It’s been a long, hot summer filled with heatwaves, monsoons and that pesky war in the Middle East. But Oliver Stone is sitting in a hotel room in Seattle looking surprisingly comfortable. Following one of his most high-profile failures (Alexander), Stone is about to shepherd the release of what looks to be his most controversial film to date, a real-life examination of the events surrounding 9/11. And yet, the famously contentious filmmaker is at ease, cheerfully answering questions about his successes and his shortcomings. What gives?
Perhaps Stone knows what the world is about to learn: That his new film World Trade Center is not some conspiracy-chasing exposé of government malfeasance on that fateful September day. In fact, World Trade Center is a film so free from politics and so reverential to the police officers, firemen and rescue workers who gave their lives in service to their fellow man on 9/11 that even Dick Cheney would be hard-pressed to find fault with it. This from the outspoken director who gave us Platoon, JFK and Natural Born Killers?
“The wrong thing for me would be to get in the way of the movie,” says Stone who has taken a low profile on this one. TV commercials don’t even mention his name. “But,” adds Stone, “I would say that about every movie I make. The truth is my personality is chameleon-like. I’ve changed on every movie. I think my problem is I’ve probably been outspoken politically in-between movies, and they confuse that with the movies. Unfortunately, if you look at JFK and Nixon, they defy type. Nixon was attacked by the right wing before they saw it. In fact, it’s very empathetic to the character and humanity of Nixon. JFK is neither left nor right. It’s a question mark. It’s a radical question mark. I consider myself and independent--radical independent if you want.”
Stone, who recently shot a rather sympathetic documentary about Fidel Castro (Comandante), describes himself as “a conservative in some ways and a liberal in others.” Stone is aware that his controversial lifestyle (arrested in 1999 for possession of hashish) and outspoken remarks (“Nationalism and patriotism are the two most evil forces that I know of in this century or in any century”) are sometimes harmful to his films. Nonetheless, the Yale-educated Vietnam vet thinks of himself as, “John Q. Citizen. I just don’t consider myself a director. I consider myself as having the rights of a citizen. I have a right to speak out as you do.” It’s a position that has earned him the ire of right-wing talk show hosts like Bill O’Reilly, who seem eager to condemn World Trade Center even before its release.
“I’ve been a boogeyman of theirs for a long time,” concedes Stone. “I don’t know what to say. My answer would be to see the film.”
Despite the often radical political content of his films, World Trade Center is astonishingly free of rhetoric. It concentrates, instead, on the true story of New York Port Authority police officers John McLoughlin (played by Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña). They were among the first responders on 9/11 and became hopelessly trapped in the collapse of the Twin Towers. While John and Will struggled to stay alive pinned under tons of rubble, their wives (played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) fought their way to Ground Zero.
Although New York’s Port Authority gave Stone and his crew unprecedented access, the wreckage of Ground Zero was recreated, in painstaking detail, in an aircraft hanger in California. Cage and Peña were entombed in the set’s claustrophobic mixture of Styrofoam and steel for up to eight hours a day while Stone filmed. “Walking on rubble for one hour is exhausting. I don’t recommend it,” says Stone, before adding an afterthought: “Actually, it could probably be a great new aerobic exercise.”
Although Stone’s film has received the lion’s share of publicity, Brit director Paul Greengrass actually helmed the first feature film about 9/11, the hijacking drama United 93, which hit theaters earlier this summer.
“I’m glad that Greengrass did his film,” admits Stone. “I think it helped break the ice. It was an excellent movie.” Although Greengrass’ film was in a very different style, Stone says, “this subject matter should be done in different styles, like Vietnam was. I could imagine five to seven to eight movies about this that could be very effective. And if you look back on Vietnam, we do have five, six, seven, eight movies that are very effective.”
Stone says that, compared to Greengrass’ grim feature, World Trade Center is “a more traditionally Hollywood film.” It is, after all, a film about the darkest day in recent history, and is being billed--rightfully so--as the year’s most “inspirational” film. “Frankly, it’s a movie that Wyler or Capra or Ford would have done in the ’30s and ’40s--probably with Tracy and Gable,” says Stone.