THIS IS THE FIRST in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with the renowned filmmaker Oliver Stone, whose recent films include Snowden.
BRAD EVANS: Each of your films deals in different ways with the relationships between power, war, and oppression. What role do you think filmmakers have when confronting the problems of violence and injustice in the world today?
OLIVER STONE: Platoon was made almost 20 years after that war and it was a small slice of an infantry unit in a war that was misunderstood by most Americans. It was truly an ugly slice and people recognized that. Do you realize how much information actually got out about that war when it was in progress? Very little! We still have the same issues. As Chris Hedges points out, we still have the same issues; so few reporters really see the war. They get “embedded” by the US military, and they spend their time getting “briefed” from the US point of view, rarely see real action, and they miss the big picture.
I didn’t see one press person in the field my entire time in combat units in Vietnam, which stretched over approximately 13 of my 15 months. They would go out to the elite units such as the Marines, as they’re always looking for publicity, or the First Cavalry Division, a novel concept at the time, but the “grunt units” are not glamorous. The same is true essentially of filmmakers, because they also get seduced by a fabricated reality put to them by the Pentagon.
The current Syrian conflict is the latest example of this behavior. American TV is terribly good at removing the ugliest side of war. You get a much more direct picture on France 24 or RT (Russian television). We in the United States cut out the body bags or coffins coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan because it’s bad publicity for the war effort. As a result, Americans are sanitized to the concept of death in a Disney War. And that’s why I believe we have the ability to have wars that continue for 15 years without coming face to face with them. This is where film has a role — but a small one. After all, Platoon can come out 20 years afterward, so can Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven & Earth, the three films I made about Vietnam. But few Americans to this day still realize that 3.8 million Vietnamese, according to McNamara, were killed. That’s more than half of Jews killed in World War II, and yet every school kid in America knows that!
I’d like to ask you about your personal relationship and experience of violence. In particular, how you’re firsthand encounters with war and injustice shaped and continues to inform your own director’s eye?
Occasionally, I did see and engage with the enemy. I spent quite a bit of time in the bush, and I saw a lot of fuck ups. A lot of “friendly fire,” that is a lot of getting killed by your own men, often in close combat, when you don’t know who is killing who or where the explosions are coming from.
We tend in the US military to overreact to incoming fire. We send out a ton of artillery and sometimes planes with bombs for what often is a simple ambush that can be handled without overreaction. Sort of like George Bush in 2001, who thinks the attack on the World Trade Center is the start of World War III and calls for a war on the world. Us against them. War on Terror, et cetera. So we go into this overreaction. It’s in our makeup.
I’d argue that it goes back to our childhood. Those who grew up after the War in the shadow of the bomb were born into a paranoid society that wasn’t necessarily nurturing. We’re set up in schools by an Anglo-Saxon mentality for a fierce competition, wherein to succeed you must assert yourself and win. Which often means the other person has to lose, and lose badly. Otherwise you’re weak. The films of John Wayne, or, for that matter, so-called “thoughtful films” like Shane and High Noon show that even a good man has to carry a gun and be able to protect the weak — and in the end of course he has to use that gun. You can’t have a gun in an American movie and see it not used.
I don’t think our movies, with few exceptions, have veered from that equation. I’ve made several antiwar movies, but look at our country now. It’s even more militaristic than before. When the kids saw Platoon, they joined up; they didn’t go and see Born so much because their hero, Tom Cruise (from Top Gun), was castrated halfway through the film. Suffering a paralyzed life is much harder for the young people to understand. I think young people want to see excitement and most of them don’t care about the moral consequences. It’s in our national DNA.
Screenshots, Heaven & Earth (1993). Directed by Oliver Stone.
From Salvador to Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, there is a clear dimension to your work that addresses head-on the intimate nature of violence and the ongoing trauma of all too human suffering. What has been the most difficult scene you have filmed in this regard?
In Born on the Fourth of July, we concentrated on a moment in which Tom Cruise is shot near fatally in the lung area. He’d already been wounded in the heel and was continuing to fire on his knees, partly out of a sense of guilt from an earlier encounter when he believed he’d killed his own man in a combat situation. In this case, as he stays up, firing without purpose, we built the music and the montage to that one bullet that cracks into his spine and severs his spinal cord. Basically it’s one bullet that does this — just one bullet that changes your life.
There is also a very powerful scene in Heaven & Earth where Tommy Lee Jones, a war veteran failing to make a living by selling arms back in the United States, has married a Vietnamese woman who has experienced every form of warfare up to this point. Now back in San Diego, frustrated with his life, he almost kills her. He points his shotgun at her head and all her past life passes before her. We have the faces and the shotgun, the shells, the ammunition box and its descriptions all passing before us with the music. In the end, he pauses long enough not to kill her. He puts the shotgun away and momentarily we see them reconcile with a loving scene where she forgives him (“different skin, same suffering”). But in the end he kills himself, as many veterans are doing. So we really dig into the power of violence and what one bullet can do. We show clearly that this happens in US domestic life; that you don’t have to go to Vietnam to see the power of the bullet. In fact, kids are being cut down left and right in our cities. We really are in a war situation, but we are not facing up to it. Movies can point out this violence. But how effective they can be, I have my doubts.
The abuse of power as we all know comes in many different forms. Turning to your latest film release, Snowden — what was it about this story line in particular that compelled you? And how do you see it in relation to your broader critique of the role of the United States?
I think the 2013 revelations were not very clear to many people. It was so technical. But it doesn’t really register, and we tried with the movie to get really into what they were doing by showing the NSA, the dialogue, the maps, the way they think, to try and show some of that world. The only way we could find out about it was to talk to Snowden. And he was the guy who, in nine different visits, gave us some remarkable insight into these new systems with tremendous power — and why surveillance isn’t about terrorism, which can be dealt with through selected targeting, but really about a desire to dominate the world with social and economic control in all countries.
This is not just about internet surveillance. It is about drone warfare and cyber warfare. This is about global satellite systems and the most intimate forms of knowledge from our personal details to the operations of all leading multinational corporations. And of course interfering in nation-states, including conducting digitalized coup d’états against countries whose politics we’d like to change. It’s no longer necessary to club the other guy to death. When you can control the media and the minds of the populace, you can control the country’s spirit and break it. This truly is Orwell’s 1984.
One of the dangers of dealing with the legacies of war is the tendency to beautify and make amenable for public consumption the suffering. How does the industry play into these demands to turn violence into mere spectacle?
Most American war movies are propaganda; soldiers die in small numbers. But of course we dote on it. Most recently Michael Bay made a spectacular looking movie called 13 Hours about Libya. The Americans are shown killing hundreds of Libyans before you see a handful of them taken down. They get blown up so spectacularly and rolled over in cars; you’d think dozens are killed! But in the end, we see four, maybe five coffins, and their deaths are so scripted as to give you a sense of justification coming from how many Libyans they’ve killed — a.k.a. a heroic last stand à la Custer. The same is common in movies like Lone Survivor, which again offers a most ridiculous representation. Hundreds of Taliban were killed in an event in which, in reality, probably none were killed or at most a few. And most or all of the American soldiers died dirty, without even firing a shot. It’s really, in the end, much more about luck, poor pre-planning, and politics than combat skills.
I saw it again in Black Hawk Down, which got an Oscar nomination for best director, released on the eve of our second Iraq War. Imagine the impact of that on our culture. Think about the probability that George Bush must have seen this picture — like Nixon saw Patton. And think about the “nobleness” of our mission to Somalia. In the movie, they kill so many black people, as we did with the Libyans, and our soldiers are glorified. Every one of them who dies in this fucked-up mission. There’s not one guy who’s shitting in his pants when he goes to meet his maker. In fact, they’re dying in a military fashion, which is going down in a helicopter and obeying perfectly the protocol. That’s what the Pentagon does. “You want to get our state-of-the-art Black Hawk choppers and use them, that’s fine, we’d just like to view the script.” And they tell you how a man should die when his helicopter is going down in flames. It’s all bullshit! It doesn’t happen that way. And that’s what goes on. This distortion in American cinema has been gigantic. I understand there is always propaganda in times of war, and we sentimentalize one side over the other, but I’ve never seen it this bad in terms of directors using highly technical skills to render so realistic something so unrealistic as their interpretations of the war. I find that disgusting. As good as the film was, its message is a detriment to humanity. On top of it, the United States’s failures in Somalia and wherever we intervene are glossed over as simple technical glitches or failures of communications.
Americans have never really been attacked in a war. We’ve never experienced the bombings and deaths the Europeans, Russians, and Asians have felt. And we never have this worship of the military like we now have. On football games, baseball games, I see it everywhere on commercials on TV, this recruiting of poor people to join the military. They make it look so good to join the military and they don’t ever question the purpose of the war or the morality of that war. We can just go to another country and invade, kill local people, and it’s no sweat off our sense of guilt. None at all! What is wrong with us? I mean, Vietnam? We should have had a major reexamination of our country. Never happened! What kind of leadership do we have or lack of in this country?
So what can movies do? Nothing. Salvador was a powerful movie, but my god it didn’t mean one iota, it didn’t turn one eyeball. We were doing horrible things in Central America, supporting the Contras and the Death Squads. So here we are in a situation where we have no sense of reality. And you want to talk about violence? I mean how much violence has the United States visited on the rest of the world? It’s just gigantic and disproportionate to the guilt we feel.
The director Michael Haneke once argued that the perfect scene in regards to violence is the one that forces the viewer to turn away. What would be your understanding or idea of the perfect scene?
“It forces a viewer to turn away” — I don’t know about that. The point of violence is to engage the audience and show the power of it and what it means. It need not be delicate, so as not to offend the viewer. Eisenstein certainly didn’t look away. He showed the shock at the Potemkin Steps. The worst thing to do is to lie about it and make it look seductive. Life is much more complicated than good guy/bad guy. Often it’s somebody in your own family who is acting violently or is a bully. All these issues are complex, but we should do violence as accurately as possible.
12 Years a Slave certainly drove home the point about violence. How many whippings were there in the movie? Do you really need that many to sell the point? I got it, and for me it was too much. I actually turned away from the screen bored, so maybe that’s what Haneke meant. You need to be pushed. You knew from a few minutes into the film that slavery was this brutal thing; whereas when Tarantino did it in his slave picture it was way over the top and disgusted me in the wrong way. Remember at the end, the last half hour is just about getting even. It meant nothing to me because these were pointless killings done gratuitously, as when you beat an opponent but then you keep beating him to show how powerful you are. So violence is a relative scale, and as a filmmaker you have to decide when it’s doing its job.
But truly, I’m not sure movies make a difference. Because there have been so many great movies with violence, done so effectively for over a hundred years now, yet it hasn’t seemed to deter people from acting violently and stupidly.
Moving forward, there has been a marked increase in recent times of critical thinkers engaging with cinema as a serious medium for social and political critique. How might we resource cinema better in order to develop a more effective resistance to the present?
It’s so hard. You can make a small independent film, but few are going to see it. It has to be distributed, marketed; before you get a movie into any viable format to get people to see it, you’ve spent a lot of money. You know in some ways one of the most revolutionary movies was actually Avatar, which cost and made the most amount of money. It really was a statement about the American empire. But the director, scared of losing his American audience, kept denying it. I suppose you have to be very subtle about this and make sure the American audience does not feel threatened or guilty. But the imperialists on that planet are so clear and every character is American. That one beats me. It seems that every congressman would’ve seen it and gotten the message. But none of them did and here we are rooting for more wars in the Middle East than ever before. When do we wake up?
It’s so difficult now because movies in theaters are dying. Mostly young people would rather see it on a device at home. The ideal is to marry the two, but that’s not happening right now. And movies have been superseded by television, which is a lot easier to access.
On the other hand, I miss movies. I think there is a certain form to it that is beautiful, elegiac. I think if you can tell a story in two hours, it’s much better to do so than in eight to 10 hours like a TV series. There is purity to movies that will disappear. I hope we never lose them, but it doesn’t look good right now. In fact, so many movies from the 1930s through the ’80s and ’90s are lost to our culture because they’re not available from the cloud. Only people with libraries have evidence that there’s a tremendous culture, a tremendous amount of work done in those 50 years. Netflix, for example, would rather make an original series (and make more money) than to store old films. This is as bad, in its way, as the sack of Baghdad under Donald Rumsfeld. “Shit happens,” he said. That’s the American way.
So, in the meantime, it seems these kinds of pro-American, pro-System movies like Zero Dark Thirty, Black Hawk Down, and American Sniper will get made. It’s the guys who attack the system who have a hard time getting the resources to make their films. It seems they’ll be marginalized and even erased if the empire wins out.
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, whose work specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.