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Oliver Stone Is Not Apologizing for Anything

The fiery director talks about his new JFK documentary, voting for Ronald Reagan, being tired of the media vilifying Putin and why he’s fine if he never makes another feature film

When I tell Oliver Stone early in our Zoom conversation that I saw JFK when it came out — the intensity of its counter-narrative to the Warren Commission’s assertion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in John F. Kennedy’s killing searing my impressionable mind at age 16 — the Oscar-winning director seems taken aback by the 47-year-old he sees in front of him. “You make me feel ancient,” he says. 

Yes, it’s been more than 30 years since JFK hit theaters, its frenzied vision proving to be infuriating, hypnotic or reckless, depending on who you asked. And Stone, who’s now 75, has never let that movie — or its exploration of who really assassinated the 35th president of the United States — go. Last year, he released JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass, a two-hour documentary that examines new evidence he believes further invalidates the lone-gunman theory, and today he unveils a four-part, four-hour documentary series, JFK: Destiny Betrayed, which expands JFK Revisited’s scope. In either version, the documentary is a dizzying, frenetic assault of ideas and experts, all arguing that Americans have been deceived for decades about Kennedy’s killing. It’s an unsubtle barrage — which, I will discover over the next 35 minutes, is very much like talking to Stone himself.

In interviews, Stone can be a combative figure, fiery in his vitriol toward the media and frustrated that his theories on Kennedy’s assassination (as well as other subjects) aren’t taken seriously. When he unveiled 2017’s The Putin Interviews, a four-part series of interviews with Vladimir Putin, some reviewers derided him for being too reverential to the Russian president. (Stone appeared on Stephen Colbert’s show to defend himself, leading to a tense back-and-forth.) When Rolling Stone published a takedown of JFK Revisited, Stone went on social media to hit back at the author. The director of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July — movies that served as powerful reckonings for what the Vietnam War wrought on America and its soldiers — doesn’t take criticism lying down, and he’s defiant in his views. Talking about his bare-knuckle style of filmmaking, Stone tells me, “It’s clear that most of the critics don’t like me because I say what I think.”

Because recent profiles, like the one the New York Times ran in 2020, tend to become sparring matches, Stone never giving an inch, I decided that in my limited time with the man, I’d focus more on trying to understand what drives Stone to be so obsessive about Kennedy — and what inspires his no-nonsense approach to art and life. Give Stone the chance, and he will go on the attack — about how he’s misunderstood, about how others have him all wrong, about why America has been going down a bad path for generations. And forget cultural sensitivity: Before I could bring up the accusations of sexual misconduct that have been leveled against him, he made a passing allusion to #MeToo, saying, “I’m not trying to make a female movie just to please the current #MeToo generation — I have no interest in that,” before moving on to other matters. Stone is passionate about whatever topic is in front of him — just don’t expect him to ever apologize. 

I told Stone at the start that I’m a fan, which I am. (JFK remains an extraordinary technical achievement and one of the riskiest, most fervent films ever released from a studio.) But at 75, Stone can be someone who tilts at windmills — and susceptible to making provocative statements that are hard to defend. Listening to him talk, I found myself not wanting to push back against his questionable assertions, of which there were many. Instead, I was curious what he would say next. In some ways, I felt like he and I weren’t having a conversation — I was merely a witness to a longer discussion he’s been having with himself for years, a continuation of the battles he’s waged in his movies and in his head. 

Below, we discuss why he keeps making films about America and why he thinks of himself as a truth-seeker, not a conspiracy theorist. And in case you were curious, he’s still very proud of The Putin Interviews — and insistent that Putin doesn’t deserve all the rotten press he gets. 

You released a two-hour JFK documentary last year. Now you have a four-part, four-hour series that’s an extended version. Was it simply that you had more you felt you had to cover?

No question. I wasn’t thinking about making a documentary. Thirty years went by, and obviously it was frustrating to see the march of time and the American absorption with the Warren Commission, [that] continued obsession with it and acceptance of it — although it was a media continuation, it wasn’t a people’s continuation. It was the media who was selling it to us, jamming it down our throats constantly. 

At the 60th anniversary, in 2013, I don’t know if you noticed, but every network, every show, every magazine, every newspaper was selling us, “Oh yeah, this is the 60th anniversary of his death — and you know who did it.” And they didn’t even bother to say “alleged assassin.” They didn’t even bother to say that there were other theories. I was interviewed by [Tom] Brokaw, who’s a typical high-priced correspondent. I did an hour and a half with him — very prepared, everything, I thought I did a great job. The show comes up and they cut me to 60 seconds. It’s very superficial — it’s typical, and it’s frustrating. So, I mean, obviously something was wrong. 

I wasn’t chasing [making a documentary] — people would just tell me they liked the film and they understood it and they got it. One of my producers, Rob Wilson, he was my intern back when — he wasn’t even my intern, he was just in high school, he was so moved by it. He said, “Oliver, we got to make a legacy piece. We got to deal with all the things that have happened since the film came out.” The Assassination Records Review Board was created as a result of the film — and, of course, it was a civilian panel of five people who obviously didn’t want to find anything, but they had good investigators, and they dug up a lot of stuff. 

Now, you have to understand, [this] is a Sherlock Holmes-type case, where you have to take all these details, use a magnifying glass and see through it, because no one has the patience in our media to do that. But people like Doug Horn have really done the research into the assassination — almost three generations now have done an enormous job for the benefit of us, including Jim DiEugenio, who was the guy who wrote the script of this four-hour [documentary] and the two-hour version, too. They went through the details. And you need a microscope. The conclusions are in the four-hour version, as well as some other material that has emerged since 1991.

This is a public service. And it’s a good thing to do because it does reinforce the film. It shows you that the film wasn’t this evil thing that it was made out to be, nor was it fraudulent. I was able to weed out a lot of the errors that have been made by the research community. 

At the end of the 1991 film, Kevin Costner delivers that line, “Do not forget your dying king.” That movie really is an elegy to Kennedy and the statesman you felt he could have been. After all this time, is that still what’s driving you — the loss of Kennedy?

It’s about killing a president for a reason. Why was Kennedy killed? That is the key to the movie. And it’s a key to the documentary. And it’s the thing that people keep ignoring. Historians keep ignoring it. 

I suppose the conventional narrative is that Kennedy was a brilliant young man, [gave] good speeches and he was killed before his destiny was complete — [that] his presidency was unfinished and that Lyndon Johnson carried through his policies in a relatively calm transition. But this is far from the truth — this is historical rubbish. 

The historians that we have in this country, many of them all know each other, and they get the Pulitzer Prizes and all that crap, but they are just not telling the truth. [But] younger ones are coming up. There’s new literature, new books being written about Kennedy’s policies in Africa and Indonesia and Latin America and Asia. You see what he did in the Congo — we know what he was thinking. We know about the de Gaulle coup and the probable involvement of the CIA in trying to get rid of de Gaulle. We get a worldwide picture of Kennedy really actively working for detente with Russia and with Cuba, not wanting to fight a war in Vietnam, having to go along to some degree with the public consensus that we had to be tough on the Russians, tough on the Chinese. But he was withdrawing troops. And he made it very clear to many people, including [Robert] McNamara, who even admitted it, that we were not going to go on in Vietnam, that [he] was going to pull out, win or lose. 

In the past, you’ve said you’re not a conspiracy theorist, you’re a truth-seeker. We live in an age of disinformation and conspiracy theories. Do you think it’s harder now to talk about Kennedy’s assassination than it even was back then?

I never was taken seriously back in ‘91, either. The press was on me six months before the film came out: Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek. Before the film came out, they were saying, “It’s a lie.” There was a stolen first draft — we had seven drafts, and they went after that first draft. It’s never been done in the history of movies to do something like that. It was a campaign against it, but we kept to our guns.

I spent six months after the film defending it, which I never conceived was possible. I really lost almost a year on that, going through it. It was a horrible experience for me, because I was naive. I didn’t realize that the American media class was so conservative and so wedded to the empire. And that empire actually kept going.

And that’s the result of Kennedy’s killing — they killed him, and no one has looked for the pattern ever since he died. Think of all the presidents, one by one — not one single president has taken on the military-industrial complex and cut their budgets or tried to control them and say no to them. [It] just can’t be done — they’re autonomous. And their allies are the intelligence agencies who, also, you can’t get rid of them — you can’t change them. They are almost self-sufficient — they go on and they go on. 

Across your career, you’ve made movies about America. They’re about a lot of things, but essentially they’re about America.

Yeah, you could say mourning for America, because I think we’ve had a stupid policy since World War II. [An] increasingly militaristic national security state has now come to be — it wasn’t there when [JFK] was made. George [W.] Bush brought in a new enhanced degree of madness. We’re always at war, we’re always in an emergency, we’re always in a crisis. Our media is insane — it’s so warlike now, just wants to bomb everywhere. When Trump didn’t bomb Syria, they got on his case. 

It’s very dangerous where we are because we [are] behaving like tyrants, and we think we’re the king of the world. And, frankly, we’re fighting desperately against China and Russia — and I fault Russia for invading Ukraine, I wrote about it in my Facebook page. But, still, they were provoked enormously to go into Ukraine. It’s an insoluble situation, and I don’t know how it’s going to be solved except by the continuation of America’s aggressiveness. We’re not going to give up until we have regime change in Russia — and, hopefully, that will not happen, because something worse could happen.

You’ve spent time with Putin. You were criticized a great deal for The Putin Interviews because people felt you were too soft on him. In retrospect, do you think you should’ve been harder on him? 

The standard line is that Stone is a fan of Putin — that’s not true at all. There [was] a lot of provocative questions. I got a letter from a military officer high up, who said that they were studying it at some war college somewhere. That’s the intelligent response to a documentary, instead of the idiotic one you get in media like The Daily Beast. Just trashing me is not the solution — in fact, trashing Putin is not the solution. As Henry Kissinger said, it’s not a foreign policy.

This is a weird time. When we were at Cold War with Russia, it was always about Russia — it wasn’t about Khrushchev. I mean, we made fun of him a little bit, but nothing like this. It’s always, “Putin did it, Putin did it.” We don’t understand that Russia is much more complicated than that and there is the gray areas. Putin has resistance in Russia, including at a high level. 

America has a childish view of good versus evil, and that’s the way they choose to see Putin. And that’s the way they choose to see [The Putin Interviews]: “How can you go over there and even give him time?” No, I didn’t ask him questions about “Who did you murder last week?” and so on, because I don’t believe it. I think it’s beneath his dignity. I don’t think he poisons people — I think there’s always an explanation for every one of these ridiculous things. 

The people who actually know Russia — the ambassador Matlock — never got mainstream attention in the media. Never. They were always on the edges — that’s where I got my information. Even Bill Bradley, the great senator from New Jersey, was ignored. These people understand a little bit of what’s going on and understand that we, America, could be great allies with Russia — and China, frankly. There’s no reason for this entire situation because Russia never threatened the United States. Nobody’s threatened the United States. We still have two oceans — we didn’t have to go to these wars that have strained us and hurt us. If we combined our partnership, we could solve climate change quicker and better because they are great at it — they have great nuclear energy facilities. And so does China. As a government, we’re putting some money in, but we’re not really pushing to the degree we can. And I don’t see any other solution.

In your 2020 memoir, Chasing the Light, you wrote, “What I’ve grown to love about older people is their indifference to passing time and style and ideas. That’s the core strength that age gives us.” Has that been true for you?

You’ve seen so much. You see wars, you see the reasons for wars — you see this stupidity go year by year. You see the passions of the population worked up by media and manipulated. You’ve seen it all your life. I went through the Vietnam experience — god, what a bunch of lies. Every war is a lie — but not only that, the in-between times, they manage to distort so much news. Honestly, we don’t even have an explanation for the Russian side in any of our media. Have you seen that? I haven’t seen it.

You also write, “I never could’ve surmounted the obstacles I’d face later [in my life] without that fundamental sense of optimism instilled by my mother into my nature. It became a basis to face life.” That surprised me, because I don’t see your movies as being all that optimistic. 

My mom was certainly optimistic — my father more pessimistic. I certainly have a sense of realistic optimism — I think even more so than my mom. Look at JFK: [Jim Garrison] loses the case, I acknowledge that he lost the case, I acknowledge that his evidence was weak for that trial of Clay Shaw. However, we find out now, Clay Shaw was lying through his teeth — he was a contract agent of the CIA. They don’t apologize that they attacked me for that. 

But you think you’re an optimistic person?

Yeah, I’m optimistic. [In the movie, Garrison] says, “I will keep fighting.” The trial, he’s ridiculed — it was terrible for him. His obituaries were vicious. I mean, the Times never let up. It was a realistic ending [in the movie] — he did lose. But [like in] a [Frank] Capra film, he knows he’s right, and he’s going to fight on. There is love of truth — it’s not conspiracy theories, it’s truth-seeking. And if you know you’re right, you got to go with it — you got to keep doing it. It’s happened throughout history. People [go to] jail, they get their hands cut off, but they know they’re right.

So, do you see yourself as a Capra-esque figure, the lone man fighting against the system?

It’s become that. Now that I’m 75, I’m beginning to understand that maybe that was a role I had to play in my life. I’m not saying I would’ve liked to have more success — I did have success. I went to a war, I illustrated the war, dramatized it [in Platoon] — and, frankly, I was a hero at that point. Same thing with Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth, [which] is also about Vietnam — it’s about the other side. 

I’d done my job in terms of trying to examine that war. And I think I did another job on presidents. I went into the Nixon presidency, the W. presidency and the Kennedy killing. I made this effort to examine our society through all my career — and even on the ones that are the crime films. I did Natural Born Killers, U-Turn and Savages — these are three films about crime. And I think there’s truth in all of them — that’s my goal. My record stands.

They will ignore me — it’s clear that most of the critics don’t like me because I say what I think. They don’t like that — they just love obscure stuff. Generally speaking, the more obscure the movie, the more they praise it. Even if you don’t understand what the hell is going on, they find a way. Our whole culture is warped by these people.

This bluntness of yours — have you always been this way?

Yeah, to some degree. I’ve tried to be quiet — I’ve tried to go along with conformity. Certainly in the army, I was a conformist, because I didn’t want to stand out too much. You don’t want to stick your [hand] up — you don’t volunteer for anything in the military. But [I saw] the transition after the military where I learned more about life — I learned from men, women in New York, the liberal sentiments, the changes of the ‘70s. I ended up voting for Reagan in 1980, not because I was conservative, but because I thought it was a mess. And I liked his definitiveness — I didn’t know about his secret wars in Central America and everywhere, in Afghanistan. I [would] never have gone along with that, but that’s partly my lack of information. So I basically went in a liberal direction more and more. 

After 2000, when I saw what George Bush did to the country — he was the worst president we’ve ever had, by far, he just brought this thing up to another level of madness — that made me more angry. I became more outspoken and more outspoken as I went. There’s no benefit now to shut up because they don’t publish me anyway. So it’s better to say what you feel and feel good about your conscience so that when you’re on your deathbed, you know you made the effort.

If you never make another feature, are you okay with that?

I am, I am. If I don’t have a chance to make another one… I will try one more. I have 20 made, and I have about nine or 10 documentaries — some of [those] are very long. There’s a 12-parter called Untold History of the United States, which I put a lot of effort into — that took five years to do. I have two [JFK] documentaries, the four-hour and the two-hour. I also have a clean energy documentary coming up — I’ve been working on that pretty hard for a year. And in that, we discuss all the solutions. I spent time in Russia, and I spent time in France with their nuclear energy facilities — and the United States, too. Except for China, we compare all the advances in advanced nuclear energy — not just the mini-reactors, the big reactors. I see it as crucial. It’s not just a question of renewables — that’s doable, it’s important, but we need a big boost to deal with the expansion of electricity needs in the world. That’s what this documentary is about — it’s about the world, not just the United States. Sometimes we think we’re the only ones. 

It’s a nice documentary, but if I can pull off one more feature, which I have in mind — and I can’t tell you what it is, obviously — I would be very happy. But if I can’t, I accept what I have.

Still, the idea that, someday, there won’t be any new Oliver Stone films, that must be hard to accept.

They kind of knocked me down quite a bit. The financing on Snowden was very difficult. Prior to that, I struggled with W. I struggled with Alexander

But we’ll see. I don’t think I’m blacklisted. No, I think that as long as I don’t make something that is too fiery or incendiary — but I’ve done so much of that. [Laughs] I’m lucky I got 20 made.