News Brief — Hollywood and the Pentagon: A Follow Up Conversation with Oliver Stone
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. You can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. We have an exciting News Brief today.
Adam: So we did a three-part series on Hollywood and anti-Muslim racism and the final one in that three-part series with guest Matthew Alford we discussed the influence of the CIA and the Pentagon in media. Now, filmmaker Oliver Stone, he has a book out, Oliver Stone has worked in Hollywood for decades, has made movies critical of the Pentagon and the CIA, so we were super excited to get him on the show to talk about his perspective about the sort of general literature around the CIA and Pentagon’s involvement in Hollywood and we’re very excited to talk about that today to get — for lack of a better term — an insider’s perspective.
Nima: And for all you Zoomers out there, Oliver Stone is a film director, producer, writer and Academy Award winner. His films include Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, The Doors, Born On The Fourth Of July, JFK, Nixon and Snowden. His latest book is the memoir Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game. Oliver Stone will join us on Citations Needed in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by film director, producer, writer and Academy Award winner Oliver Stone. Mr. Stone, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Oliver Stone: I’m glad to be alive, glad to be above ground anyway.
Adam: Fair enough. So in your new memoir and recent interviews, at least it appears to me, this is the first time I’ve seen a sort of consistent centering of your experiences in Vietnam, and how they’ve informed your Vietnam trilogy, specifically Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth. Now, the war, for obvious reasons, defined your work and who you are. So I want to sort of start by talking about that. Now we just did a three part series on racism and Hollywood and specifically its parallel obsession with the military machine and its relationship with the Pentagon and the CIA. Now your films, I think, to a large extent were an exception to this rule in terms of being rah-rah pro, and there were other Vietnam related films, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now, which of course I don’t think anyone would argue are particularly pro-war or pro-Vietnam certainly. Can you tell us why you think your work and other kind of Vietnam films of that era were sort of the exception to the rule? Because I don’t think I’m generalizing here, this wasn’t really the case prior to that, and it’s certainly, I don’t think, has been the case lately. Can you talk about what the kind of differences were and how you view Hollywood’s relationship with war today?
Oliver Stone: Well, I think Hollywood’s relationship with the war then in the 1980 period, the script was written in ‘76, I got out of Vietnam in late ‘68, and wrote it in ‘76 as realistically as I could remember it. That was eight years later. It took 10 more years to make it. It was rejected many times as non commercial, as depressing, and so forth. And so I didn’t think so. I thought it was honest and I thought it was real. And frankly, when I saw the movies they were making, with some exceptions, I didn’t see anything that resembled the ground experience that I’d had as an infantry soldier and that includes obviously the Sylvester Stallone vehicles and the Chuck Norris vehicles that were quite upsetting to me. Vietnam was reduced to a cartoon good versus evil battle with the US triumphing and nothing to do with what — and it was very frustrating because I wrote honestly about, as I said in the book, when I went back and re-examined my experience, I wrote about three lies in Vietnam. I called them out individually as a friendly fire, how many US soldiers were killed by ourselves by our own small arms, artillery and bombs. I estimated 15 to 20 percent that’s a hell of a lot of people that’s wounded and killed, and adds up to quite a lot of people whose parents would be very upset to know this, and of course, the Pentagon does its utmost to conceal this, to cover it up. But I saw it regularly. I was in three different combat platoons and I saw it regularly and it’s very dangerous because it’s a nature of jungle fire, guerrilla fire, that it’s asymmetrical you never know where the fire is coming from or going out from and very confusing, very confusing, and people do get hurt very easily. Secondly, I called out the killing of civilians, innocent civilians, in the villages, and also by bombing and artillery, and all the sloppiness, the sloppiness of our so-called precision bombing. It just isn’t true. Too many people got wasted. McNamara himself said later that three to four million is an estimate of the amount of Vietnamese killed in that period. That’s quite a lot, and that includes civilians obviously. And that’s not to include Cambodians and Laotians, either. Thirdly, I called out the biggest lie of all, which was that the United States from the beginning was lying about the war, consciously was lying about its origins, because we know that from the Pentagon papers, we know that the CIA directed the war from the beginning and kept a very strong presence behind the scenes, and had a lot to do with planning, strategy, and basically controlling the nature of the war. And they were lying, they were telling us through the inflated body counts that we were winning the war from the beginning, we were never winning that war. And John Paul Vann in 1962, said as much in Neil Sheehan’s book, A Bright Shining Lie. By the time I got there, ‘67/8 we were at the peak, that was the peak of the fighting and it ended, of course, climatically with the Tet Offensive in February ‘68. At that point, it was so clear that it was all bullshit up to there. Johnson basically said he would not run for office again, which is a form of giving up, you don’t do that when you’re in the middle of a war if you’re the commander in chief, it was a clear signal that it was not working out, after all the lying that is. But what’s amazing, of course, is that Nixon won the election and managed to bullshit for another four or five years and of course, led to about the same amount of casualties in the next few years until they finally so-called “Vietnamized” the war, saying that they were still winning, and it was a peace with honor and all that kind of PR. And I really dealt harshly with this, I dealt with the whole concept of the hierarchy in the war. Who the officers were, who the master sergeants are, who’s running the war, and the lies that were told amongst ourselves and the bullshit, the corruption, the PX, the amount of money that was spent in Vietnam, not just on weapons, but on consumer goods that were stuffed into the country, like some kind of Las Vegas jackpot. You know, everyone knew that the army was making money, I mean, anybody who had any brains over there who could operate as a civilian would try to cut in on the cash flow. That is to say, you trade with a PX you get goods, you resell them at a price and so forth, and so on. So everybody was trying to make connections. I was in the infantry, I had nothing to do with that, because we never saw PX’s, very rarely did we ever get to them but it was an aspect of the war that was just disgusting. I talked about it at length in the book with the, with what I call the corrupt class of sergeants that were coming out to the bush occasionally for combat bonuses. Anyway, it’s all in there and it’s about as accurate a picture as I can draw up an infantry unit.
Adam: Right, and you put all that into your movies obviously, into specifically Platoon —
Oliver Stone: Well, no, I couldn’t do that. There’s friendly fire in the movie Platoon, there’s killing villagers, but the bigger the lie issue is not dealt with. No, because it’s a more political issue and frankly, it didn’t concern me over there. My memory of that war was limited. You have to realize, later on, I learned a lot about things, Master Sergeant scandal, a huge one in Washington, D.C. with the first Master Sergeant of the army was busted for running a PX ring. That was a tip of the surface. But no, I didn’t know that. I was a naive young man in the sense that I explained why and it took me few years to learn more, through the ‘70s I learned a lot and by the time I made Platoon, I was only getting Platoon, at the end of the book, if you noticed Chapter 10, with all the glory and wonder of that moment when I was succeeding after so much failure in 1986, I write, you know, even as I was going to the Oscars, I had the inkling the beginnings of a doubt that I had dealt with all of the issue, that I had just dealt a small dent in the lie where we’re dealing with my platoon and American soldiers there but the larger issue of the Vietnamese nation and the American nation were dawning on me as what the hell was going on. This was a war that really ruptured our country and created a blue versus red mentality of civil war that we still see. We still see the ashes of it today.
Nima: Yeah, you know, you write in your book about one of your early treatments called The Cover Up, sort of like a conspiracy thriller like Three Days of the Condor or Parallax View, other things that were coming out at the time, and how you were writing this and pitching it at a time when actually your political awareness was shifting, as you were just saying, so, you know, when certain maybe norms of American benevolence were starting to splinter, maybe more publicly, can you just tell us about this process and this shift in you and where it eventually led?
Oliver Stone: It’s a very good question and it indicates that you’re an astute observer because that was the first inkling of a change. (Chuckles.) My father had been Republican and pro-war and in 1974 or ‘75, I had been in New York, I was hanging out with obviously more of an artist crowd and very smart people and this young lady told me the whole story of what she thought happened at the Patty Hearst kidnapping, which is fascinating. Now, it made sense, I wasn’t doing the research, but I just heard the story, and it turned out to be true, that the lead kidnapper, Donald DeFreeze, was an FBI informant, and had a long record of that. So it’s an interesting story, because we know now, I know now that the FBI was using undercover people and provocateurs throughout the Left, infiltrating groups. And who knows what the purpose was, some people would say, go so far as to say it was to create disturbance, to make it worse than it was, not just to spy on them, but to agitate, to create violence to create things that would disturb the American people and create a political situation that would enhance the security state, that would allow for crackdowns and breakings of laws, wiretapping, everything that the FBI was doing without admitting it. So Robert Bolt, who was a leading screenwriter at that time, he’d written Lawrence of Arabia, Man for All Seasons, Dr. Zhivago and he loved this story, loved the idea. I’d written it as a long treatment and he put me through the mill, learning the ropes of screenwriting with him, and he loved the story and wanted to make it but I don’t know it didn’t work. I mean, he was a wonderful writer, and I really learned a lot but sometimes you just can’t. It wasn’t my vision at the end of the day, it was a hybrid and it was never considered commercial, it was considered, as Platoon was, too depressing. So it never got made but I got a lot out of it, an education.
Adam: You note in your book that the Pentagon refused technical assistance for Platoon for quote, “calling the script a falsification and distortion of service life.” We obviously talk a lot about the Pentagon and CIA’s relationship with Hollywood and in fact, you were offered — if I’m not mistaken — you were offered to work on the script for Top Gun, the Don Simpson film, but you sort of demurred because you thought it would be sort of chest-beating or jingoistic? Turns out that was sort of correct. It became a huge Navy recruiting tool. Without necessarily speaking ill of the dead, I’m curious for you to talk about how you navigated the the kind of relationship with the military in Hollywood and your experiences and what, it sort of seems like a seesaw, you have Missing In Action with Chuck Norris, then you’d have Platoon, you’d have Rambo 2, and then you would have Full Metal Jacket, what was your experience where it was clear that there was sort of a hand here that was concerned with telling national mythmaking, especially in the Reagan ‘80s, where this kind of, you know, as you talk about this kind of revisionism of Vietnam became very popular. How did you navigate that and ultimately, what were the instances where the forces of jingoism ultimately won out?
Oliver Stone: Well, frankly, I mean, being honest to that period, I wasn’t aware of the infiltration and the interest in Hollywood by the Pentagon and the CIA, which are historic. I’ve since read the book called National Security Cinema which came out in 2017, by Matt Alford, and his co-writer.
Nima: Yeah, indeed.
Oliver Stone: In which he lays out on evidence that is shocking to me. No, I never saw it all under one roof under one pen. There it is.
Nima: Yeah, we actually had Matthew on our show to talk about that very thing.
Oliver Stone: Oh, good, because he’s wonderful, it’s so necessary what he did. But back then, no, I had done Salvador, and I had done it as a naive person doing the guerrilla movement in Salvador, which was also very anti-Reagan, because the death squads were in some ways tied into the US policy. They did a lot of dirty work for them in Salvador, and of course, Reagan was pushing the anti-Nicaragua story where he was going to go in, he was basically going to invade Nicaragua, no question, and I was there in the heart of it in ’85, saw those soldiers, saw the spooks, saw everybody down there, I write about it in the book. It’s an interesting story, the build up to a war, but it was, thank god, the CIA fucked up as usual. There was a contract employee that was captured, shot down and captured and he spilled all the beans that he was working for the CIA. That’s when it started to unravel that we had broken every rule of the Boland Amendment. We’d mined the harbor in Nicaragua, we’d done everything, everything except invade the country to destroy that revolution. So that was all news to me. But when I made Salvador, I did not have any interference as far as I know, it was a low-budget film, nobody gave a shit. It was in Mexico somewhere and, you know, we disappeared off the map, it was not given much attention. It did get attention finally, in ‘86, when Platoon came out, that’s what brought a lot of attention to Salvador, and I ended up getting the nomination actually for a screenplay in both categories. I mean, as an original for Platoon and for Salvador. It’s very rare a writer gets two nominations in the same year. The script is very strong, very harsh, but because it was so harsh, I presume it didn’t do as well. Platoon for some reason connected with the American people much more so than Latin America. They don’t care about their backyard even to know how many weeds there are in it. So by the time I made Platoon, yeah, it was clear the Pentagon wasn’t going to do it. I knew that it, they even interfered with us in the Philippines by putting out a directive to the troops stationed in the Philippines, there were two bases I believe, advising them not to be involved in the film. We needed extra white and black soldiers and we hired them there in the Philippines, as extras, but basically, we were working off book. I hired my own military experts, advisors and we shot with the Philippine military assistance because we worked out a deal with a Filipino military who are independent to some degree of the American military. We got their helicopters which, were old, from the Vietnam War, they were Bell helicopters, Hueys. They were not in great shape, they were in lousy shape and that’s another issue unto itself — we almost got killed and actually one of the Chuck Norris films, they did crash, and people were killed, but it was very touch and go in some of our scenes we were way overloaded in the maintenance on those choppers was poor. However, I didn’t think there was any bigger issue with the Pentagon, the Top Gun thing I had turned down in ‘83, I think in that area. I didn’t demur, I just thought it was horrible, I just didn’t want to make that kind of movie.
Oliver Stone: When I saw it, as much as you can imagine, I’m working with Tom Cruise on Born on the Fourth of July two years, three years later, and I don’t want to talk about Top Gun with him because I think it was a horrible thing to do, much less go back and do a second one. At the end of that picture, if you think about it, but I guess people don’t think very much, it ends with us going to war against Russia and happy about it.
Nima: Oh, totally, and the fact that it came out the same year as Platoon is kind of amazing, that those two things come out the same year in ‘86.
Oliver Stone: And it did better too. Commercially it made about $160 domestic, we made about $136, which are both huge figures, especially for our film, which is much more realistic and less entertaining than Top Gun with all that music and it was all glossy and it looked like a photoshoot for GQ. But, you know, the message of that movie is horrendous.
Adam: So you’re not excited about Part Two?
Oliver Stone: No, but the public is and it’s a shame because they’re all hopped up about Russiagate and all that crap.
Nima: Absolutely. There’s something I think really, really kind of fascinating that you touch on in the book, which is about fortuitous timing and how it plays with successful, popular storytelling, the ability for the public to be willing to hear certain stories at certain times, and especially those that question government narratives. You mentioned how that worked with Salvador, you know, the ability for that story to start to unravel and you also touch on how a similar thing was happening at the time of Platoon’s release. The idea that myths can be broken, that these status quo, common-sense things that everyone thinks they know about our society, about our national mythmaking can be broken down, you actually related earlier to even, you know, a film like The Apartment in 1960 — actually, possibly my favorite movie ever, which I was thrilled to read — you mentioned in your book about these taboos, these things that we all know are true, but we lie about it in public and that kind of is part of our national mythmaking. Can you tell us about how these paradigms shift and how popular culture, say in the form of Hollywood filmmaking, can both lead those shifts but also help really entrench them when they reflect back on the public, something that they are already maybe primed to start to understand and believe?
Oliver Stone: I try to answer most questions in interviews but on that one you got me. I mean, that is a very hard one to answer. I mean, you don’t know, the shifts occur. I’ve seen them in my lifetime and it’s a mystery still. I mean, in the 1970 period with Watergate, no question, there was a move towards conspiracy-type films, but for me, there was the Three Days of the Condor, where the CIA is the bad guy. But of course, the press, the news is the good guy. The newspaper reporter, media is a good guy, they save the film in the end, but that’s just not true. We’d like to believe that the press saves our ass from Watergate, but, bullshit. But anyway, it was a very successful film. And then Warren Beatty made another one, Parallax View, which was also not as successful but certainly conspiratorial, and there were a couple of other films in that nature. So that’s why I thought The Cover Up might work in that period, but it didn’t get made, then that kind of died off and then there was an early, Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter opened up the Vietnam story, which is great. They’re not at all realistic to me. In fact, highly unrealistic, but movie-ish, metaphoric. No concern about the Vietnamese but that’s part of the American movie-making machine. Coming Home was realistic, no question. It was more based on the story of a marriage and how it falls apart and her relationship with a wounded veteran, but it didn’t make any money. So, for me the big breakthrough was Platoon in ‘86. Now, why in ‘86? Because we had six years of Reagan maybe? Maybe people were tired with a jingoistic message? The nuclear war issue had arisen again in 1983, we almost went to war with Russia because of Reagan and the dirty trick he was pulling off the books, you know, the fine print that people were not seeing, people knew about it were getting set up, maybe that’s the reason. So Reagan provoked a sort of reaction. The last two years of Reagan’s administration, ‘87, ‘88, did not go well. He didn’t get anything through. The miracle is he got out of it, Iran-Contra was such a scandal, far worse than Watergate. It was treason basically, you know, now he would be busted for it but back then, the famous, you know, he got off because they liked him. The press corps liked Reagan, Katharine Graham of The Post exonerated him by saying to her staff, ‘I don’t want to have another Watergate, we can’t afford it, this country can’t afford it’ as if she knew what this country can and cannot afford. It’s the kind of arrogance of The Washington Post that goes to show you, it was disgusting, but they got away with it. And with that George H.W. Bush got away with it too, because he was in thick with those conspirators on Iran and Nicaragua, he knows the story. That guy escaped.
Nima: He used to run the CIA. Yeah.
Oliver Stone: He’s such a wimp who escaped everything. Anyway, it was probably Barbara Bush, who started the whole thing. No, just joking.
Oliver Stone: What was I going to say? Yeah, I can’t answer your question. I have no idea. All I know is that now, since 2001, it’s gotten worse and worse and worse.
Oliver Stone: Yeah. It’s really heavy. I can’t believe the number of films that Alford says the Pentagon is supporting. That’s big money, you know, even on films like Captain Phillips, which is a nice-looking big vehicle. Look at all the money that they put into that movie and if you notice at the end of that movie, which I enjoyed, the US military comes in and saves the ass of everybody on the ship with the most impeccable military precision of all. Now, I’ll tell you this, I wasn’t there on the Somalian sea or anything like that, but I’ve never seen a US mission go off that smoothly except in the movies. It never happens that way.
Adam: Yeah, I think when you’re making movies where bad guys are emaciated, starving Somalians, I feel like you’ve sort of reached peak empire. It’s maybe it’s time to look into the mirror.
Oliver Stone: And that’s another film I hate, I mean, as well made as it is, it is totally immoral.
Adam: Black Hawk Down?
Oliver Stone: Yeah, Black Hawk Down. Yeah, they have to kill how many 30, 40 black guys to feel good about, so for every one white guy killed, white military guy, there’s 30 or 40 black Somalians killed. Same thing as Mark Wahlberg’s film, Lone Survivor, which is total bullshit to me.
Adam: Yeah, the Pentagon made him take out the fact that one of the main characters in Black Hawk Down, as Alford says in his book, they made him remove the fact that he was later convicted of being a child rapist, but they removed that. There was some reason that was in the movie or in the context of the movie and they made him take it out.
Oliver Stone: Is that right? Wow.
Adam: Yeah, no, that was one of the Pentagon line item edits.
Oliver Stone: But it’s gone that way. I mean, it’s gone that way for 20 years, you understand? This is really unbelievable. We’ve lived in this period of kind of a coma for 20 years and people put up with it. And big money has been spent. Now the CIA got back into the game. I guess they want to sleep on the watch and then when JFK came out, I guess they got really pissed off because I have a feeling that’s reactivated them. They’ve been dormant for a while and they came back hard into Hollywood, they set up an office here, all the details are in the book, if not there, it’s in certainly in Jim DiEugenio’s book and the CIA became very active in terms of putting up the CIA, again, in TV shows like Alias and Homeland and so forth like some kind of heroic agency, which they’re not.
Adam: I want to talk a bit about Born on the Fourth of July, specifically in the context of nationalist mythmaking, which I think has been a subtext of much of what we’re talking about here. Specifically, it’s a story about sort of disillusionment and cynicism, but ultimately, I think, at the risk of sounding corny, it’s about hope. A major theme that we hear on our show, and others on the Left, and obviously, in general, in these kind of dark times, COVID-19, this and that, all these wars, is that there’s a general sense of kind of doom or despair, which we never try to promote on the show but some people, you know, when you start to deconstruct nationalist myths, or at least make an effort to, it can kind of bum people out for lack of a better word and there’s a general sense that they’ve kind of been lied to, which is, of course, the story arc of Ron Kovic in your film, which I think is sort of a useful antidote to this because when you strip away the national mythmaking, you have to replace it with something and obviously, he’s re-channeled his energy into activism, anti war activism. I want to talk about the power of national myths and how the deconstructing of those myths can both be sort of difficult and hard and also kind of lead to a different way of viewing one’s kind of moral place in the world.
Oliver Stone: It’s a very good question and it’s easy to, I mean, look at John Ford, right? He loved it and he was great at it, the music, the dancing, all about the Irish, you know, when he made Grapes of Wrath, for example, he made it a stirring movie for me, you know, it may be bullshit, but you feel for those California people who are moving, migrating and struggling against the cops, again, the bullies, and fighting for their, for the rights of every human being to exist. I mean, that’s a wonderful theme that always works. You know, you can’t lose with that theme and that can work for an American theme and I think it still can work. In the Born on the Fourth of July story, it was a, it’s a little bit tricky, because he lost his body there and he was a dead man and he’s still alive today because of his power to recuperate and to believe and he’s the most patriotic American at the same time, he detests war and he’s condemned every war we’ve been in since Vietnam, very loudly, went out there in Iraq and all that. But you know, the movie ends on a very mythological note with him going to the Republican Convention, he gets kicked out, and then he ends up, cut to the Democratic Convention, four years later with Jimmy Carter, and he goes in and he’s a hero, he makes a speech, right? And that ends on a very positive note, like you can do something, you can participate in the system, and you can make it better, you’d like to believe that, that’s where the movie ends. Well, we all know how it ends, because Jimmy Carter comes into office, he has promise in the beginning, as there was with Obama, as there was with Clinton, and of course, within a year or two, there he goes back into the old ways again, of jingoism, of fighting wars and Jimmy Carter turns out to be a huge disappointment. But we don’t know that in the movie, we just leave it in process, you see.
Nima: I’d love to talk about how you felt making a film like South of the Border after so much earlier in your career making something like Salvador. There’s a fictionalized version of something very real and then you go and meet with Central and South American leaders, make a documentary film, how are those two experiences different for you in your career, and maybe, you know, at the different times in your life that you made them?
Oliver Stone: Well, really, they’re one and the same. I mean, Salvador was dramatized by Richard Boyle’s story. I combined many events into a dramatic film. South of the Border is the real thing. It’s really what’s going on in 2008–9 in South and Central America when there was a huge shift to the left. I went to the interview in six or seven leaders, different countries, from Brazil through Venezuela, Argentina, my god, what a moment. It was as if reform was in the air and nothing would stop it and I’m glad I was there at that moment, because you feel the energy in that film. Now, I wish I could do another one 10 years later and see where the U.S. rolled back or the US participating with its collaborators in Latin America, which there are many - let’s call them the richer classes, the landowners and the oligarchs - and they work very hard to destabilize every single one of those revolutions, including the one in Brazil in the most despicable way possible. So the U.S. has turned the tide and I hate to say, but I think the battle will continue there, but for now, the bad news is dominant. I mean, here we are attacking Venezuela night and day and ignoring all the other shit in Colombia next door. We’re always condemning Venezuela or Honduras. And who created the mess in Honduras? Well, there was a great leader who almost took office a few years ago and Hillary Clinton saw to it that he was removed. Nothing has changed from 1985 to now is what I’m trying to say.
Nima: Well, right. I mean, I think that is so, that’s amazing. You have this snapshot of this moment of hope when you’re meeting with Chavez and other leaders and there’s this moment and then it just reverts. It’s like, the CIA was like, ‘Oh, shit. Never mind.’
Adam: Well, I mean, it was like watching the Bolivia coup play out just last year, where it was just like a script. And then they said, ‘Oh, the OAS, there’s about election fraud’ and everyone’s like, well, that’s obviously bullshit, the OAS is 70% funded by the US State Department and then lo and behold, six months later, The Washington Post says, ‘Oops, turns out the OAS’s voter fraud assessment was fatally flawed,’ and it’s like, well, no shit. This is the script. We’ve been doing this for 80 years.
Oliver Stone: Yeah. The Brazil story is far worse.
Adam: Well, yeah, far more sophisticated too I think, I mean, that was, the way they did that was very impressive. You have to be an expert to even keep up with it. But I want to ask, if you don’t want to comment on this, totally cool, but I sort of want to get your feedback on if you had a chance to watch the Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam. Specifically, its framing at the beginning of each episode as kind of its prologue, saying that the US “acted in good faith,” which I think is an interesting framing and probably one of the reasons it was praised by, you know, George Will and John McCain, because it was critical of the war in many ways. But there’s this kind of, I guess, PBS sentiment that you always have to kind of go back to this idea that while we did X war crimes or Y bad thing, that ultimately we had sort of good motives, which seems kind of fatuous to me, because that’s true of the British imperialists or the Nazis, everyone thinks they have good motives, so I’m not exactly sure what that means. I want to get your feedback on that kind of framing and what you think the kind of value or purpose of that is?
Oliver Stone: I see it all the time. I’ve seen it all my life. It’s the Life, Time magazine approach to American good guys, ‘We’re the heroes,’ ‘We have good intentions,’ I’ve heard it from the cradle up. I don’t believe it anymore. I think we have rotten intentions and I think we don’t care about so-called human rights and democracy. A lot of people have been hurt. Millions of people have been killed because of our policies. I can’t fall for that. I think Ken Burns is, I find him, as you say, what do we call fatuous? He’s terribly ill informed.
Adam: Yeah, because it seems like I mean, look, it’s, you know, funded by Bank of America, it sort of has this rollout, it’s very sort of middlebrow and I kind of get it because it’s how you get on PBS, you’re not gonna get on PBS saying America is, you know —
Oliver Stone: He should stick to baseball, and Tom Hanks should get his nose out as well.
Nima: There’s this way that you can be critical to a point and that that hardship, the quote-unquote “mistakes” that were made, actually serve the purpose of making you an even more empathetic empire, right? If only it had been done better or if certain mistakes hadn’t happened, but generally, it was a good faith effort. I think even the insertion of those “mistakes,” quote-unquote, or those crimes or those acts of violence, which are allowed to be shown in a broader story of heroism, serve even more to center the empire as a good guy, because we’re all flawed in some way, rather than seeing the entire thing as being rotten.
Oliver Stone: Yeah, I think, did you ever see our series Untold History of the United States?
Nima: Untold History. Yes, of course.
Oliver Stone: I think we deal with a lot of that. Starting with the, you know, going back to the 1890s, but certainly climaxing around the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, get into that very deeply and the whole thing that happens after World War Two, it’s a whole shift under Truman.
Nima: And then leading into, you know, coups under Eisenhower, and then you just kind of start stacking up the building blocks of empire that way.
Oliver Stone: Well, the Greek Civil War is one of the major, major first things that happened. There we supported a very corrupt regime. We get into concentration camps, we get into everything that happens in Vietnam, happens in Greece in 1947.
Adam: I have to ask about recent efforts to kind of relitigate Vietnam. This is the re-re-re-relitigation, specifically Max Boot released a book called The Road Not Taken where he sort of does the classic Rambo 2 argument that we were too soft, and that if we had been harder, we would have won, quote-unquote “won the war.” Are you following that at all?
Oliver Stone: Max Boot, he is crazy. It’s, you know, I guess you can get depressed, you’re young enough to put up with that, but if you read that stuff, you know, really, you need to have a psychiatrist after that. I mean, the guy is, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He really doesn’t. Guys who are chicken hawks, you know, call for war. They amaze me. I mean, that’s the rod of my generation. I mean, how many guys at Yale were like that? George Bush was in my class, he’s happy to go to war, he avoided at all costs. So did Bill Clinton, so did Trump. You know, these guys all come from that privileged position. They’re elitists. They just don’t know the pain and the suffering they bring.
Nima: Well, Mr. Stone, this has been so so wonderful. Before we wrap up, I wonder, you know, you have a new memoir out, what else are you working on these days?
Oliver Stone: Well, the memoir is a lot of work. Actually, it was, you know, a book has a long life. It’s important to me to do it well. I’m working on two documentaries. One is on the JFK case, the real case, the after the movie came out, certain amounts of information came out through the Assassination Records Review Board, which was open for five years, and they brought out some information that’s of interest and deepens the case, the case I made about the assassination of the president, very important, and it’s a record piece, and I want to get it out, it’s four hours long, obviously was going to meet resistance with some of the political imagery, the CIA won’t be very happy with that one either. Jesus Christ it’s hard to get things out into the mainstream anymore. And then secondly, I’m working on something on energy, clean energy, which is important to me.
Nima: Alright, I think that’s a wonderful place to leave it. Of course, we’ve been speaking with film director, producer, writer, Oscar winner Oliver Stone. His new memoir is Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game. Mr. Stone, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Oliver Stone: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Adam: I think it’s interesting to talk, when we talk about CIA and Pentagon influence with someone who worked in the industry, obviously is like a top brass for so long, how that kind of manifested and the fact that he’s sort of surprised by some of these revelations I think is interesting, because it does show the subtle ways these things work. The way that these sort of broad incentive schemes operate both in terms of underwriting financing, a lot of people within the industry don’t really view them in that way and so you can’t really pass up an opportunity to get someone who’s just wrote a memoir about the big chunk of the time frame we’re talking about the reflect on that. I think that’s interesting.
Nima: Yeah, as we said during our conversation, 1986 is kind of this amazing year, right? When he’s making Platoon, but also Hollywood is pumping out movies like Top Gun and Iron Eagle, and to talk to a person who was so embedded in that industry and respected in that industry, and yet was able to produce, obviously without Pentagon and CIA support explicitly, but was able to produce these films that garnered still huge box office, huge critical accolades, are cultural touchstones to this day and was doing that at a time when there was just such rampant jingoism and active support for this kind of imperial filmmaking is I just think, you know, I’m really glad we were able to do as an addendum to that three-part series that we did during the summer.
Adam: Yeah, I thought it was a cool follow up. Any other big name film directors want to…? No, I’m just kidding.
Adam: Yeah, I thought it was an interesting follow up. You definitely can’t pass up an opportunity to get an insider scoop, at least we didn’t do what we did for MSNBC where we masked his voice and identity, but still an inside scoop nonetheless.
Nima: Well, that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Thanks again to Oliver Stone for joining us. And thank you to all of you for listening to Citations Needed and for your continued support. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is so appreciated. We are 100 percent listener-funded, certainly not Pentagon- or CIA-funded.
Adam: That you know of.
Nima: Right. Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again everyone for listening. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, October 14, 2020.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.