‘I saw this goddam politician on your British television last night,’ says the film director Oliver Stone. ‘He was yapping about how he can’t cut the defence budget because of blah, blah, blah.’ Was it, by any chance, Liam Fox at the Tory party conference? ‘Something like that… I thought, this is so disgusting.’
His voice is dry and cool, but the words are angry. ‘This love of national security is insane,’ he continues. ‘If you build the foundation of your society on security, you’re going to be disappointed. People talk about terrorism: but if your entire national debate becomes about fighting terrorists, you lose. They win.’
It’s the same in America, says Stone, a Vietnam veteran and Hollywood’s leading anti-imperialist. ‘We’re against government this or government that: but we always want money for the Defense Department. I have no idea how we expect to balance the budget and run a country with any kind of sense without cutting our fucking defence?’
Stone is 64, and very good at swearing. It’s idiomatic: he effs and blinds without stress or undue emphasis. He swears like Mickey Knox, the serial murdering hero of his film Natural Born Killers.
He is sitting in a high-back chair in a large room at the Dorchester Hotel. He appears cinematic, somehow: maybe it’s the light from the window pouring across him. His face is big, the jaw thick. His eyes are deep-set and dark — ‘like a Mongol nomad’s’, he has said — but kind. His long moustache wiggles when he talks.
He has come to London to promote Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the sequel to one of his best-known films, Wall Street. It is a drama set amid the credit crunch of 2008. The film has been given lots of hype, but the reviews have been damning — Deborah Ross was particularly scathing in these pages last week. Stone seems put out. Have the critics missed the point, I ask, in what I hope is a delicate way. ‘I’ll say!’ he snaps.
What needles him most, I imagine, is the accusation that, notwithstanding his reputation as one of America’s most important men of the left, this latest film seems almost a celebration of financial excess. He should be exposing the evils of capitalism, say the critics, yet he appears to have been seduced by the flash and dash of Wall Street. Is that because his father was a New York stockbroker? ‘People say I apologise for Wall Street’s greed because my father was in it. But I don’t buy that. People also say the movie feels too slick. But I definitely felt slick was important here — a film about Wall Street and opulence should be glossy, in a good sense, because if you hang out in New York among those people, that’s certainly part of that style. It’s supposed to be. On Wall Street, you show your surface.’
Stone remembers that the first Wall Street film, now widely considered a classic of the 1980s, was also panned. The New York Times called it the ‘worst sort of black-and-white moralising’. The objection to Money Never Sleeps is the opposite: it doesn’t moralise enough. Stone feels he can’t win. He says that the new film is ‘not necessarily meant to be an indictment of capitalism, as such, though there is some of that. It is first of all meant to be a human story about love and trust, greed and betrayal. On the micro level, it’s about trust between individuals, and how people betray trust. And on the macro level, the background of the movie is that the banks betrayed the trust of the people.’
Fans of the original Wall Street have complained that the sequel is too cheesy. In Money Never Sleeps, Gordon Gekko, the insider-trading anti-hero of the first film, is less of an avaricious monster. He is now a penitent ex-convict, determined to win back the affection of his daughter, who has cut him out of her life. Stone is adamant, however, that he is no sentimentalist. ‘Gekko has a heart,’ he says, ‘but that doesn’t mean he’s soft. He is still an egomaniac and he’s ruthless, but he’s alone in the world… I don’t want to ruin the movie for your readers: but his daughter fucked him over… so he fucked her over too. It’s all a game.’
People say that Oliver Stone doesn’t like women. Most of his films are male-orientated, even macho: lots of blood and gore and sex — and swearing, naturally. ‘I don’t know how to react when people say I’m a misogynist,’ he says. ‘I could tell you I’m pro-woman and all that crap. But that’s not gonna change what people say.’ He points to the example of Heaven and Earth, probably his most gentle film, which focuses heavily on the character of a Vietnamese peasant girl.
‘I think for a man to make a movie about a woman, he needs to spend time with her. I may well make another movie from a woman’s point of view because, um, I’ve come up with this subject…’ He hesitates intriguingly. ‘I can’t really discuss it with you now. But the idea interests me not because it is a woman but because it’s another view of the world.’
If cineastes are left confused by Stone’s attitudes to global capitalism and the opposite sex, they should not be surprised. Stone has never been a predictable lefty. After serving in Vietnam (he was wounded twice, and awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star), he established his reputation by making ‘anti-establishment’ films — Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, The Doors — that thrilled America’s liberal establishment. He went on to horrify this fan base, however, by making films about Nixon and George W. Bush, which dared to portray those two hated presidents with sympathy and understanding. ‘I think people were upset that I didn’t run Bush down,’ he reflects, ‘just like they’re now upset that I’m not running the Wall Street bankers down. They expect outrage and I don’t have outrage. I feel humanity. I go back to this boring point that a dramatist, if he is to be any good, has to feel. I think the Bush movie in time will be appreciated for having walked in his shoes.’
Stone’s humanity stems from a religious sensibility. More than any other commercially successful filmmaker, with the possible exception of Mel Gibson, he is drawn to the spiritual world. The American historian Garry Wills has called him ‘Dostoyevsky behind a camera’. He believes in ghosts — often characterised as native Indians in his films — and he is a convert to Buddhism. Most of all, he is fascinated by the darkness in men’s souls, by what he calls ‘the beast’. ‘There’s more of it in some of my films than in others. The beast possesses Nixon, for example, but Nixon was a tortured man. Wall Street is lighter, for sure, but the beast is there: the beast drives humanity forward. But there’s also love, and it’s like Mickey says in Natural Born Killers, “Love conquers the demon”.’
Oliver Stone has a reputation for arrogance. But in the flesh he is rather likeable. He is polite and has flashes of real charm. ‘I’m so sorry that we are rushing you, Freddy,’ he says, with benevolent sincerity, after his assistant tells us that I have two minutes left. When I remind him that in 1991 he told Rolling Stone that he felt a calling to be a great artist, he looks embarrassed and says, ‘I should have figured you would haunt me with that.’ Does he feel the same calling today? ‘I still try for greatness. I’ve always aspired and aspired to be better. But I think with age, you know, you recognise your limitations. You get beat up by life.’
He lists the disappointments of his career: &#
8216;There are some battles I didn’t win: Evita and Beyond Borders come to mind, I spent a lot of time on them.’ His biggest regret, it seems, is that Alexander, his three-hour epic about the Macedonian king, was such a flop. ‘I know it got ridiculed here in Britain, and I know it got ridiculed in America. But I still love that movie; it’s in my heart like Heaven and Earth, which also did very poorly. So, you know, what is success, what is failure?’ He gives a sad smile.
He is more upbeat about his next project. ‘It’s a 12-hour documentary history of modern America,’ he says. ‘It’s very much the untold view from the left. It’s very interesting, and it has really deepened my awareness, not only of America but of the world.’
Time is up. Before leaving, I ask Stone if he is more optimistic today than he was when young. He shrugs. ‘Optimism, pessimism, I think you have to balance them both. It’s like that line in Wall Street: “Good day I’m OK, bad day I’m OK — stop asking me stupid questions.”’