Hollywood Maverick Oliver Stone Goes South Of The Border

Early in his new documentary South Of The Border, Oliver Stone tells the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez that after spending three days with him, he realises he must have had to grow a thick skin. It is one of several moments in this entertaining survey of the new Latin America, and the popular movement that is changing its relationship with the United States, where Stone's identification with his subject becomes apparent, and lends the film an extra layer of fascination.

Like his interviewees - Chavez, Bolivia's coca-chewing president Evo Morales, Cuba's Raul Castro, Argentina's Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, Lula da Silva of Brazil, and Ecuador's Rafael Correa - Stone has been demonised and caricatured by large sections of the US media, often because, like Michael Moore, he goes against the grain.

When he challenged the lone gunman theory in the assassination of John F Kennedy in JFK, the attacks reached hysterical proportions. Stone, a Vietnam veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster, was not just wrong, according to some, he was un-American.

With South Of The Border he has again come under fire, notably from the New York Times' Larry Rohter. His claims of errors and misrepresentations began a written war of words with the film-makers, who retaliated with their own accusations of inaccurate reporting and bias.

Sitting across a boardroom table from me in a London office, jet-lagged but voluble, Stone says that these days he views such onslaughts as a "missile shield". "That was the Reagan Star Wars idea that he'd shoot out of the sky any incoming missiles," he laughs. "I think there's a similar feeling in the United States media, even if they like the movie, of 'This must be a trick. I can't accept this as a fact because it's Stone, and at best it's going to be rose-coloured agitprop. Which is fine, as long as I know that it's agitprop,' as if I was secretly manipulating the gears."

He wasn't, he insists. But then neither was he firing the kind of tough questions at Chavez that the BBC's Stephen Sackur did recently on HARDtalk. A film-maker who believes in the classic Hollywood tradition of giving audiences characters they can care about, Stone says: "I go and I say, 'I'm not interviewing you as a journalist. I'm not a prosecuting attorney. Tell me what you're thinking about and what's going on about this. If you lie that's fine. People may see it on camera or not.' If it's a clear thing where there's a tremendous dislocation I will (come back at them], and I have."

Stone has inevitably been accused of being too pally with Chavez - a man as bad as Bin Laden or Hitler, according to Fox News - as he was when he spent time with Fidel Castro for his documentary Commandante (he recently interviewed him for a third time). However, the aim of South Of The Border, he explains, was to let people who haven't got a voice in the Western media speak for themselves. As for the charge that, in Chavez, he is giving a platform to a dictator, he says: "I have been in dictatorships. This is bullshit. It's really a Right Wing/Left Wing battle in Venezuela where the Right Wing has used Chavez as this egomaniac character they can attack much easier than they can the concept of reform."

But his approach is unobjective, say his critics; he is a patsy. Stone sighs. "I could never be fair or balanced enough to suit their needs unless I turned against Chavez. I don't know where the line is. I don't know where true objectivity lies. I just think that you have to take it as you can do it."

South Of The Border draws parallels between the way much of the US media fell in step with the Bush administration's foreign policy in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and the way it demonised Chavez in advance of a coup - backed, it appears, by America - to topple him in 2002. Stone knows from personal experience how dangerous this can be. As a young man he dropped out of Yale and enlisted for combat duty in Vietnam. Then, the American media was behind the war.

"I feel like I was a gullible, stupid kid, brainwashed by that education system that made the ethno-American point of view dominant," he says now. "I really had not a clue as to what was going on. The media really marched to war and it took me a long time to de-educate myself."

Indeed, he didn't "wake up overnight" in Vietnam. Caught in the thick of it, "I did my duty, but I kept my moral lights, and I did in any situation what I thought I should do. Which is to say not kill civilians, and find the enemy and kill them before they kill you. What I saw with my own eyes woke me up to a degree of pain and suffering I had never experienced in my life. I saw the racism and maltreatment, the regard of the Vietnamese as a lesser people. But I really only became aware of the historical causes after the war. It took me a few years to recover."

Studying film-making in New York helped, he says, by providing an outlet that "curbed my illegal mentality". What does he mean? "Coming back from a war you're not exactly a member of society," Stone reflects. "You're living in the bush and you're living by a different set of rules. The violence doesn't end with the country, it crosses the border, and we bring the violence home. Violence begets violence is an old cliché but it's true. 
Unless you stop."

Violence can take many forms, of course, and right now we're dealing with the economic violence of the financial meltdown in 2008. It has given Stone the perfect opportunity to bring back Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas's slick insider trader who, in Wall Street in 1987, notoriously declared that "Greed is good". In the long-delayed follow-up, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Gekko emerges from jail broke, into a world where the hedge funders have become what he was. Greed's not just good now, it's legal.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of banks refused to collaborate with Stone on the project. He talked to "dissidents and people who had made independent money", but the banks, including Barclays and the Royal Bank of Scotland, "were very arrogant. They closed their doors. They were scared of us. Only the Royal Bank of Canada said welcome."

Coming out so close together, South Of The Border and Wall Street 2 make an interesting pairing. Does Stone see them as complementing each other in any way? "Only in the sense that Wall Street's responsible for a lot of the misery in South America, which it is." On the other hand, "it can also be an instrument for good," he says, pointing to Shia LaBeouf's character, who is part of "an idealistic new generation". That said, being able to talk to some bankers gave Stone an insight into the "new class" and its "evident immorality". Compared to the 1980s, it's "sharper, meaner, tougher", he claims. A lot of them saw the original Wall Street and were, contrary to the film-maker's intentions, inspired to become traders because of Gekko. "It shows you the immorality of the broker, no?" he says, although he adds quickly: "Some of them are good. My father was a good one."

What the impact of the new film will be is anyone's guess. Like the first film, Wall Street 2 is meant to be a morality tale. Its message? "Enough. Enough of this bullshit. It's crazy what's going on. The system is whacko."

If people misunderstand, it won't entirely surprise Stone. It happened not only with Wall Street but also Natural Born Killers, which instead of being viewed as a satire on the media's fascination with and exploitation of violence, was taken by some as a celebration of violence.

"I don't think I could make a film that would not be misinterpreted," he says. "It seems to be my destiny." This doesn't bother Stone any more. He has come to accept it. He tells me that he sometimes feels like the character of an "old drunk" in A Chinese Ghost Story, who dances and repels spirits. "I guess it's my destiny to be perceived as a fool and a drunk," he says, "but underneath that, the Chinaman is very effective in exorcising the demons."

Originally published in The Scotsman

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