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."
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."
"We made Born on the Fourth of July in 1989. The picture cost $16 million—maybe $17 million or $18 million when you add it all up; we fought for that extra $2 million. And there has been no significant inflation in the United States since 1989. So why, in 2001, would this picture that was very tightly budgeted in 1989 cost $60 million or $80 million even before marketing? You advertise it on television, and we're talking [a budget of] $100 million to $135 million. It's no longer a movie; it's an event. A guy like Tom Pollock [former head of Universal Pictures, which financed Born] is going to look at that and say, 'Born on the Fourth of July: A guy in a wheelchair—I can't make $100 million on that.' An important movie can't work [financially] anymore because the system has gone bananas."
"Why, in a noninflationary period, in the last 10 years, have the corporations gotten huge? There's no trustbuster around—Teddy Roosevelt is long dead. And these media corporations are controlled by six principal figures: They're princes, they're kings, they're barons—media barons. And these six companies decide. Rupert Murdoch says, 'Oliver, I would never do a film on Martin Luther King Jr.—they'd be rioting at the gates of Disneyland.' This is bullshit. But that's what the new world order is. These six men decide what you're going to see at the movie theater. They control everything, including all the smaller companies. It's a struggle to get something made at one of the small companies that isn't owned by one of these huge companies that buy everything out. So it's a real dilemma. It's war, really, because [media bosses] control the culture, they control ideas, everything. We have too much order. And I think the revolt on September 11 was about order. It was about 'Fuck you, fuck your order...'"
"Is it time, perhaps, to reconsider the world order? Is it time to wonder why the banks have completely joined the movie industry and all the other corporations? Decentralization is no longer possible and that's why Born on the Fourth of July cannot be made [today]."
"What has basically happened over the last 10 years is that the studios have bought television stations. Why? Why did the [Telecommunications Act of 1996] get passed at midnight? It was the strangest bill. It made all these laws that are still impossible to understand—about cable [TV companies] having rights and so on: It was about giving the world to media moguls. It was a hidden bill, [passed] at midnight. It was disgusting. It made television stations into the basis by which movie companies have to exist. And it changed everything..."
"Directors have been marginalized because [the studios] are making more movies. [Studio executives] think that [audiences] don't [know the difference in artistic terms] between a movie that has a 70 percent [commercial] success rate and [a movie that has a] 90 percent success rate. [They think] you don't need a top director. A lot of these companies go and get a TV-commercial director and just make the movie. Because it's about marketing; it's not about the subject [of the film]. So there's less point of view. It's not financially interesting for [executives] to make a picture with a director who's a pain in the ass. [The movies are] product: 'Move product.' The Arabs have a point. They're going to be joined by the people who objected in Seattle, and the usual 10 percent who are against everything, and it's going to be, like, 25 percent of this country that's against the new world order. We need a trustbuster like Teddy Roosevelt to take the television stations away from the film companies and give them back to the people."
"The issues that we're discussing here were with us prior to September 11, yes, but they are part of September 11. There's no separation. There is an objection to the way the world is now: There's a lot of hate, and it's going to continue. The point is that [terrorists] are objecting to something. And I think we're not really dealing with that objection on this stage. There was a breakdown in the '90s—a breakdown in the world system, the banking system. It's really about the World Trade Organization. You noticed how China and Russia jumped right in? It's about a new order: control. But the control comes with a price. That's what I'm asking you to consider."
"The new means of censorship in America is to drive out thought through the explosions of People magazine and celebrity culture: gossip, superficiality. It fuels hate. It becomes the norm—the white norm of our society. There's no real alternative media right now in this country—that died, too, by the way. It was there in the '70s, you know—the Village Voice. But [alternative media] vanished in the '80s and '90s. It's very bizarre what has happened. But what I want to say is that [in this discussion] you're ignoring the banks, you're ignoring television, you're ignoring the size of this thing. You're saying capitalism will [dictate the future]. But capitalism is not inevitable: It changes. Teddy Roosevelt changed the direction of it. Franklin Roosevelt changed the direction of it. There have been changes periodically in capitalism. People say, 'What can I do? The six [media] barons have said no.' But it's about political will."
"I have no deal with any studio. I'm a free man—relatively. I can make a movie anywhere. I'm obviously smart in the sense that I'm very pragmatic. If I can get a lot of money from Tom Pollock to make a movie, I will. If I have to take less money to make a movie and shoot it on [digital video], I will—though I hope not, because DV doesn't look that good... But no one has really answered my question about [the inflation of the movie industry]. My criticism earlier was not only about the studio system, but about apathy and greed in general, in relation to world trade. I think if we don't look at that, then we're not respecting the reality."
"Doesn't anyone want to make the connection between the [presidential] election of 2000 and what happened on September 11? Let's look for the 13th month; let's look to the universe and see if the year will terminate. Obviously, we hope it will not—but there might be great [forces] at work here. The 2000 election was a complete vindication of the fact that capitalism has destroyed democracy."
"With [[digital video], what you need is a place to project it. Right now, you can't project it [properly]: The frame is all over the place. [DV] works with certain films. It helps if the image is smaller, if it's on TV or your laptop. But when you see some of this stuff [on the big screen]—I mean, Spike [Lee]'s movie Bamboozled is a very interesting movie, very provocative, but it looks like it was shot on toilet paper. The audience is not used to seeing that."
"What we're seeing [in the wake of the 9/11 attack] is a revolt, a revolution. When [the attack was seen on TV], people celebrated. It's like the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution: People were dancing in the streets. Because that's the way they feel. They're making a very clear statement to us—a statement of their feelings, a statement of opposition. I'm very concerned about this. As an American—I was [a soldier] in Vietnam—it feels very personal to me. It's a violation on a deep level. And I feel very sad for families whose fathers are not coming home, men who are not going to be in [their families'] lives. 'Vengeance is mine,' said the Lord. 'An eye for an eye.' This is apocalyptic, Old Testament stuff. [The attack] was an Old Testament move—a very, very mystical act. And it's not over."