An Interview with Oliver Stone

Stone’s documentary South of the Border highlights an essential if overlooked story: This is the world’s only region where the Left has been successful since the Soviet bloc’s collapse, as Latin American leftists swept to power and implemented far-reaching reforms. Stone has dared to make a “counter-myth” to the establishment’s official line on these Latin American leaders, recording a sort of alternate people’s history of the Southern Hemisphere.

On June 25, L.A.’s lefty Cinema Libre began its national theatrical release of South near Wall Street in Manhattan, where it earned the weekend’s top per-screen average of $21,000. South’s cinematographer is Albert Maysles (co-director of 1970’s Gimme Shelter); it was co-written by progressive intellectuals Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Tariq Ali of the New Left Review.

On September 24, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps—Stone’s sequel to 1987’s Wall Street—opens, with Michael Douglas returning as Gordon “Greed Is Good” Gekko, the role that won Douglas a Best Actor Oscar and Golden Globe. In Stone’s critical take on the recent financial meltdown, the avaricious insider trader finds out that “now it seems [greed] is legal because everybody’s drinking the same Kool-Aid.

I interviewed Stone at a publicist’s Wilshire Boulevard high-rise office near Beverly Hills. The director is impressive in person, standing six-foot-something, tall, trim, mustachioed, and looking a decade younger than his sixty-three years. During the interview, he revealed himself to be extremely well informed, engaged, compassionate, and polite. He posed next to a poster of South depicting a white eagle’s talon impaled by a red spike rising out of Venezuela.

Q: Why did you make South of the Border?

Oliver Stone: Because these Latin American leaders have been demonized by a combination of their own local media—which is controlled by private, rich families, who don’t want to see change in their countries—and also by the U.S. media, which is surprising, considering their distance from the facts.

Q: What do you want viewers to take away from this documentary?

Stone: Well, listen: I think it’s a 101, an introductory course on something that’s going on which is historically significant. Because never before, in the history of this region, have six countries at the same time democratically elected leaders for change, for control of the resources of their own country for the benefit of their own people.

Historically, each one of these countries has been picked off, one by one, by the United States. Today, this is harder to do, but we are working actively to get rid of these people, no question. And to disunify them; to break ’em off, one from the other. But they have stood firm. I think this is an important moment. And I hope that they will last, because they have done good for their countries, despite what you hear. The economies in all these countries have improved radically for the poor.

The World Bank statistics clearly show that Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador have all benefited from their administrations. Particularly in Venezuela, the gross national product, the economy, has grown 90 percent from 2003 to 2008. Ninety percent!

Another thing that has happened is that poverty was cut 50 percent. Extreme poverty 70 percent. So, when he gets democratically reelected in 2006, his critics all gripe and complain, but people are voting for him because they’re pleased, because he’s actually delivering on his pledge. He grew up poor; he knows what it is to be poor. It’s unbelievable to me how blind we are in our criticism—how picky and nasty.

Q: Were you surprised that the “greed is good” mentality led to the banking crisis?

Stone: I was surprised that it went on. I did the first Wall Street film in 1987. I thought that era was going to come to a close because it was extremely excessive. Instead, I found that it went on, and the millions of dollars we were talking about in the eighties became billions. The people like [Gordon] Gekko were no longer the large players on the scene because all of a sudden, you know what? The banks started to play that game. The banks were no longer the banks that I knew when I was a kid. They were no longer holding deposits and making loans; they were suddenly becoming gigantic casino players, buying and selling for themselves—and the client be damned. So it was a whole different mentality.

We saw six banks take over the whole world economically and basically run the casino. And they had the inside information and they were able to play the game both ways. Sell long, go long and short at the same time basically. The banks thrived, and the economy got killed. And when it fell apart the banks got socialized, so to speak. They were bailed out. And the taxpayers paid for it. So, it’s a rigged game.

This is just an excerpt from a much longer interview in the September issue of The Progressive. To read the whole interview and to subscribe to The Progressive for just $14.97, (a huge discount!), click here.