Oliver Stone on Edward SnowdenOliver Stone, Hollywood’s non-conformist in chief, returns after a four-year absence with a biopic of notorious whistleblower Edward Snowden
In the interview with The Red Bulletin, the Academy Award winner talks about his new film, his search for truth and his fight against injustice.
Read on to find out more about…
- What we can learn from Snowden
- Director Oliver Stone’s private side
- Stone’s experiences with the military
- Stone’s most controversial films
THE RED BULLETIN: Edward Snowden [the former National Security Agency employee currently in exile in Russia after being charged with leaking thousands of classified documents to the press in 2013] appeared to require either a huge degree of courage or foolhardiness. What do you think we can learn from him?
OLIVER STONE: Clarity. A formidable degree of focus. A great conscience. And love. Most people don’t know he had been with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, for 10 years. And through her, in a way, he maintained his soul.
Do you share these qualities?
I never could have done what he did at 29. I just didn’t know enough.
“clarity. and Love”
But now you’re known as an adventurous filmmaker who has repeatedly challenged and criticised the status quo…
I would still not compare myself to Edward Snowden. The expansion of my consciousness took time. For example, I didn’t protest the Vietnam War initially. I was confused and I had to gradually grow against it. And it was only when I was between the ages of 50 and 60 that I started to become more active. I went back to college and began to read American history because I wanted to see the pattern behind US politics.
oliver’s army: HIS most controversial film projects
OK, let’s go back and trace the expansion of your consciousness. What were you like as a kid?
I didn’t ever think of myself as a guy who was asking impossible questions; I considered myself a conformist. There was a streak within me that despised injustice, but I didn’t quite see it at that time, and I didn’t practise it. Because I had a lonely childhood and felt inferior in many ways, I was just trying to get along. I was trying to fit in.
When I was in third or fourth grade, there was a boy in my class who was bullied. He was taller than everybody else and looked very gawky and unsophisticated. I didn’t particularly like him, but I stood up for him because I thought that what the other kids were doing was wrong. As a consequence, I lost my popularity with everybody else. You could argue that ever since that day I’ve taken up the cause of the underdog.
Did you like school?
I wouldn’t say that. It was an all-boys’ school, and that male environment became very competitive and cut-throat. A lot of kids were brutally hurt. It was a Lord Of The Flies thing. There were the champions, and then there were the guys at the bottom who would get their asses kicked. It was not fun to see that.
Where were you in the pecking order?
I was in the middle. I was a hider. I was quiet. I minded my own business. That had been my father’s advice. And above all, he used to say, don’t tell the truth.
But you did just the opposite…
Yes, because I was tired of all the lies. I thought my parents were happily married, but then they got divorced when I was 16. And when I went to Vietnam, I realised that was all built on lies, too. Since then, I have had a lot of anger about injustice and being lied to.
Were you drafted into the army for the Vietnam War?
After my freshman year at Yale, I went abroad to teach at a school in Saigon, which turned into six months. It was a fascinating time. I was one of the few white people there, and the kids were great. In hindsight, it was very dangerous, because there were Viet Cong squads all over the place; they were taking out people all the time, and a teacher would have been a big deal to them. Then, when I returned to the States in 1966, I couldn’t get a handle on my life. For that reason, I joined the army.
Edward Snowden enlisted as well. Can you recommend the experience?
No. That’s a problem with America: they worship the military. Only in the USA do you see soldiers celebrated in that way. On a personal level, I can tell you the military was a mixed bag: lots of
good guys and lots of bad guys.
But you appear to have come out of the experience physically and mentally unharmed…
I survived it through a share of luck… whatever you want to call it. But things could have escalated. There was a potential My Lai Massacre [the incident in 1968 when a company of American soldiers brutally killed – it is estimated – more than 400 Vietnamese villagers, including women, children and the elderly] happening all the time, because you could get away with stuff when you were at the front. I showed this in [his 1986 film] Platoon. But what helped me retain my humanity were the black guys. I really got into their music. And all those experiences began the process of opening me up and making me think for myself.
What would you have told your eldest son [Sean, now 31] if he’d shown an interest in enlisting?
He did. He came to me when he was about 17, 18. He was unhappy and wanted to toughen himself up and go to Iraq. I managed to talk him out of it.
You’re now 69, but you still get a lot of flak for your candid views. How do you go about counterbalancing all that negativity?
I have a good life; I am lucky. Being a Buddhist, I try to find the balance – the middle way. Otherwise, I’d wear a hair shirt all the time and be pretty miserable. Sometimes too much misery takes you to a place of cynicism.
Would you have preferred to live an easier existence? Without pain, but perhaps lacking insight?
To be a well-fed American living in Kansas City in a traditional relationship that was causing me pain without me even realising it; to be completely dead in the spiritual sense and be solely involved in materialistic issues… that would be hell on Earth to me. If I had not confronted some of these problems, I would have led a useless life. My life had to be about meaning.
What kind of meaning?
A spiritual, political, social and economic meaning. It’s important to wake up. Once you’re aware of the world, I don’t see how you can live quietly. That’s the problem in America: too many people live outside the spectrum of history. They live in a [kind of] Disneyland or on a golf course. Yes, they all struggle economically to improve themselves materialistically, but that’s all they’re thinking about. They’re devoted to this worry about themselves, instead of thinking about the world. You need a world consciousness.
How can you develop that global viewpoint?
Reading helps. I would recommend a book called The Untold History Of The United States, which I wrote with Professor Peter Kuznick [Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington, DC]. Other influential names I could give you are [political theorist] Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn [an American historian, now deceased]. Ultimately, it’s a question of education. In other parts of the world, like Europe or Asia, I find the citizens to be far more educated. They know it’s important not to just make money.
But you’ve made a pretty good living out of Hollywood, haven’t you?
I didn’t go into the film business because of that, but because I wanted to tell stories. I had no idea it would become this billionaire box-office kind of stuff. That has not helped movies; it has not made them better.
You said earlier that love had made a difference in Edward Snowden’s life. Is there any truth in the notion that love is all we need?
Let’s hope that love conquers all; I know that many times it does not. Life, in many instances, is disappointing and crushing. Nevertheless, love is an important quality. You must not lose
track of it. But sometimes you are misled. The Buddhists say that you have to be in love with the world, in love with life and not just one person. If a couple becomes too self-involved, that’s a form
of selfishness that rarely works out. People who are not balanced with the world can’t make successful couples.
You’ve been married to your third wife [Sun-jung Jung] since 1996. Would you say you’re a successful couple?
My wife and I have completely different points of view spiritually, but we get along. She’s much more hardcore and conservative than I am, because she had a very tough childhood in Korea. Whenever there’s a protest in America and someone gets thrown into jail, it’s namby-pamby to her.
Do you think the quest for truth and justice can be successful? Or will you get your reward in heaven?
I think heaven and hell are right here in our lifetime on Earth. We can all make our own heaven.
How would you achieve that?
I believe in man’s determination to lead a conscious life and to grow consciousness. That’s as much as you can hope for. You can also help others in a good way, not by making them dependent, but able to help themselves. That is a life well led. My spiritual meaning is encapsulated by Socrates’ statement: “Know thyself.” That is the work that can be done on Earth. Know thyself and behave accordingly. If youcan do that well, I don’t know what else you can expect; you can’t expect angels and trumpets. At the end of Snowden, there is a great moment when he looks inside himself and says, “At least I can to go sleep at night knowing that I have done the right thing.
Blow by Blow
The most influential whistleblowers of the past 50 years
1971: Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaks documents to The New York Times that provide evidence of chicanery by the US government in the course of the Vietnam War.
1972: Erstwhile FBI agent Mark Felt (alias Deep Throat) tells Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward about President Richard Nixon’s involvement in break-ins and illegal wiretapping at Democratic Party HQ at the Watergate complex.
1974: Chemical technician Karen Silkwood reveals scandalous safety infringements by the US nuclear industry. She dies later in a mysterious car accident.
1996: Jeffrey Wigand, the manager of a leading tobacco corporation, publicises the fact that the cigarette industry systematically covers up the risks of smoking.
2010: Chelsea (Bradley prior to her gender reassignment) Manning, a member of the US armed forces, leaks documents to WikiLeaks about human rights violations by US troops and secret wires from US embassies.