Oliver Stone is no stranger to controversy. His trilogy of Vietnam war films, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven & Earth; his take on the Kennedy assignation in JFK; the violence of Natural Born Killers; his “greed is good” indictment in Wall Street, his portrayal of Turkish people in Midnight Express, and his movie portraits of Nixon and W have garnered as much vehement criticism as adulation (the latter category including three Academy Awards). Aside from the controversy surrounding his films, there are his drug arrests, his praise and stated admiration for Hugo Chavez, and outspoken opinions that he might later have wished unsaid. So, it comes as a bit of a surprise to discover that, in person, he gives the impression of being quite mild.
His latest project is a 10-part television series (with a 750 page companion book) called The Untold History of the United States, which begins airing on Monday night. Here’s a sampling of some of the episodes/chapters: World War II: Who Really Defeated Germany?; The Cold War: Who Started It?; JFK: “The Most Dangerous Moment in History”; Nixon and Kissinger: The “Madman” and the “Psychopath”—you get the picture. Well, the University of Baltimore hosted a screening at The Charles of one of the episodes, The Bomb: The Tragedy of a Small Man last Thursday, and there was a panel discussion afterwards, which included Oliver Stone, sporting a bright red woolen scarf, and his co-writer, the historian, Peter Kuznick.
Oliver Stone, while a little bit irritated that the microphones weren’t working properly, came across as anything but the firebrand one would suspect from the controversy that has surrounded him. He was softly spoken, thoughtful and self-examining. He said, for instance, in response to a question about the difference between directing movies and documentaries, that had he known how difficult it was to work with documentary material, he would never have begun the project. Both he and Peter Kuznick said they wanted to do this for their children “and the better world that they and all children deserve.” Obviously he believes deeply and passionately in trying to make a difference and to make people think beyond what they are told to think, and this gives him an unexpected warmth. When I plucked up the courage to ask him to sign a copy of his book for me, he took a moment to make eye contact, lightly touch my arm, and make a comment about the ferocity of my fountain pen as he gouged a hole in the page with the sharp nib. It seemed remarkable to me that he would take the trouble to make a connection, slight as it was, given the thousands of people who must clamor for his attention all the time. It is always a pleasure to see the humanity in a person who has achieved a level of fame—albeit fame through notoriety, as has sometimes been the case with Oliver Stone. I have a feeling that his latest project, his Untold History of the United States, will stir up more of both.