By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 8, 2006
NEW YORK It's 101 degrees outside, but Oliver Stone cuts a cool figure as he strides into a well-upholstered hotel room. He's in town for the premiere of "World Trade Center," his dramatization of the rescue of two Port Authority police officers who were part of the rescue effort on Sept. 11, 2001. The film, which opens tomorrow, has already generated a certain degree of controversy, especially in Stone's native Manhattan. But it has also earned high praise from unlikely quarters, including some of the country's most outspoken conservative commentators.
Once again, it seems, Oliver Stone has found himself -- or placed himself -- in the center of the fray. For a director who has so often held up a subversive mirror to America's most cherished ideas about itself and its history, Stone's choice to depict Sept. 11 as a moment of heroism at first seems as counterintuitive as Jackson Pollock suddenly deciding he's Norman Rockwell.
But people who are surprised that "World Trade Center" is an Oliver Stone film haven't been paying attention. Indeed, with the film's celebration of family, service, endurance and religious faith, Stone is doing what he does best, taking American history outside the confines of conventional wisdom and casting it as something more akin to poetry, or myth.
Stone has always been a master of revisionist histories, from America's involvement in Central America in "Salvador" and the Vietnam War in "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July," to the skepticism of "JFK" and the Shakespearean portrait of "Nixon." Having rarely hesitated to engage his country's shadow material, Stone once again offers an unexpected take, presenting a pivotal event shrouded in grief and rage and giving it back to viewers as a tale of moral and spiritual uplift.
Rather than the conspiracies or blowback-induced guilt that many might have expected from Stone, "World Trade Center" is an ode to what he perceives as the best parts of the American character. As he's done so many times before, Stone -- always with his finger firmly on the pulse of his own generation -- seems to have made a movie that transcends factual history, instead delivering the story many of us want and need to hear.Fighting Back
Arriving in theaters nearly five years after the actual event, "World Trade Center" is a dramatic, often excruciating tick-tock of that dreadful day when thousands died. But instead of focusing on the carnage, Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff have chosen to tell the story of John McLoughlin (played by Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), who went into the buildings just before they collapsed and were pinned under concrete and rubble for 12 hours. They were among the 20 people who were pulled alive from the debris. (The film also follows the story of the men's wives, played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as they wait in anguish for news of their husbands.)
"Nine-eleven was used politically to enhance American isolationism, America-firstism, which I think is unfortunate," says Stone. "So it comes with heavy baggage. But let's go back to the day, celebrate the strength and the people who lit a candle in the darkness. The people who fought back."
Some viewers will be startled by a patriotic subtext in "World Trade Center," coming from a director who has often said that nationalism and patriotism are the two greatest roots of evil in the world. That subtext is embodied by the character of Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a retired Marine staff sergeant who, after seeing the attacks on television, impulsively got a regulation buzz cut, donned his uniform and drove to New York to help in the rescue effort. It was Karnes who ultimately found McLoughlin and Jimeno. And it's Karnes -- square-jawed, often looking into the middle distance like a military hero of a bygone cinematic era -- who toward the end of the film says that "they'll need a lot of good men to avenge this." A title card during the closing credits states that the real-life Karnes reenlisted and served two tours in Iraq.
That will be a stirring moment or a chilling one, depending on each filmgoer's point of view. But Stone, a decorated war veteran, insists that "you have to give credence" to the Karnses of the world. "Many Americans, perhaps the majority, were really angry and wanted revenge," he says of the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. "In fact, I did, too. I'm not a pacifist. I'd like to be one. I'd love to be in the best of all worlds. But we're dealing with reality here. I felt very angry, but I think the enemy was 5,000, 6,000 al-Qaeda. And I would go again to fight them . I wouldn't hesitate. And I'd send my son to fight them. That was the war, in Afghanistan. We didn't complete that war. I would disagree with Mr. Karnes. [I'd say] he fought the wrong war. But I understand the mentality of 'Let's get somebody.' I have no fight with the right or the left. The church of the left or . . . what do you call the right?"
Whatever Stone calls the right, at the moment much of it is calling him some very surprising names. The syndicated columnist Cal Thomas has labeled "World Trade Center" "one of the greatest pro-American, pro-family, pro-faith, pro-male, flag-waving, God Bless America films you will ever see." In the National Review, Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote that Stone's film has tapped into "the united outrage we feel when Americans are murdered. It's about why we fight." Paramount, which is distributing "World Trade Center," has hired Creative Response Systems to help with grass-roots marketing; the firm is best known for orchestrating the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks against John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign.
"Listen, anybody -- right, left, Martian, any gender, any race, anywhere -- who loves the movie is a person I love," Stone says. "Because I know he or she has a heart. Because it's a movie of the heart, from the heart, about people. It's got no baggage, no ideology. Neither of the guys talked about [politics]; neither did their wives. I probably have different politics from them, but I still love them as persons. And that's an important lesson during a time when we're so ideologically divided."
As mind-bending as his present bedfellows may seem, Stone says he eschews right-left distinctions, even when it comes to his most controversial movie, "JFK." "I never saw it as political," he says of the film, which outraged many with its suggestion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the tip of a broader conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy. "It questioned the nature of reality, but it was not left wing-right wing." Indeed, Stone was reared, he says, as a "right-wing Republican." (His father was a stockbroker, and the inspiration for his 1987 film "Wall Street.") He supported Barry Goldwater as a teenager and dropped out of Yale after his first year to enlist in the Army. He served in the infantry in Vietnam and was wounded twice, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
"If Bush had spent three months in combat, he would take a whole different view of war," Stone says. He matriculated with the president at Yale but the two never met. "He wouldn't be so light. And that includes Cheney and Rumsfeld. They're tough guys, but combat softens you, if anything. It makes you more aware of human frailty and vulnerability. It doesn't make you a coward, but it does teach you. If any of those guys had seen combat, I don't think we would have had this gratuitous decision to go to Iraq, which has cost us greatly."
On the day before "World Trade Center" will have its New York premiere -- with none of the parties and hoopla that usually attend these be-glittered photo ops -- Stone is relaxed, having just spent the afternoon with his 84-year-old mother, Jacqueline, who lives downtown. Dressed in a crisp khaki suit, lavender polo shirt and mint-green socks, he looks boyish whenever he breaks into that familiar gap-toothed grin, which is often. (Stone turns 60 next month.)
"She has unbelievable strength," he says of his mother, launching into a conversation during which he will prove to be alternately voluble and soft-spoken, defensive and self-deprecating, personal and political. "And she's not a woman who took great care of herself. She partied hard. But it's no Brooke Astor situation." Referring to the recent field day the tabloids have had with the story of Astor's son allegedly neglecting her, Stone says, "It's unfair. He's a good son, I bet. It's like the Mel Gibson thing. It's unfair, the attacks."
But even Stone, who can be and has been accused of just about everything except a sense of irony, can see the irony in being lionized at the very moment Gibson -- the darling of conservatives just a few years ago -- is being drubbed.
"It is weird. It is weird," he says in his soft, New-York-minute cadence. "But everything comes around and everything goes around, right?"Ups and Downs
During a 45-minute conversation that moves from politics and the movie business to spirituality and artistic morality, Stone will loop back again and again to the fight he always seems to be fighting, about his complicated feelings toward his home country. (Stone lives in Los Angeles.) "I like America, I am American," he says. "There is a great freedom and a great energy here, and an ability to reshape yourself that I love. And you don't find that anywhere else in the world, there's no question. But that doesn't make us right or wrong on everything."
If anyone has reshaped himself, it's Stone, whose career has been a ziggurat of breathtaking highs (he's a three-time Oscar winner) and vertiginous lows. Although "Alexander," his epic biopic starring Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great, was his most recent high-profile flop, he reminds that film's detractors that it didn't perform badly in terms of worldwide box office. Indeed, he counts "Heaven & Earth," his 1993 film about a young Vietnamese woman's journey to America, and "Nixon," his 1995 meditation on the end of Richard Nixon's presidency, as his biggest failures.
When "Nixon" failed, he said, he hit rock bottom. "I'd done 10 movies in 10 years, most of them high-energy, big movies," he says. "It was too much. My balance shifted; I got burned out a bit." He made a thriller ("U-Turn") and a football movie ("Any Given Sunday") and an HBO documentary about Fidel Castro. Then came "Alexander," which he has just reedited a second time, calling the new, three-hour, 45-minute DVD cut "the Cecil B. De Mille Oliver Stone" version.
"You either laugh or you get hurt," he says of the years when critics were dismissing him as once-great. "I allow myself to get hurt. I'm sensitive. . . . But I believe in myself, because you know damn well I come back."
Referring to two of his earliest screenplays, he recalls, "They hated 'Scarface.' 'The Hand,' I didn't work after that. 'Heaven & Earth' hurt me. 'Nixon' really hurt me. But if you don't get hurt, why the hell are you doing it? You put your passion and years in there, if people don't like your movie of course you're hurt. If you say you're not, if you're doing it for some higher great god, that's good. I'd love to say that. But I do have an ability to recover, to repair myself, to come back. And that takes effort. This is not my first comeback."
If "World Trade Center" isn't the first time Stone has survived the vicissitudes of a Hollywood career, it still promises to introduce him to a brand-new audience: young teenagers, who, early market research suggests, are responding to the film as a generational flashpoint similar to what the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam and Watergate represented to their forebears. After a recent test screening, one 14-year-old girl was quoted as saying, "I remember back in 2001 when [the attacks] happened on the news. I kept thinking, 'This isn't real; it's just one of those disaster movies.' ['World Trade Center'] made me feel September 11th was real for the first time."
Stone laughs bemusedly when he hears that, shaking his head. "I like that," he says after taking it in. But doesn't the fact that the cinema has such power to infiltrate the collective consciousness give Stone some pause? Having been accused of trying to convince a generation of filmgoers that the Warren Commission was wrong in 1991's "JFK," then glorifying violence in the 1994 film "Natural Born Killers," did he feel a particular responsibility to audiences with "World Trade Center"?
"I'm responsible to myself," Stone intones, clearly weary of answering the same question 12 years later. "I have my own conscience. If we start to have a collective responsibility, it's a form of censorship. You cannot obey any rules but your own conscience. When you muffle something, you change it. It [becomes] official art. . . . 'Don't you feel that art should be responsible?' is a trick question, to try to get you to say, 'Oh yeah, all art should be responsible.' Responsible to what? The law? The truth? You should draw a line at hate speech, I think, but some filmmakers may not. But it's your choice to see the movie. No one's forcing you to see the movie."
Although at least one widow of a Port Authority police officer requested that her husband's death scene be cut from "World Trade Center" (Stone complied), and another, Jeanette Pezzulo, whose husband's suicide is depicted on film, has called the release of the film "too soon," Stone's movie seems to have been greeted with quiet resignation on the part of Sept. 11 survivors and families. It helped that Paul Greengrass's "United 93," about the United Airlines flight that was overtaken by passengers above Shanksville, Pa., was released to positive reviews this summer (it earned a modest $31 million domestically, and was not considered a hit). "It was very much a different style," Stone says of Greengrass's taut, austere retelling of events. "But I liked it, and it really broke the ice for us." With "World Trade Center's" relatively happy ending, heightened emotions and more conventional Hollywood production values, expectations are high that it will perform better at the box office than its predecessor.
Whether or not it does, chances are that critics -- left, right or Martian -- will once again have Stone to kick around. He doesn't know what his next film will be, but he just saw Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" and calls it "one of the most important documentaries I've ever seen." Earlier this year, when Bill Clinton spoke at Stone's son's Princeton graduation (Stone is on his third marriage, and has three children), the filmmaker approached the former president to buttonhole him about global warming.
"I know he didn't like Gore," Stone says, "but maybe a word in someone's ear could do a lot of good; that's why I went up to him. [I said,] 'You could stop these guys.' " From here talk wanders from the coal industry to journalists' treatment of Gore in 2004 ("They were mean, mean, mean") to, inevitably, Stone's own treatment at the hands of the liberal press. "I guess I'm anathema to all sides," he says cheerfully, wrapping up the conversation. "Poor little me. Poor little Oliver Twisted." He laughs softly, rises to shake hands and begins to primp for a photo shoot. "By the way, how do you make a movie about ecological warming, make it about coal mining and carbon dioxide and make it interesting?" he calls out before turning to leave. "If you see a script, send it to me."