Has Oliver Stone Ever Met a Dictator He Doesn’t Admire?

My time spent learning from the master revealed a very talented auteur who was kind of losing it

Director Oliver Stone at the Rome premiere of Snowden.
Director Oliver Stone at the Rome premiere of Snowden. Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

For the last fourteen years, Oliver Stone has taken a cotton to despots, including Fidel Castro (Commandante) and Hugo Chavez (South of the Border). Now the 70-year old director of Platoon and JFK has gone rutted cheek to wizened jowl with Viktor Yanukovych.

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You remember Yanukovych, right? The Ukrainian Presidential fat cat who made a beeline back to the safety of the Kremlin after demonstrators, during the so-called Maidan uprising of 2014, took to the streets and then with proverbial pitchforks in hand stormed Yanukovych’s palatial digs and discovered that he lived like… well, a dictator (private zoo, expensive sports cars; the whole very pricey nine yards).

As Executive Producer of a pro-Russian documentary, Ukraine on Fire, Oliver sat down with Viktor, who proceeded to bend his sympathetic ear with tales of outside agitators; those responsible for ending his life luxurious. Directed by a Ukrainian-American, Igor Lopatonok, (by trade a cinema engineer and producer of real estate videos) it had its premiere on Russian TV and was lauded by the Kremlin crowd for probing insights into who really was behind the torching.

And who were they? CIA no-good-niks, of course; those same folks who did JFK in and who continue to sabotage efforts by peace loving dictators everywhere to shake off the yoke of American imperialism; always, as they claim, in the name of their “people.”

Just to make sure I was on solid Ukrainian terra firma I consulted a scholar – Columbia University Professor, Tarik Cyril Amar – well versed in the complex politics underlying the political situation — and he did confirm that Yanukovych, while properly elected in 2010, had by 2014 turned into a corrupt and brutal authoritarian strongman.

 The Oliver who’s now gone dancing with dictators isn’t the Oliver I remember. That Oliver was an aw’ shucks, pot-smoking, break your balls, tweak your chain, say outrageous things Oliver; the Oliver who opened up Pacific Street Films 1992 Showtime documentary, Oliver Stone: Inside Out, with a litany of complaints that went like this.

“I can’t stand this, it’s impossible to talk like this; you guys are sucking my blood… This documentary is gonna’ suck anyway.”

 Actress Angelina Jolie, Oliver Stone and Colin Farrell, sharing a private moment after Cradle of Life premiere.
Actress Angelina Jolie, Oliver Stone and Colin Farrell, sharing a private moment after Cradle of Life premiere. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The documentary didn’t suck. Oliver quite liked it and the attention it brought him. Directed by myself and Pacific Street Films co-founder, Steven Fischler, we found ourselves on the set of JFK in a variety of locations; the most memorable was Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary.

Oliver being Oliver was clearly in a bust-your-nuts mood when we showed up on the set early one morning.

“Jeez, guys… where were you? You missed me directing some great stuff!”

This was Oliver in “testing” mode, trying to elicit a reaction.

Needless to say, we hadn’t shown up late and the great stuff was still there waiting to be filmed.

That circa 1990’s Oliver was a world away from the Oliver I first met at NYU’s storied Film School some two decades earlier.

That Oliver – a somber presence – skulked the corridors of Main Building’s ninth floor, wrapped in a well-worn Army fatigue jacket, clutching a 16mm film can labeled Last Year in Vietnam (his student film.) It was a tumultuous time, and the war in Vietnam had spawned many black clouds; one, in particular, seemed to be in hot pursuit of Oliver Stone, problem-addled veteran.

We were both in an introductory “Sight and Sound” course presided over by a teaching assistant — Marty Scorsese — who waxed poetic about cinema and its possibilities. When the political shit hit the fan after the US invasion of Cambodia we signed up for Scorsese’s so-called Cinetracts Collective; an effort to document the protests in a similar vein to groups in France that had sprung up in the wake of the massive May/June, 1968 protests (and that attracted the considerable talents of Nouvelle Vague filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard).

I was already doing my own thing at the time as part of an anarchist collective, Transcendental Students, running around with a 16mm Bolex filming all manner of disturbances but gladly participated in meetings, held in Scorsese’s Washington Square apartment where the future Hollywood icon held court while occasionally pulling on a joint (and coughing profusely).

The end result was a reasonably interesting documentary, Street Scenes, which premiered at the 1970 NY Film Festival as a “film supervised and directed by Martin Scorsese.” which got all of us, including Oliver, a little pissed off given that the directorial effort was supposed to be attributed to the “collective.”

Oliver is definitely not a collective sort of guy. He’s the director and practices his craft in a dictatorial vein; a job, as he told us in the documentary, that was like a circus masters’, whip in hand, trying to keep all acts in the three rings going simultaneously and to do that he developed an iron fist with the actors.

Oliver is definitely not a collective sort of guy. He’s the director and practices his craft in a dictatorial vein; a job, as he told us in the documentary, that was like a circus masters’, whip in hand, trying to keep all acts in the three rings going simultaneously and to do that he developed an iron fist with the actors. Just ask Born on the Fourth of July’s Kyra Sedgewick, who told us that she stood up to the director (“I can’t talk about Oliver without saying the word shit. I didn’t take any shit from Oliver”) or Wall Street’s Michael Douglas (“I’m happy to call him a friend today but I couldn’t call him that during the shooting”). Both acknowledged that his strong-arm tactics did, in the end, work for the betterment of the film.

But like any despot, Hollywood or otherwise, loyalty is of paramount importance.

“If you are friends with Oliver, you must be friends all the way; if you are his enemy, like the critics they are, you must be his enemy all the way,” according to Sergio Premoli, a long-time friend of Oliver, interviewed for the documentary.

Given my left-wing anarchist sentiments, I could never sign on as an uncritical fan. Added to the brew was a squabble over his role as Executive Producer of a never-finished Pacific Street documentary, Hemp (a/k/a marijuana) which consigned me to his “enemies list.” Hence, total silence when I reached out with questions regarding his interest in dictators.

Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn and Director Oliver Stone.
Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn and Director Oliver Stone. Photo by Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images for BFI

Not that I want to be an enemy because I think he’s a great filmmaker having made from–the-heart flics like Salvador, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July; even JFK, a marvelously crafted bit of Hollywood fiction.

JFK marks a turning point in Oliver’s development and highlights a Faustian deal he made with the public-relations devil. In return for buying into the discredited mental meanderings of New Orleans Parish District Attorney, Jim Garrison, Oliver was afforded unprecedented international media attention. The real Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner) eventually was consigned to the dustbin of history with most sane folks viewing his accusations as emanating from a cracked pot.

But Oliver, like X-files’ protagonists Scully and Mulder, just wants you to believe…

Believe that during the autopsy of JFK (the recreation we filmed for the documentary), a group of mysterious military characters interrupted the medical goings-on with a “we’re in charge” chant derailing any possibility that smoking gun evidence would be discovered that pointed to more than one shooter.

(Production Note: the mannequin of the dead president was so life-like, so to speak, that it inspired comments by crew members regarding the size of JFK’s “package.”)

Or believe that a hush-hush secretive Mr. “X” (played by Donald Sutherland), the “deep throat” source of revelations, emerged from the woodwork to highlight the traitorous intentions of the Lyndon Johnson/CIA/Mafia cabal who done in JFK for presumably wanting to pull American troops from Vietnam.

Oliver insisted that we interview the real Mr. “X,” a retired Air Force officer, L Fletcher Prouty, who proceeded to regale us with an eye-roll provoking scenario that had Zombie-like “mechanics” sent out on assassination missions, James Bond style, doing the JFK dirty work while “patsy” Lee Harvey Oswald took the fall.

It was a very entertaining tale, but when we did our due diligence, Prouty turned out to have a questionable pedigree as an inveterate conspiracy spinner and some sketchy attachments to extreme right-wing organizations like the Liberty Lobby.

In the best interests of the documentary, we decided to eighty-six his presence from the final cut (although, in light of all the current hoopla about the CIA, he is interesting to watch as an inspirational progenitor for Oliver’s current rage against the US Intelligence Machine).

In the years following the release of JFK Oliver’s rage machine cranked up. When the opportunity presented itself to have one of many audiences with Fidel, he jumped on it. He found another kindred spirit in Hugo Chavez, South of the Border, and they went hand in hand down the primrose path (including a joint appearance at the 2009 Venice Film Fest) to push the notion that under every revolutionary bed is a counter-revolutionary funded by the CIA.

Skepticism, if not outrage, was often the media response to his dictator-themed documentaries.

One dictator who did manage to give Oliver the slip was Iran’s former president, Ahmadinejad, who ignored the overtures despite the fact that Stone’s son, Sean, had converted to Islam. But Sean waded into a media shit-storm with a defense of Ahmadinejad’s controversial remarks about Israel and the Holocaust; still, the Iranian dictator was the proverbial one that got away.

Sean’s intemperate remarks were echoed by Dad during the public relations run-up to his ten-part documentary series for Showtime aptly titled, Oliver Stone’s Untold History, where he announced that the 20th century’s two greatest dictators may, in retrospect, have been misunderstood.

‘I’ve been able to walk in Stalin’s shoes and Hitler’s shoes, to understand their point of view. You cannot approach history unless you have empathy for the person you may hate.” -Oliver Stone

‘I’ve been able to walk in Stalin’s shoes and Hitler’s shoes, to understand their point of view. You cannot approach history unless you have empathy for the person you may hate.”

A groundswell of negative sentiments bubbled up… A more humane Hitler? A heroic Stalin? Oliver taking his dance with dictators a little too far?

While walking in their shoes may have given Oliver a cramped toe, it did far worse for his co-collaborator, Peter Kuznick, who quickly walked back the seemingly jaw-dropping comments.

“He’s not saying we’re going to come out with a more positive view of Hitler. But we’re going to describe him as a historical phenomenon.”

I felt for Kuznick. He’s a friend and a legit American University historian, an anti-nuclear activist who takes groups of students on pilgrimages to Hiroshima every August.

In pre-broadcast conversations, I strongly advised him to have Oliver clear open-mouth-before-engaging brain comments before they actually were uttered. Now the filmmakers had to do some serious damage control in light of Oliver having given an interview where he seemed to lay down a Protocols of Zion style rant about Jews controlling the media (a little weird, considering Oliver is half-Jewish).

Fidel Castro and Oliver Stone.
Fidel Castro and Oliver Stone. PABLO PILDAIN/AFP/Getty Images

Hollywood billionaire Haim Saban – a fierce supporter of Israel – went ballistic and did his best to kill the series. This was too much for even Oliver. He caved, offering apologies to the Anti-Defamation League, but still went with tail only partly between his legs satisfied with the publicity that promoted Untold History and reinforced his bad-boy status without doing any permanent harm to his reputation (Hollywood is one of the few places you can be totally anti-Semitic one day – think Mel Gibson – and be feted at industry events the next).

Untold History, while well-researched, met with mixed reviews and some folks pointed out that much of the history had already been told by historians like Howard Zinn in his A People’s History of the United States. While “agitprop” and “revisionist” peppered the Showtime premiere, my favorite review was written by Damon Hunzeker in the Boise Weekly review, who genuinely grasped the essence of self-importance that is Oliver Stone (as narrator).

“In a hushed tone of whispered solemnity and gravel-throated gravitas reminiscent of Christian Bale as Batman, Stone announces that he wants to rescue us from the ‘tyranny of now’ and correct the ‘fog’ of lies we’ve been told since grade school.”

To understand Oliver one must understand that his primary relationship is not with politics but with “drama.”

He told me as much.

During the production of Oliver Stone: Inside/Out I asked him whether he was – as many believe – “political.”

Political? No, was his response and it was emphatic. I’m a “dramatist who uses real world events as background; a tapestry to weave a story.”

That’s gotten him into trouble on occasion. Take his 1994 Natural Born Killers (“NBK” as we say in the biz), the story of psychopaths Mickey and Mallory who take to the road with murderous malice and loosely based on the true tale of Charles Starkweather/Caril Ann Fugate’s 1958 shooting spree. It inspired so many copycat killings that Entertainment Weekly dubbed it the eighth most controversial film of all time. It hit home with author-lawyer John Grisham, who knew one of the victims killed and advised another rendered quadriplegic to take Stone and Time Warner to court in a well-publicized lawsuit (which after years of legal wrangling was eventually dismissed).

That was publicity for Stone but not of a good kind. Better stick to pounding the CIA and Snowden, the feature film, was the perfect vehicle for Oliver to re-up his conspiracy bona-fides. A true whistleblower warning of the dangers inherent in the modern American surveillance state propped up not only by the CIA but legions of data hunter/gatherers at the NSA.

For Oliver Stone, this was a holy-grail of a story: one that he wanted, needed and would be relentless in pursuing.

Just to let you know: I’ve got some skin in the surveillance game, having produced a 1971 surveillance documentary, Red Squad, while still in Scorsese’s production class. Focusing on the anti-Vietnam War spying activities of the NYPD, it also resulted in myself and co-director, Steven Fischler, becoming named plaintiffs in a still active Federal class-action lawsuit, Handschu v Special Services Division, (Oliver, by the way, claims it was one of his favorite documentaries way back when).

There was back-story drama galore in how Snowden became a feature film and it was all laid out in excruciatingly cloak and dagger detail in a New York Times Magazine cover story.

The writer’s breathy narrative brought to mind those two animated Cold War spies, Boris and Natasha. There was cloak and dagger Oliver, taking secret meetings in Russia trying to seal the deal for the film project, code-named “Sasha,” while eliminating the competition. There was bull-in-the-china-shop Oliver “persuading” Glenn Greenwald to drop plans for a film based on his own book and Laura Poitras, whose documentary was the basis for the film, claiming that Oliver had drunkenly tried to strangle her, “sort of in a joking way,” according to the article.

Unfortunately, the film opened to tepid reviews and box office so weak that Greenwald/Poitras may now be reviewing further options.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (2ndR)) poses with a group of international intellectuals in March 2002.The group includes from L fo R standing: Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, US writer Russell Banks, US film director Oliver Stone, Portuguese Nobel literature laureate Jose Saramago and seated fellow Nobel literature laureate Nigerian dissident Wole Soyinka (R).
Oliver Stone poses with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (second from right) in 2002. STR/AFP/Getty Images

Oliver, it seems, is currently focusing primary attention on his relationship with the Kremlin, via Ukraine On Fire, where he’s gone tete a tete with both Yanukovych and his master, so to speak, Vladimir Putin. The latter has discussed some geo-political issues of import to the role of NATO in furthering – he claims — America’s desire to undercut Russia’s sovereignty.

Then there’s RT Television, Putin’s major broadcast enterprise, that’s had Oliver on a few times. It’s the same network that the CIA claims has been disseminating disinformation related to the election. RT also recruited Oliver’s son, Sean, as one of a trio of journalists weighing in on American foreign policy in a show titled, “Watching the Hawks.”

Now, Oliver is taking his bromance with Putin one step further. This year Oliver will release a new dedicated documentary about Mr. Big.

Putin, a trained “judoka,” is skilled at using his opponent’s exertions for his own aims. So will Oliver simply find himself as an extra in a larger epic directed by Putin himself?

Perhaps it’s time for Oliver to make a course correction.

My suggestion: get back to making those from-the-heart films; they’re truly needed now. Your early flics fell squarely within that great legacy of anti-war offerings like Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front; Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. With the horrors of war raging world-wide, perhaps consider returning to that old passion project inspired by your experiences in Vietnam.

Pinkville, based on the My Lai massacre, was on Oliver’s development agenda before being abandoned when financing fell through.

I bet there would be Hollywood money available for a re-up and that would be a significant, promotable Oliver Stone film; one that could emotionally impact a wide audience without the conspiratorial embellishing of dictators or conspiracies

My Lai really happened. Real people were massacred, real people acted heroically and morally and it’s through this historical looking glass that Pinkville can offer a context for examining our ragged, violent war-prone world.

It’s worth a try, Oliver.


Has Oliver Stone Ever Met a Dictator He Doesn’t Admire?