The Rising Stone

The director of 'JFK' was plotting his latest countermyth in 2001

Flashback to Oliver Stone on the morning of October 6, 2001. The director, who looks like he's been up all night, is speaking at the New York Film Festival as part of a panel discussion called "Making Movies That Matter: The Role of Film in the National Debate."

"I got a call on Wednesday the 12th [of September, 2001] from a major [news magazine]. They had wanted my quote in a big story. I didn't know what the gist of the story was. The question was, simply, 'What are you gonna do now, in view of this [attack on the United States]? What would you like to do?' I said, 'Well, just off the top of my head? I'd do a bullet of a movie—on terrorism. And it would be like The Battle of Algiers. I'd go in and show how [terrorism] works—[counterterrorist agents] looking for them while they're about to [attack].'

"It's perhaps an old formula—but [my film] would be done realistically, without the search for a hero. It could be a fascinating procedural. The [reporter] heard that, wrote it down, and the article appeared. You know what the article was about? It was about how Hollywood is running away from reality, how Hollywood will not make any [serious] movies, and did not do so during World War II or [the Vietnam War]. That was the theme of the piece."

Born on the 12th of September: director Oliver Stone (left) on the set of 'World Trade Center'
Paramount Pictures
Born on the 12th of September: director Oliver Stone (left) on the set of 'World Trade Center'

How and why history is written has long been a major concern of Stone's. And so it remains, no matter that World Trade Center—with the help of critics, publicists, and the director himself—has been characterized as a surprisingly simple and "apolitical" work by the revisionist agitator behind JFK. Granted, Stone's fact-based drama about two Port Authority cops trapped under the rubble of the collapsed Twin Towers is nothing like a "bullet of a movie": If anything, the movie is more like a bandage. But that's precisely why it works as another Stone-authored countermyth, at least in terms of its bid to alter the national agenda by way of altering the national mood.

Where the official story of 9/11, not much modified by United 93's in-flight horror, has been that of panic—of sudden, unjust assault leading swiftly to violent vengeance—World Trade Center is about our capacity for compassion, however briefly it may have existed after the buildings fell. Even Stone's rendering of the cops' decision to enter the burning Trade Center—a disarmingly calm and composed scene—de-emphasizes the chaos that immediately surrounds it. One doesn't think of time standing still in New York on the morning of 9/11, of unimaginable catastrophe creating rather than limiting human potential. But perhaps Stone's movie will help instill that sense, particularly for those without the competing memories of lived experience—that is, for the future.

The notion of healing is, of course, not necessarily Christian and/or conservative, although Stone's mission in World Trade Center—complete with the image of Jesus offering bottled water, a picture as psychedelic as anything in The Doors—has everything to do with not alienating the faithful from his vision of the past as a way to progress, as a way out of the rubble. In this way, Stone's message—shrewder than other liberal campaigns of the last five years—is undeniably political.

More of Oliver Stone's statements at the New York Film Festival
on October 6, 2001:

"I think [depth] is what we want in a movie. I made a movie where the president's head was blown off in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, and it was an entertaining movie—because it was a thriller, and at the same time it did say some things that were important. I don't buy this concept of staying away from [addressing] things that have happened—because they happened. Vietnam happened, and we're still reconciling it in our movies; we have [further] to go. What I said earlier: Let's make a movie about terrorism—following the model of The Battle of Algiers. If it's well done and it's real and it's accurate—if the faces are real, if you see the Arab side, you see the American side, you see terrorism as a concept—people will respond. They'll go [to see it]. I don't buy this argument that everyone just wants to see Zoolander."

"In terms of tying movies to the September 11 issue: We as dramatists don't sit here and say, 'I want to give a political message about how Ronald Reagan was really a socialist.' It doesn't work that way. We have to work with people. Any good dramatist knows the issues, social and otherwise. But a real dramatist works with the background and the foreground. I really think it comes from passion. People need you to give them a wider story: That's the entertainment factor and it's what we need in movies. People [i.e., audiences] are interested in people for the most part. The great dramatists of all time—the Greeks, Shakespeare—did plays about the important stuff, about political issues. It seems to be the history of drama to do that. If anything, the movie business has become perverted by the vocabulary [of entertainment]. But entertainment matters every bit as much to me as it did to Sophocles and Euripides."

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