A report by Clancy McGilligan.
It was a warm day in January, which is normal for January in Phnom Penh; men sat in open-air restaurants eating noodle soup and sipping iced coffees; motortaxi drivers, perched on the seats of 110-cc Daelim motorbikes, endlessly pestered passersby with requests to be hired; and a very old female elephant, a mascot with rounded pieces of rubber strapped for protection to the soles of her feet, was led by a caretaker through the tourist haunts along the riverside.
At the University of Cambodia, which is a few hundred meters from Independence Monument, a burgundy-hued tower in the center of the city that calls to mind the ancient temple of Angkor Wat, American filmmaker Oliver Stone rose to speak to a crowd of about 300 Cambodian students.
He wore a black graduation cap and gown, having just been given an honorary degree by the university. When he reached the podium, he removed the flat-topped cap, perhaps aware of its incongruity on a man known as a provocateur, or perhaps because it wasn’t very comfortable. Stone then gave a nearly 24-minute speech, decrying the ‘beast of fear’ in American politics and urging students ‘to read history, because without memory there is only the dictatorship of the now.’
The three-time Oscar winner, who gained fame with movies like Platoon (1986) and JFK (1991), was on the second and final day of a visit to Cambodia that included a meeting with the prime minister. He had just come from Bangkok, where his remarks on Hitler during a speech to high school students drew attention. Stone, who is very good at drawing attention, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that though Hitler was a ‘Frankenstein,’ there was a ‘Dr. Frankenstein,’ by which he meant that the Nazi leader was a product of his era.
He began on a lighter note in Phnom Penh, recalling that he first came to the Cambodian capital for a weekend getaway in 1965, when he was teaching English in what was then South Vietnam. A few years later, in 1967, he enlisted to fight in the Vietnam War, and he later made a trilogy of movies on the war.
‘For some reason, I have been brought to Southeast Asia by my own destiny when I was a young man, and it changed my life. So I do have some strange feeling that I am linked in some way to this region,’ Stone said at the beginning of his speech, which was part of a six-month lecture series run by the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation. (Fellow participants included movie star Jackie Chan, pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy and a handful of Nobel laureates, mostly from the sciences.)
Stone spoke with a slightly professorial air, which did not seem out of place. He quickly came to the subject of history, reflecting on the implosion of European imperialism in two devastating world wars, the paranoia of the Cold War years and the American triumphalism that followed.
After this brief summary of the 20th century, Stone broached the subject of peace (his talk was titled ‘Filmmaking and Peacebuilding’). A practicing Buddhist, he peppered this portion of his speech with ‘know thyself’-like exhortations.
I’m not the first one to say peace can only begin once you have come to grips with your own aggressiveness,’ the filmmaker said. He told the students to educate themselves, and thus to erect a bulwark against fear. ‘Your mind is the most important tool you have. It’s your weapon, your rifle.’
The acclaimed director also gave advice of a more (or maybe less) practical sort. ‘Don’t fall in love right away,’ said Stone, who has in the past told reporters that he likes to party, and who has been detained a few times in the US in connection with drug possession charges. At this command, people in the audience began to chuckle, and when Stone continued the room broke into full-blown laughter. ‘Get a backpack,’ he said, ‘a ticket to nowhere, take a year off, travel your ass off, burn everything you can. Listen to the wind.’
Stone may have listened to the wind when he was young, but he has kept himself busy in the subsequent years, writing or directing (usually he writes and directs) more than 20 films. His oeuvre, like his Phnom Penh lecture, shows a fascination with American culture and politics. Some of his movies explore aspects of the American experience or zeitgeist, a category that includes Wall Street (1987), on the greed driving the nation’s captains of finance, and Any Given Sunday (1999), which shows the excesses of American football while maintaining a deep respect for the sport. Others are dramatic reconstructions of American history, such as JFK (1991), which was attacked for propagating conspiracy theories on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and which Stone still defends, saying there is enough evidence that the claims made in the film merit serious attention. (They certainly drew some attention: In response, the US Congress in 1992 passed the President John F. Kennedy Records Collection Act, which forced open all federal records on the assassination.) Also in this category are Nixon (1995) and W. (2008), on the presidencies of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush.
Stone’s movies on the Vietnam War have a deeply personal, as well as historical, tint. During an interview before his speech in Phnom Penh, the filmmaker talked about his decision to drop out of Yale, where one of his classmates was George W Bush, and volunteer for active duty in the war. ‘At that time in my life I had been brainwashed by the system,’ Stone said in a hotel on the banks of the Mekong River. Stone, who has a big frame, meaty features and black eyebrows, seemed to grow more focused as the interview went on. ‘I believed in the war, I believed in fighting communism,’ he explained. ‘People don’t remember in your generation. It’s a shame. That’s why you need the old guys like me around to keep saying don’t, don’t, don’t. You’ve got to be the cranks. You say don’t fight, don’t go to war unless it’s really necessary.’
After receiving two medals and being wounded in action in Vietnam, Stone became disillusioned with the war, he said. He later used his combat experience to write and direct Platoon (1986), an account of a soldier who, like Stone, voluntarily enlists. This was followed by Born on the Fourth of July (1991), about the life of an anti-war activist who was paralyzed in combat. Both films won the Academy Award for best picture. The third in his trilogy on the war is the lesser-known Heaven and Earth (1993), the tale of a Vietnamese woman who survives years of fighting and moves to the US. It is based on two autobiographies.
There’s a chance Stone could make another movie dealing with the Vietnam War. In 2007 he almost began shooting Pinkville, about the infamous My Lai massacre, but the financial backing fell through. ‘Hopefully we might come back alive,’ he said of the project. Pinkville would deal with both the mass murder of Vietnamese civilians by a unit of the US army and the subsequent investigation and cover-up, he explained.
In the wake of the recent financial crisis, Stone agreed to make a sequel to Wall Street called Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, due out this year. He is currently working on a ten-hour documentary for TV named The Secret History of the United States, which he said will attempt to explain ‘how America became a national security state’ and ‘betrayed its moral principles because of panic and fear.’
Hitler is one of the figures treated in the documentary, which covers major events of the 20th century. Stone said his comments on the Nazi leader in Bangkok had been taken out of context, and that the documentary will show that Hitler is not a ‘cul-de-sac.’ ‘Hitler was a monster, no question, he was sick and crazy,’ Stone said. ‘But he didn’t do it alone.’
The filmmaker explained that he is fighting against the dualism – good versus evil – expounded by former President George W. Bush. ‘Dualism is not a philosophy of life that works,’ he said. ‘[Bush] said we’re going to fight a war to wipe out evil. You tell me how that works.’
Despite his dislike of Bush, Stone’s 2008 biopic on the president presents a sympathetic portrait that has been attacked from both the left and the right. The opposite effect was produced by his World Trade Center (2006), about those who responded to the scene of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York. This sober tribute to heroism appealed across the political spectrum, and with W. shows that Stone, who is usually described as a member of the left, likes to make movies that transcend this label. Alexander (2004), the critically panned biopic on the famous Macedonian conqueror, is another example of this, a work that seems anomalous in Stone’s oeuvre, but shows his love of history and good old fashioned heroism.
This willingness to buck expectation is also evident in Looking for Fidel (2004), one of two documentaries the director has made on Fidel Castro since 2003. Though he clearly admires the longtime Cuban leader for standing up to the US, he does not let Castro off easily, and in one scene he goes over an Amnesty International report that details human rights abuses in Cuba.
Stone was unwilling to say if he did anything similar during his meeting in Cambodia with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who recently marked his 25th year in power, making him one of the longest-ruling leaders in the world. The Cambodian premier, who has a glass eye, is a former Khmer Rouge cadre who turned and fought the regime. He has overseen a period of relative stability and economic growth in Cambodia, but he has also been criticized for his authoritarian style of governing and for occasionally using violence against the opposition.
‘Hun Sen’s quite a fighter, I have to admit,’ Stone said. ‘I knew of him 20 years ago when I was here… You know, I liked his guts, his scrappiness. I don’t know what went on behind the scenes, but he did seem to mold this country together at a time when it needed a strong leader. ‘Sometimes a leader stays too long,’ he added. Then he said: ‘I can’t speak for [Hun Sen], because I don’t know the internal situation. But I think Cambodia is reaching a place of relative prosperity in the Southeast Asian world.’
He described the prime minister as very different from Castro or Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who was the subject of South of the Border (2009), a documentary by Stone. ‘The Asian tradition is different,’ he explained. ‘It’s more like talking to a monarch than it is like talking to Castro or Chavez.’
Stone, who is in his early 60s, was born in New York to a Roman Catholic mother from France and a Jewish father who was a stockbroker. He has since adopted Buddhism – he rejects the term ‘conversion’ as Christian – and at one point during his speech he told students to take their days with ‘equanimity and detachment.’ Buddhism, Stone said during our interview, ‘seems to me a sane response to the life that I’ve seen.’
‘It’s a religion of the heart and the mind and it deals with very practical issues,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t talk about heaven. It doesn’t talk about God. It talks about your heart and your spirit and what you do with your life.’
Stone’s Buddhist-influenced philosophy goes hand in hand with a spiritual tone that occasionally creeps into his work, balancing the frenzied filmmaking style for which he is known. This is most clearly evident in Heaven and Earth, where the protagonist is a Buddhist, but also in Nixon and World Trade Center, among others. ‘There’s always to me a spiritual connection in these movies,’ he said. ‘I don’t think people necessarily get that because they always react to the surface of controversy.’
Stone, in fact, said his movies can be seen as ‘movies about love.’ ‘If you look at my movies, you can put a handle on anything and say I’m controversial and political. You can also look at my movies and say they’re movies about love.’ To support this claim he pointed to Natural Born Killers (1994), a satire about a pair of lovers who go on a killing spree and finally turn on the journalist who made them famous. Stone described Natural Born Killers as a ‘movie about two people who love each other.’ This interpretation might be a stretch, but it is a very Oliver Stone thing to say.
Clancy McGilligan is a journalist based in Phnom Penh.