“Man looks in the abyss. There’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.”
—Lou Mannheim (Hal Holbrook) in Wall Street
In Oliver Stone’s new film, World Trade Center, a rescue worker stands atop a pile of steaming rubble, planning his descent into the inferno below. “I need a medic up here,” he yells. “Anybody a medic?”
“I used to be a medic,” comes a voice from the darkness.
A tiny figure scrambles up the base of the hill like a large bug. As he passes into the light, we see that it’s Frank Whaley, an actor who got his start with appearances in Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors and JFK.
“My license lapsed,” the figure says. “I had a few bad years. But I’m good.”
Such is the legacy of Stone — a towering figure in modern film who always seems to be wrangling his own personal demons — that it is almost impossible not to read a scene like that autobiographically. A three-time Oscar winner as both writer (Midnight Express) and director (Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July), Stone has spent much of the past dozen years surrounded by controversy or chaos: His satirical tabloid blitzkrieg Natural Born Killers caused novelist John Grisham to accuse him of engendering real-life murders. Nixon, his oddly sympathetic portrait of the ex-president, eluded liberals and conservatives alike. The jumpy, kinetic editing style he employed in the day-for-noir U Turn and the pro-football pageant Any Given Sunday inspired longtime Stone critic Elvis Mitchell to label the latter “the world’s first ADD epic.”
Then the first of two HBO documentaries (Comandante) on Fidel Castro was shelved for being too sympathetic, while a subsequent portrait of Yasser Arafat (Persona Non Grata) saw Stone’s crew fleeing Ramallah four hours before the Israeli army attacked the Palestinian leader’s compound. (A third film, expected to profile either Kim Jong-Il or Saddam Hussein, was canceled.) He has been arrested twice — in 1999 and 2005 — for DUI and possession of marijuana, respectively. During an appearance at HBO’s “Making Movies That Matter” panel at Lincoln Center in October 2001, he allegedly made inflammatory remarks regarding the September 11 attacks, earning him scorn and ridicule in The New Yorker and elsewhere. Most painfully, when Stone, in 2004, finally realized his 20-year obsession to make Alexander, a sweeping history of Alexander the Great filmed on three continents, the film failed to find a domestic audience.
Now comes World Trade Center, a delicate, contained and extremely powerful evocation of our 2001 national trauma, starring Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña as John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, New York City Port Authority cops who were miraculously excavated from beneath the glowing rubble of Building No. 7. In an odd way, it brings Stone’s career full circle: His first student film, Last Year in Viet Nam, made at NYU in 1970 (for film professor Martin Scorsese), opens with a panorama of southern Manhattan and what would have been the Twin Towers, except that they weren’t completed until January 1972. But in another respect, World Trade Center may be Stone’s most subversive film yet — a rousing, populist, patriotic adventure story that kicks the legs out from under the right-wing criticism marshaled against him. It could prove the ultimate irony that the bête noire of American conservatives — the man who profiled right-wing death squads in Salvador, My Lai–like atrocities in Platoon, hostile takeovers in Wall Street, the anti-war movement in Born on the Fourth of July and, most notably, the fecund proliferation of Kennedy-assassination conspiracy theories in JFK — may find his most enthusiastic audience among the very partisans who have heretofore decried his lifetime of work. As no less a cultural observer than Mel Gibson said of Stone in the 1997 thriller Conspiracy Theory, “He’s a disinformation junkie for them. The fact that he’s still alive says it all. He probably should be dead, but he’s not.”
In person, Stone has an infectious laugh, seems genuinely engaged and takes the full measure of my questions before answering, at which point his ideas often come so fast they seem to be skipping across the surface of the conversation. He’s also the most fun kind of intellectual, in that he perpetually appears to be trying to figure himself out. Briefly a classmate of George W. Bush’s at Yale, he seems — at least on the evidence of our wide-ranging, three-hour discussion — to have absorbed a good deal more of its freshman syllabus. We spoke at his West L.A. editing suite, where he is currently preparing a three-hour, 45-minute DVD-only “road show” version of Alexander, complete with intermission.
L.A. WEEKLY: Where were you on the morning of September 11, 2001?