“Have you seen Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States? It is BRILLIANT!” So said Richard Lester, evincing intense enthusiasm. Stone’s series could almost have been made for Lester, a news junkie with a fondness for uncovering the hidden story around the back of what we think we know.
Stone was in Edinburgh, taking part in a couple of onstage discussions for Edinburgh University with my colleague Jonny Murray, and I attended the first. I must say, he was very generous with his time.
A mass of contradictions: Stone could at times recite complex statistics (whether accurately, I don’t know) and at other times was unable to recall the names of important collaborators (but he’s had a lot of those in his long career). There was a lunch break partway through and Stone was visibly sharper thereafter. One friend made a knowing expression when I mentioned this. A student remarked that he may have been jet lagged and suffering from the pressure change because he kept squeezing his nose. I said there might be another reason for that,
Stone was charming and affable — still, it was notable that usually when asked about collaborators, he gleefully trashed them. He remarked that Anthony Hopkins had the great quality of seeming to think onscreen, the thoughts flickering dimly but perceptinly behind his eyes. “Having worked with him, I’m not so sure what he actually does think.” This was followed by a story about Hopkins’ nerves on NIXON which didn’t make Hopkins sound remotely stupid but made him sound like an anxious actor who had taken on a very familiar character and was struggling to do the voice. Obviously it added considerably to the strain for Stone when Hopkins showed signs of wanting to flee the set…
A lengthy clip from NIXON was shown in which one could appreciate the precision of much of Hopkins’ impersonation, and the way the screenplay captures the late, disgraced president’s weird, garbled syntax. Over the three hour running time, I’m sure one would come to disregard the lack of physical resemblance and the wandering accent. It’s a mesmerising perf (note to self: watch NIXON). But nobody’s going to top Philip Baker Hall in SECRET HONOR, are they?
There was a fair bit about PLATOON but I always preferred SALVADOR, and it was good to hear plenty about that, too. The scene selected showed an improbable discussion of Robert Capa taking place while a mass corpse dump site is photographed — I recognized Stone’s tendency to overreach and to get very on-the-nose with his dialogue. If you want to make John Savage’s reporter seem a bit like Capa, why not have a discussion about Capa right in the script? Stone was frank and jocular about the way he inserted his lead character — a real person — into every major event in the period, even if he wasn’t there. Lots of good talk about the tension between being a political filmmaker telling true stories, and being a dramatist compelled to make GOOD stories. Stone seemed to jump that fence quite a bit.
I remember a South American student being offended by SALVADOR because Stone couldn’t even be bothered getting the name of the country right. I’ve read an interview in which Stone said he purposely left off the “El” of El Salvador to make the title more forcibly suggest the protagonist’s salvation. But my student had a point — it’s not very respectful, like leaving out the “New” in New York. In discussion in Edinburgh, Stone actually twice referred to the country as “Salvador,” as if the film and the place had merged in his mind.
Stone defended JFK’s factual basis. My own impression is that the film’s weak domestic scenes and tendency to cliché is a dramatic flaw more serious than any historical distortions. But surely the claim that JFK was assassinated because he planned to de-escalate the Viet Nam War is a dubious one?
Too much stuff about WALL STREET.
Barely a mention of THE DOORS and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, which I see as triumphs for Robert Richardson but problematic pictures for Stone. In a way his uncritical love of Jim Morrison is a problem for the first film, and his love of the serial killers and hatred of everything else is a problem for the second.
Two gibes at Quentin Tarantino — Richardson stopped working with stone because he thought U-TURN and NBK were two violent, making his present collaboration with Tarantino ironic (can this be true?). Morricone’s Oscar-winning score for THE HATEFUL EIGHT was “his worst ever” (certainly NOT true, though everyone’s entitled to their opinion).
Nothing on Stone’s recent features except the WALL STREET sequel, and mention of W. — Stone reckons the financial crash killed the film as nobody wanted to hear that guy’s name (or middle initial). My thoughts on that one are here. I felt the problem was not so much timing as making the wrong film. Bush’s story, told in close-up, can only work as a comedy. He inverts the usual dictum about comedy being long-shot. Here. the long-shot is 9:11 and white phosphorous and Abu Ghraib. The close-up is Bush reading his goat book. As with STRANGELOVE, there is unavoidably ludicrous stuff in his personal story and the concept of an idiot becoming president is simultaneously horrific and silly. Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” incarnate.
Stone, rightly, was very enthusiastic about The Untold History of the United States, seeing it as a kind of crowning achievement. He didn’t seem interested in TV drama (he tried it with Wild Palms), and his claims of being a dramatist rather than a political filmmaker disappeared when he discussed this project. The thing has flaws — I find the music rather obvious, and the editing sometimes becomes illustrative in a pointless, literal way — the most fleeting reference to Tolstoy will be accompanied by a quick shot of copy of War and Peace — and then Stone repeats his dodgy faked-Super 8 device from JFK, this time with audio — genuine quotes from historical figures, read by actors, treated with phony audio distortion and crackle to make them sound period. This is dangerous — makes you less inclined to trust the filmmaker. And Stone, who has a great voice for VO, sonorous and incantatory, reads the script like he’s only just been handed it, pausing mid-clause to sight-read the next few words.
But the stories told are all either unfamiliar, so you’re shocked you haven’t heard them, or come at the facts from a different angle so you’re shocked at how they’ve been misrepresented. The “moral dilemma” of Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb is the strongest one, I think, built up to over the first three episodes. The whole idea that it was a choice between invading Japan or forcing their surrender with the bomb is a lie, accepted and folded into history books and then repeated in good faith by those who read and taught the books. I identified with Stone’s opening VO about having been misled in school, because I was presented with the bomb narrative in just this dissembling way.
See this series — we can almost forgive Stone his many sins…