Oliver Stone came to the San Francisco International Film Festival last night to accept his Founder’s Directing Award, and, in a sense, the results were unsurprising: One of our most wide-ranging, politically engaged directors provided one of the most wide-ranging, politically engaged festival evenings in recent memory. This sharp, succinct, hugely knowledgeable director offered a whole lot of razored insights along with candid commentary.
After a career-highlights clip reel, Stone and journalist David D’Arcy took the stage, D’Arcy asking Stone if he had enjoyed the fact that San Francisco Film Society Deputy Director Steven Jenkins’ introduction of the director omitted an adjective inevitably applied to the director. Oh yes: “’Controversial’ does set up a battlefield idea right away,” he replied.
D’Arcy suggested he’d continued work steadily while some other major veteran directors now struggled to find funding. Stone took exception to some names dropped—notably Scorsese, who is “still making huge projects” —while admitting “I’ve had ups and downs…so many times….People say I’m history, I’m washed up all the time.” His early filmmaking years endured several long “lulls,” and when the box-office underperformance of 1995’s Nixon lowered his stock, he used the downtime to write a book.
But most of their conversation—and the audience Q&A afterward—abandoned discussion of how things work in Hollywood (or even on his own sets) to focus on political issues. This despite Stone, asked how he could make critical yet sympathetic films about Nixon and George W. Bush, saying, “I’m a dramatist first of all, not a political filmmaker. I empathize. You’re not being pro or con, just understanding…trying to walk in [your subject’s] shoes.”
(He did, however, opine that Nixon was “I think, one of Satan’s spawn,” yet also a figure of complexity and intellect compared to some successors. He also said he’s heard W. was secretly screened at the White House, and its subject “liked Josh Brolin’s performance” as himself, if not the movie. Stone also has it on good authority that Nancy Reagan “loved” W.—because “she hated the Bushes.”)
A Vietnam vet himself who’s made three films to date about what that country’s citizens call the “American War” —Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July (both winning Best Director Oscars) and Heaven and Earth—Stone was asked how he felt when that era’s lingering cautionary message about reckless US intervention abroad was flaunted by Iraq and subsequent conflicts. He said, “America loves war, depends on war. The military industrial complex requires it. The public is captivated by it.” He also noted that after a number of antiwar historical films including his own, a “worship of [military] technology” and heroism “started to come back in movies in the late 1990s,” citing such disparate films as Black Hawk Down, Gladiator and Saving Private Ryan.
His interest in history is profound and urgent. “This whole American dramatic experience in my lifetime has been a nightmare. What a ride!” He called JFK’s assassination “a tremendous setback for the cause of world peace” we’ve never fully recovered from. Lamenting “a certain sobriety and respectability that’s gone” from the American political landscape of his youth, he joked, “Maybe it’s time to move back to Vietnam” if a Donald Trump can actually become Chief Executive.