11 September attacks, Oliver Stone gave a talk in New York. He said that if he ever tackled 9/11, his movie would be a realistic, politically balanced examination of terrorism from the American and Arab perspectives. He offered The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s unbiased account of the Algerian revolution, as a touchstone.

Five years later, Stone’s World Trade Center is being hailed as a masterpiece by American conservatives – a first for the director who attacked US foreign policy in Salvador, portrayed a disabled Vietnam veteran's transformation into an anti-war protestor in Born on the Fourth of July, and explored numerous conspiracy theories with JFK. He has made it easy for them: there is no mention of terrorism or Arabs or George Bush's failure to respond swiftly to events.

Instead, Stone focuses his narrative on the true story of two Port Authority police officers, Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) and Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), who survived beneath the rubble of the Twin Towers, and the tense uncertainty experienced by their families. It is powerful cinema, just not in the way you expect from Stone.

What happened to that other film, I ask him, when we meet at the Venice Film Festival? He sighs and recalls another comment he made in New York.

“I said that 9/11 was a rebellion against what Arabs considered an oppressive system of capitalism and military troops in the Middle East. I got killed for that.” He claims it was a misunderstanding. “In the English language, the concept of rebellion or revolution is considered to be a good thing, but I didn’t mean it that way. To those Arabs who felt that way it was a good thing, is what I was saying.”

The attacks hit Stone hard. He concedes that while it would have been impossible to finance the kind of film he was advocating in America at that time, he could have tried to make it abroad. “Suffice it to say that after the criticism I got I kind of shied away," he says candidly. "I didn’t want to be the bad guy again.”

Some have now accused Stone of going soft, or doing World Trade Center to atone for the (perceived) failure of his historical epic, Alexander. That film actually did very well outside America, he insists. “We did $170m. It’s no joke. It was one of the top 20 films of the year. It’s not a turkey like the British-language press would say.” Nixon and Heaven and Earth were by far his “worst financial disasters”.

Stone, who unusually was a hired hand on WTC, says he did the film because he liked the script and because he understood the camaraderie between its uniformed protagonists, having served as an infantryman in Vietnam. Wounded twice, he also knew what it was like to survive by a hair’s breadth.

“I got a bullet wound right here,” he says, pulling up the hair on the back of his neck. “The bullet went right through. I guess this much more and I would be dead.”

The director argues that he is not avoiding politics in the film because there were none that day, just shock and anger. Even so, a “stupid comment” made at the end of the film by a marine calling for revenge means he now finds himself accused of making a pro Bush film by some liberals.

Stone is eager to defend his record. While he believes they were right to “take vengeance" in Afghanistan - "We went after the right people” - he was opposed to the Iraq war from the beginning. “I was castigated in America for my positions against Bush and the Iraq war,” he says. “Many of the liberals in America, don’t forget, were for the war. Hilary Clinton voted for that war. John Kerry voted for that war. The New Yorker voted for that war. I didn’t. I did Alexander instead because I wanted to get out of America.”

He dismisses suggestions that World Trade Center could help the Republicans in the forthcoming mid-term election because it would reinforce the fear of terror. “I don’t see it that way. It’s demystifies part of the 9/11 phenomena. It puts you right in the middle and says, ‘Okay, how bad can this be?’ Yeah, it’s as rough as it gets, but those two guys got out. In other words: you can conquer your fear.” At a time when governments are using fear as a weapon, this is arguably a political statement in itself.

“This movie was not to be politicised,” Stone protests. “To politicise it is to indicate that the Left is as fucked up as the Right, frankly. Some of these people on the Left have lost sight of humanity. They’re so anti Bush that they have lost sight of the possibility of change, and change comes out of the heart. We’ve got to talk to the centre again. We’ve got to be at the centre. The movie is very much about peace at the centre.”

In this respect, World Trade Center is, arguably, as much a reaction against trends in Hollywood filmmaking as anything else. Stone appears to suggest that US cinema, consciously or otherwise, helped prepare the American public for the invasion of Iraq. ”The war iconography changed again,” he says, “and it went back to shock and awe at the American military machine.”

Films like Black Hawk Down and Pearl Harbour (“I hated that film because it basically said we won Pearl Harbour”), even Saving Private Ryan (“If I had been in that group, if I had been in the infantry, we would have killed that sergeant long ago”), he believes, “had a big influence on people about how powerful and technically superior we were”. Meanwhile, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, which showed the cost of war, were ignored, he claims.

“I got very depressed in that period,” he says sadly. “I mean it was my life’s work. I was a forgotten figure. Nobody even mentioned those films, or very rarely. I got my first taste of how history filters out what it doesn’t want to remember.”

Conversely, World Trade Center put Stone on the cover of Newsweek. He is the hero of the hour. However, his conservative supporters could be in for a shock. Speaking in Moscow recently, Stone reinforced his maverick reputation by hinting that he was considering doing a film about “a conspiracy by a group of people in the American administration who have an agenda and who used 9/11 to further that agenda”.

Has Stone gone soft or is he playing a long game? Time will tell.

The original version of this article appeared in The Big Issue.

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006

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