Oliver Stone vs. the Empire
Oliver Stone has the same gripe with Barack Obama as he did with George W. Bush—namely, they both stand for American Empire, and he does not.
Stone is a three-time Oscar winner, has made over 60 films, including “Platoon,” “Wall Street,” “JFK,” “Nixon,” and “W.”, and is generally regarded as one of the legends of his trade.
In his new book and Showtime series, The Untold History Of The United States (co-authored with Professor Peter Kuznick of American University), Stone highlights what he feels are neglected figures and choices in the American journey. In conversation, Oliver Stone is amiable, keeping an open mind to views that differ from his own, but never willing to back down when he thinks you are wrong.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with him at the Soho Grand hotel in New York, where we discussed his new book and series, the difference between Pro-Empire Liberals and Anti-Empire Liberals, uniting the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, which direction our nation will go over the next four years, sex scenes in “Nixon,” and whether Harry Truman was more like George W. Bush or Sarah Palin.
John Buffalo Mailer: When I read Untold History, I get the sense that you are suggesting it was not all that long ago that the country went off track. You start off the Showtime series with the testing of the A-bomb, then go straight through to today. Henry Wallace is one of the standout figures in this book. Had he won the nomination for vice president instead of Truman in ’44, the world would be a very different place. Is it still possible to conceive of America if Wallace had won?
Oliver Stone: I think that’s the whole point of undertaking something like this, which is to show repeated occurrences in which there are pivot points where history could have been different, where the United States could have acted differently. It’s like a baseball player at the plate, bases loaded, and he whiffs it. Strikes out. But as a good pro athlete, you know you can get to the plate again and have another opportunity. That’s the way you have to look at it.
So there is not only the Wallace moment, but there is a wonderful moment with Kennedy in ’62 after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Definite moves towards ending the Cold War with Khrushchev. It ends with Kennedy’s assassination. There’s a great moment with Gorbachev in January ’89 with Bush I. He’s being offered the Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe, the end of the Cold War. All that fear all those years of Communism, and where was the peace we fought for? Out the window. Who’s our new enemy? Bush said it was the Drug War. The first target is Manuel Noriega in Panama. So Noriega becomes the enemy of the week. We need a better enemy than him, don’t we? So eventually it shifts over to Hussein in Iraq because he invades Kuwait. Which is a great story, we go into it in detail in the book. It’s again, false information that leads to a war, the first Iraq War.
Then you have the 2001 moment, 9/11. A band of terrorists does what it does. The band is not that big, but it’s treated by George Bush 43 as if it’s Hitler all over again coming to start World War III. It’s over-hyped. Another huge dose of false intelligence which leads to invading a country, Iraq again. And it’s supported by liberals.
And then of course the Obama moment, whether or not to increase the troop levels in Afghanistan. There was great hope that Obama would move off that agenda. Those moments of hope do exist, and they will come back again, I hope, and you’ll live to see them in your lifetime.
JBM: I hope so. But I can’t think of a mainstream political figure like Henry Wallace. The closest I can think of is Ralph Nader.
OS: There seems to be a divide between pro-empire liberals and anti-empire liberals. Think back to the Anti-Imperialist League in Chicago at the turn of the century, the great American liberals, including Mark Twain, turning against the annexation of Cuba and the Philippines, and think of liberals today who really say, “Enough! We need to contract these 800 plus bases we have around the World.” These liberals have to stay committed, but it’s so much harder when they’re attacked by the pro-empire types. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are apparently comfortable with empire, so it’s truly become a bipartisan foreign policy—most Americans now support the concept of being an empire, global policemen with a given right to intervene.
JBM: I would say your book makes a pretty clear argument that Obama is a pro-empire liberal.
OS: Obama has clearly stated we are the indispensable nation. Why? I don’t agree with that. That’s campaign rhetoric saying we are appointed by somebody as indispensable. You’re talking Obama-God. There’s a god that apparently has disposed himself to make us indispensable.
I don’t think that Obama is a confrontationalist by nature. I mean, there’s a man who seems to get along and go along, and went far. I do like his strength, but he doesn’t have the character, it seems, to challenge received opinion.
JBM: I’m hard pressed to find another Democratic president who in four years has accomplished more than Obama has.
OS: You can say that. But at the same time, he’s gone along with the national-security state that was established by Bush, and in some ways enhanced it. Which was against all the things he stood for. He was a constitutional lawyer! He didn’t at all enforce what I would consider to be the law. He’s put the president above the law. He continues eavesdropping on a massive level. He continues the concept of illegal detention. Unfortunately, Guantanamo and the various prisons have continued. It’s not a pretty picture of law. By being a Democrat and black, he’s done the worst thing possible: he’s taken what was an exceptional mistake by Bush and turned it into a continual text. It’s going to be harder and harder to turn back. The foundation had been laid; he’s tightening the screws.
JBM: The book reads like a narrative. You’ve succeeded in making it exciting. I could see kids getting turned on to American history through this.
OS: I love history. Today our kids have lower scores in history than they do in math and science, as bad as their math and science scores are! And I think part of the reason is, history to them is boring. And the reason it’s boring is because they already know the story, because it always ends up a Disney movie with the U.S. coming out okay and being good. This is no juicy horror show. Darkness is sanitized out by the country’s education boards scared of political controversy. They cut out daring, challenging history. The Texas school board has a lot of power in this country. So does California, apparently, because they both buy the most textbooks.
JBM: When “Platoon” came out, the effect it had on my generation was that everyone grew up thinking Vietnam was a bad war, that we had no business being there. But the script got flipped when we were attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. Suddenly the Afghans and Iraqis are the new Vietcong and it’s okay to go invade sovereign countries again, in fact it’s necessary. We’ve now lived through a decade of war, had a generation come up on it, and they don’t seem to see anything wrong with us now moving our troops into the South Pacific and promoting the American Empire there.
OS: We’re basically deploying ships and troops, in Japan and Australia, too, controlling the sea lanes. It’s not about bayonets and guns. What it is, is a commitment to military treaties and alliances, with NATO, with the South Asian nations that may feel threatened by China. It’s easy to feel threatened. Although China is an interesting story, because you can never tell what would happen. China has one base abroad, and yet they’re one of our biggest creditors.
JBM: After reading Untold History, I don’t know if I want to liken Truman to W. or to Sarah Palin.
OS: More to W. because I think he’s the wrong man at the wrong time, with a limited imagination. Very little empathy. I can’t take Palin seriously.
JBM: But no one took Truman seriously until he was suddenly the president of the United States.
OS: That’s true, Truman did get in by appointment. America has gotten Truman all wrong. They have glorified a guy who shouldn’t be glorified. David McCullough has a lot to do with that. He won a Pulitzer Prize for it. It was made into a hit HBO film. As we show in chapter 3, there’s nothing accurate about it and there’s a lot of history left out.
JBM: Can you envision a third party that would be able to unite the Tea Party and Occupy?
OS: And Labor.
JBM: If you could find the party that represents both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, I think labor would be included, along with well over half the country.
OS: Well, wisdom says you would have to form a third party, and third parties have historic difficulties. Although, Ross Perot came very close, with 17 percent of the vote.
JBM: Michael Bloomberg is an independent. If he ran on his independent party, I imagine he’d make a little more noise than say Ralph Nader, or any of the candidates who ran on the third-party tickets this past election, who I can’t name.
OS: Jill Stein.
JBM: The one. The one who got a little bit of press. Perhaps the Republican Party is ready to restructure on a populist platform.
OS: It’s also possible that the real liberals, the liberals who are anti-empire, will start to come out of the shadows. We have to encourage this. I think a compassionate leader can emerge. Maybe it’s someone who reads the book, sees these movies, believes in them. Believes that there’s another direction for America.
JBM: I could see so many movies out of the stories in here. Are you more inspired to make those movies now, or less? Sean Penn as Henry Wallace?
OS: It was so difficult after “Nixon” to do another movie of that nature because it failed at the box office. I love that movie, “Nixon,” though.
JBM: Commercially “Nixon” failed? How about in DVDs?
OS: Over time, yeah, it’s been appreciated. It’s hard to take three hours and 11 minutes of politicking in dark rooms with white people in horrible suits and bad haircuts, and actually make a good movie!
JBM: And make it sexy.
OS: It’s not sexy.
JBM: There’s one sexy moment.
OS: There is?
JBM: When she hikes up her skirt a little bit…
JBM: And we wonder, “Is he going to go for it? Is Oliver going to show us Richard Nixon getting down?”
OS: I did what I wanted to do with my life. But I think Untold History is the best I can do as a dramatist. The Greeks used to consider historians and dramatists as not that far apart. I mean, history—it’s a story. Homer heard about the Trojan War and concocted this history called The Iliad. He was a dramatist. Memory is civilization. It’s the thread of that memory that keeps us together as societies. History is drama. As I said earlier, the history that is taught in school is boring, ’cause they take the juicy parts out.
JBM: Have you ever considered the possibility of running for office?
OS: It’d be interesting to see all the bile and slander pour out. Don’t know if I’d survive it, such things often bring out the worst in human nature. It even to some degree corroded Henry Wallace’s spirit after the 1948 smear campaign, in fact, it can destroy a soul. How did your father react to his Don Quixote quest?
JBM: After my father [Norman Mailer] ran for Mayor of New York, his respect for the stamina of politicians went up significantly. But he was serious about his run. This was no joke to him. He actually thought they were going to win. So he was crushed a little by that defeat. But as he always did, after a day or two, he went back to work and moved on to the next adventure.
OS: Well, your dad was a very strong individual, that I know, no one quite like Norman on those metal legs, yelling at me for rushing him to finish the sequel to “The Castle in the Forest…”
JBM: He was yelling at you because he knew you were right, and he knew he didn’t have time to finish the sequel. Although he did bring research into the hospital with him before he died. But to go back to his campaign, one of the tactics he implemented was to embrace all the controversial things he had done in his life and position them as lessons that had made him a better man. He promoted the notion that his foibles and follies and downright gaffes had imbued him with a profound empathy for just about every kind of person and that his checkered past therefore made him more qualified to hold office, not less. I imagine, were you to run for high office, you would have to embrace a similar set of operating guidelines for the campaign.
OS: Well, certainly there’d be a lot to “get out of the way,” having not or ever having been a puritan. (Laughs) This aspect of marketing yourself is exhausting. But challenges provoke me. A quest like that could consume an entire third act—and only having one left, it’d come at a huge price. This Untold History has already taken a toll. I’d be giving up the chance of writing that one more movie, book, play that we always believe will make the difference. That’s what the third act is always about, isn’t it? Making it all come together in the end. But, thumbs up or down, it’d still be unfinished business.
John Buffalo Mailer is a screenwriter, actor, journalist, playwright, and producer. He appears in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”