Interview: Oliver Stone Keeps Rolling

With Kennedy mania in the air, the JFK director is back making mischief and planning to tell the story of another assassinated American leader

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“You’re not gonna do the TIME magazine thing, where you assassinate all these people, are you? You know, they’re famous for that. John Shaw Billings, in Life magazine, in the old days. The editor did not tell you, ‘You can’t write anything positive about this conference?’ You sure?”

Well, I’m filing to an editor—

“A-ha! You can’t write anything, then.” And so, like that, Oliver Stone had resolved to remain wary of our mission. There are places where reporters from old-guard mainstream national publications (ahem) are welcomed, and then there are places like the Symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy at Duquesne University’s Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law, where a reporter is received as warily as a CIA functionary. Held as gospel among the symposium’s attendees was the notion that members of a Beltway media elite, owing to a mix of incompetence and good manners and fealty, had long ago conspired to suppress forever the truth about the assassination.

But Stone, who had come to the Pittsburgh conference in October as a guest of honor, had a couple of new projects to promote, so here we were regardless, at his hotel’s bar, talking over Perriers and chili con carne.

Stone’s upcoming project, one he’s discussing only in whispers, is a Martin Luther King biopic. (Jamie Foxx will reportedly play King.) Stone had worked on a script in the mid-1990s, but controversy and the director’s fatigue with late-’60s-and-early-’70s politics — he had just wrapped Nixon — scuttled it. A few months ago, the producers with rights to King’s estate called and asked him back. He wanted in immediately, despite all his instincts telling him to stay away.

“We’ve seen so many documentaries. There’s so much we’ve seen about him that we think we know. For dramatists, you don’t want to go there. That’s the last place you want to go. That’s death. So for me, it’s a very challenging road, it’s not an easy thing to get involved in again. But I think it can be done. I think there’s a great story there. Although it’s a familiar story, I think it can be done in a new way. This is the first time I’ve told anyone about it. I don’t know why I’m telling you. Maybe there’s a bone of honesty in you that they won’t f–king cut out.”

Stone’s main mission in Pittsburgh, though, concerned John F. Kennedy. A limited edition of his 1991 film JFK hit stores just in time for the assassination’s 50th anniversary, with a 205-minute director’s cut and all kinds of other extras.

Stone, who grew up an old-line conservative, didn’t intend to start a movement. “I’ll be blunt,” he says. “I wanted to remake Z.” Z, the 1969 French film by Costa-Gavras, follows a reform-minded Greek politician assassinated by right-wing military elements, and one prosecutor’s fruitless attempt to bring the perpetrators to justice. “The opening, it was like the Greek Dealey Plaza,” Stone says. (Like Z, JFK won the Academy Award for best editing, and was nominated for, but did not win, best picture.)

But in the course of making the film, Stone became both a hero and a boon to those who doubt the Warren Report. JFK grossed over $200 million and breathed new life into dusty history. It prompted the passage of the JFK Records Act in 1992, and the subsequent release of millions of pages of documents, under the Assassination Records Review Board’s supervision. The full-time Warren skeptics were delighted to have Stone lend his celebrity and credibility to their cause.

He still talks the talk of an assassination skeptic — “I’m talking about the autopsy. The ARRB, in their long report in ’98, they called 10 more witnesses to that autopsy, and they identified a massive wound [to the back of Kennedy’s head]. You’re talking about 50 f–kin’ people who have identified this wound. And yet you have these troglodytes who keep coming up with the single-bullet theory. Which is insane. I hope you’re enough of a sportsman to realize it’s impossible.”

But Stone has since weaved his Kennedy beliefs into a macro-historical account, a unified theory of the 20th century and the decade-plus since. He calls it his “untold history of the United States, never covered by TIME magazine,” and there’s a 10-hour Showtime series (now out on Blu-Ray), and a near-800-page companion book (now out in paperback) to explain it.

Kennedy was a roadblock, and on Nov. 22, 1963, he turned into a speed bump. The story of the 20th century, argue Stone and his co-author Peter Kuznick, an American University professor, is the unchecked growth of the American empire and the national-security apparatus abetting it.

Kennedy wanted to stop this spirit before it became intractable. Stone says, “When Truman comes into office, we start this process of acceleration. We’re the richest country in the world, far stronger than the Soviets. … And we take this power and we misuse it from the beginning, with the atomic bomb.” And Eisenhower, who beefed up the nuclear arsenal, just made things worse.

Stone says, “Kennedy had to take the Cold War line to get elected. But once he got elected, and once he met the generals, and learned about the Bay of Pigs — he was shocked at the stupidity of the generals. He called them ‘boneheads.’ Laos, Vietnam, you have to go into it. It’s unbelievable. Kennedy really tries to make effective changes, some difference. He’s cut down. Johnson comes in and dives back in, in the worst way.”

Conspiracy theorists often use all this as the CIA’s motive to kill JFK; in his series, Stone doesn’t. The story is tragic enough.

“It’s not just the Kennedy killing. It’s the mindless acquisition, and acceleration to a national security state … Eventually we’re going to be hated by a lot more people than we already are.”

He pauses to marvel at the darkness of his vision and his life’s work. And then he laughs.