By Ed Rampell
Outspoken filmmaker Oliver Stone and actor John Travolta blasted war and other aspects of U.S. foreign policy at a press conference in Switzerland on Sept. 20, the first day of the Zurich Film Festival.
Their movie about the drug war, Savages, kicked off the 10 day Swiss cinema fest, which also awarded Travolta its “Golden Eye” lifetime achievement award and is screening several of his hits, including Saturday Night Fever, Pulp Fiction and the election drama Primary Colors.
Stone, who is known for his hard-hitting movies like JFK and Wall Street, immediately took off the gloves in responding to the first question, about presenting his films overseas.
“I’ve always liked international audiences because that’s certainly the best reception for my movies. They’re the people who understand it. Sometimes operating inside of the American landscape can be isolating,” laughed the Oscar winning screenwriter and director.
Travolta also noted that cinema is “a global art.” A German National Radio political correspondent asked Stone how he came to do Savages, with its topics of Mexican narco-cartels and violence. “Listen, the drug war has been going on since I got back from Vietnam in 1969,” said Stone, a wounded, decorated veteran. “’72 it started with Nixon – this thing has been a 42-year-old farce, a disaster of immense proportions. America has declared war on terror, war on drugs; neither of them have worked. Huge amounts of money have been spent. Huge bureaucracies have been created – the Drug Enforcement Agency, as well as the prison system, which has expanded – exploded -- in America. We have roughly 2.5 million prisoners; 50% in federal prison are there for drug crimes, 20% in the state prisons are there for drug crimes. The money is huge. The prison guards union does not want – has blocked any sense of — reform on the laws of marijuana or prison reform, because they want more prisoners. It’s a capitalist need, desire – that’s what the drug war is. It’s a war for money, in the same vein that the ‘war on terror’ is a continuing George Orwell type of verbal war that goes on and on.” Stone, who directed the documentary South of the Border, about Latin America`s new leftist presidents, went on to say: “Sometimes they merge, like in Colombia and Mexico – they call it a ‘war on drugs,’ they send agents, they send spies, they get to know the system of Colombia. And before you know it they have – because they`ve been fighting a civil war in Colombia against leftwing militants, since FARC came into existence in the 1950s – now they call it a ‘narco-terror state,’ they blend the idea of drugs with terror, and you can continue fighting. Now, we`ve reached a place where we’ve put seven [U.S.] military bases into Colombia. Okay? And Mexico is next. The Mexicans want to kick us out.”
The fact that Stone was speaking out on foreign soil didn’t deter him from skewering U.S. foreign policy. “We don`t seem to learn from our mistakes,” he said. “We don`t seem to learn from Vietnam and we didn`t learn anything from Iraq I and anything from Iraq II, and we continue to make wars and threats against Iran. So this thing does not end. I have lived through the worst, for me, my nightmare.” Stone said that in Savages, Travolta plays a DEA agent “who at the beginning of the movie is a little weasel of a cop who doesn`t seem that important. But we find that he instigated the whole thing, right? On top of that, he`s the guy who comes out ahead at the end of the movie, which represents to me the pure cynicism of the drug war. It goes on and on – people get away with it and it’s about how much money you can make and who you can betray and get away with.” This reporter, who has previously interviewed Stone for The Progressive and other publications, asked: “Savages is another powerful commentary on violence and torture by you. In the entire history of cinema you’ve created some of the greatest antiwar masterpieces… What is it like to be in a peaceful country that hasn’t had a war for 164 years?” Members of the press corps in neutral Switzerland laughed as Travolta commented, “That’s interesting,” while Stone responded: “I think that war, you know, makes people – tears societies apart. War is the worst thing that happens. And sometimes we forget that because we never had one at home for so long. The British people had one, France had one, and they get on with it. When terror hit these countries, and they did in extensive waves of violence, from the IRA in the 1980s and ‘70s, they took it in stride, and they got on with it, and I admire that very much. When 2001 happened, the people were panicked and scared and the politicians used it in the wrong way as an opportunity to carry out their neoconservative agenda. I really regret that. I think it was a huge turn for the worse in the U.S. It seems that we’ve forgotten why Vietnam happened and I don’t think they teach it in school, I don’t think the young people know. And I think the lack of history has really hurt us. So we overreacted and we created another war and another war and another one. We’ve had five or six wars since I got back from Vietnam,” lamented Stone, who won Best Director Academy Awards for both of his 1980s Indochina epics, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July.
The filmmaker added: “How do I feel about it? Terrible. It’s a nightmare. Does it mean that the country has to go through a war? Probably, in order to learn something. Because right now we’re not in a very good place.”
Travolta stated, “I’ve never believed in war. But unfortunately I do believe that war is often financially motivated and that is very too bad. When you look at the history of war it looks like at the end of the day, it had something to do with money or oil or something, so that can be another angle one looks at when looking at these things.”
Later during the press conference beneath the chandeliers in Zurich’s posh Baur au Lac hotel Travolta revealed his next “film is with Robert De Niro called The Killing Season.” Travolta said, “It’s about two war criminals. One is a Serbian soldier, one is an American soldier… It’s basically how they try to resolve an unresolvable mental condition that they both have. Which is A): Being forced to go to war. But B): The ramifications of such. It’s a beautifully written script and I think I’m a pretty convincing Serbian.”
This reporter reminded Stone that when he had interviewed him during the GOP primaries, he’d expressed sympathy for anti-interventionist presidential contender Rep. Ron Paul, and asked: “Now that he’s no longer running do you prefer Jill Stein of the Green Party, Barack ‘Drone’ Obama or Mitt Romney?”
Stone replied: “Listen, I supported Ron Paul as a Republican candidate in the primary in Iowa because I wanted to have an antidote to the Romney approach. I made it very clear that it was only for that primary. In this election I’m beyond… we still have problems. But I’m certainly going to vote for Obama because I fear the alternative. I think with Obama we do have an intelligent leader who is very responsible…”
However, Stone noted, “I do regret that we do have prisoners… Obama said, ‘No man is above the law,’ and I think that’s true about our republic and always has been. If the president breaks the law, he is responsible. There’s been too much breaking the law and too much indefinite detention in our country. And Guantanamo Bay continues to be a disgrace for the U.S. In our movie is torture; torture exists. Torture came into being a long time ago and it has enhanced itself. And certainly George Bush had a large role to play in endorsing torture, as does Dick Cheney. The Mexican cartels have taken a lot of that violence from the Iraq War. The beheadings and the torture, a lot of the ideas for that have been stimulated by that war. Guantanamo Bay also has to be considered. And the veterans came back from Iraq and Afghanistan, like Taylor Kitsch in Savages, and they use these techniques against – in our fictional movie they use them against the cartel. But we’re certainly saying that wars come home to roost.”
Asked if he’d reveal which presidential candidate he would vote for, Travolta answered: “No, not really, because I’m not a political guy. And even if I were I’d probably keep that private. Also because I don’t have as much knowledge about – I tend to be quiet on subject matters I don`t have a lot of knowledge about, because I think it’s smarter to do that,” said the actor who first made his mark playing the dimwitted Vinnie Barbarino in the 1970s Welcome Back, Kotter TV series.
When a Swiss journalist asked Stone to “explain the level of cruelty and brutal violence in Mexico” as depicted in Savages, the helmer asserted: “Come on. Don’t you think that cutting off heads in Iraq has something to do with it? It’s a very showy way to kill somebody, and to string ’em up on highways and put bodies out there – I’ve seen the pictures. I didn’t want to put that into the movie because frankly, it’s horrifying. People will not sit there. We could have shown a scene with a guy being thrown into a bath of acid to see how they kill somebody; there’s quite a lot of that. No, I think we did the minimal just to try and suggest how tough this thing is. We want to establish reality levels, believability levels. I’ve never copped out on a movie – I really try not to, anyway. I think we avoided clichés in this movie. Even the whipping scene that some have mentioned – Benicio [Del Toro] took the time to learn how to whip with both hands, which is pretty remarkable…”
“But violence is contagious,” interjected Travolta. “You see a type of violence and it inspires other kinds of violence and it can be contagious.”
Impassioned, Stone added, “Cruelty – what is cruelty? To deny somebody life? Yes. But what is even worse than that? Think about it: What about the guy who just died at Guantanamo after being declared ready to be released about four or five years by one of these courts we have? Kept in prison, denied his eight children and wife back home. Not able to see anybody. And knowing that he was supposed to be released, but not being released. What do you call that? That’s the cruelest thing of all, to watch somebody die. He just died. He died because he couldn’t take it anymore. To live in Guantanamo without hope of indefinite – you don’t even know what the charges are against you. What do you call that? That’s the cruelest thing of all. We’re doing that!”
Stone told the press conference that his next project is a 10-part documentary series called The Untold History of the United States, premiering Nov. 12 on the Showtime cable TV network. An accompanying book will be published Oct. 30, and Stone hopes the nonfiction lefty look at America’s hidden history will also be released in Europe.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film critic and historian who wrote Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.