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Stone’s 9/11 film solid, true story

SHARE Stone’s 9/11 film solid, true story
Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" is now playing in local theaters.

Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” is now playing in local theaters.

George Grey,Afp/Getty Images

You ask Oliver Stone if his films are political and he looks you square in the eye and says, "No sir." He says, "The political Oliver Stone has been the one talking between films. My politics have always been off camera."

Whoa. Didn't "JFK," his incendiary take on the assassination of John Kennedy, all but name Lyndon Johnson and a shadowy cabal within the federal government as the culprits?

"That's a lie that's been spread," Stone snaps. "They say that the movie proposes there were 20 agencies in the government, unified to kill Kennedy, and that Lyndon Johnson was part of it. If you look at the movie, it's clearly not that."

So what is it? "What I said about 'JFK' is that It's a counter-myth to the myth of the Warren Commission," he says. Oh.

That his films become political, he maintains, is neither his intention nor fault. "I don't want my movies to be political or divisive. I really don't," he says with a straight face.

Horsefeathers. "JFK" is political to its core, along with the likes of "Born on the Fourth of July," "Salvador" and "Comandante," his film about Fidel Castro that HBO pulled because of its fawning portrait of the dictator. "Natural Born Killers" wallows in gore stunning even by Stone's standards. (He calls it "cartoon violence" and professes shock and amazement at the thrashing it took.)

So it is with an admixture of surprise, relief, and disappointment we learn that his new movie that opened Wednesday is utterly un-Stone-like. "World Trade Center" is a solid, safe effort stripped of politics, conspiracy, and attendant existential funk.

What it is is a small tale, tightly wrapped, about two Port Authority police officers who are trapped in the rubble of 9/11 before being rescued. True story. No spin. Serious verisimilitude. A well-made Hollywood offering that brings a message of hope and heroism. Oliver Stone?

9/11 is a hanging curve ball of a topic for a gifted propagandist like Stone that, one assumed, would stir his political juices. Wrong. "This movie had no call for politics. It was a 24-hour period in these five people's lives," he says about the police, their wives, and one rescuer.

"It is very positive, very simple," adds Nicolas Cage, who plays Sergeant John McLoughlin. "It is what it says on the poster, a story of survival. Anything else would not be healing."

All of this has made Stone — are you sitting down? — a new darling of the right. His storied leftist bent has infuriated the right for ages. "Stone has delivered one left-wing screed after another specifically intended, I'm convinced, to bring my blood to the boiling point," wrote right-wing bloviator Brent Bozell after seeing "World Trade Center."

He continued, "Let me be unequivocal, Oliver Stone has delivered a masterpiece."

So where, for the record, does Stone put his politics?

"I would describe myself as an independent centrist," he says. "I admire slower change in society. I believe conservatism is a good thing in many ways. Change is a big thing. The '60s shook me. I went from very conservative to exploding war veteran."

Speaking of masterpieces, Stone, now 59, could use one, or at a bare minimum, a hit. He's coming off of "Alexander," a critical and commercial disaster of leviathan proportions. Any number of directors would be on a suicide watch in a locked ward after the experience, but not Stone. Part of his charm is his refusal to quit. He is hard at work confecting a longer version of "Alexander," a capacious three hours and 40 minutes, complete with intermission, for our viewing pleasure.

"It's my Cecil B. DeMille version," he says, gap-toothed grin ascendant. "It's going to be glorious."

Stone is not particularly surprised that Hollywood allowed him back in the ring after the "Alexander" debacle. To the contrary, he utters this arresting statement: "Hollywood is very forgiving."

"Certainly after 'Alexander,' it was cold," he says about Tinseltown's treatment of him. "After 'Nixon' it was cold. After 'Heaven & Earth' — which I put a lot of energy into — it was cold. And after 'The Hand,' the horror film I did after 'Midnight Express,' it was cold.

"So I've been in at least four cold periods in Hollywood. When I say 'forgiving,' I mean if you somehow get it together and make the movie they like, it moves on. The memory is short."

For the record, Stone stormed back after "The Hand" to deliver in 1986 two lasting hits, "Platoon" and "Salvador." (He received directing Oscars for "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July," and one for his adapted screenplay of "Midnight Express.")

Stone came late to "World Trade Center." Andrea Berloff had already written a script based on a newspaper story about the rescue of officers McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, handed her by Debra Hill, one of the film's producers, who died of cancer last year.

"She had read about John and Will and optioned the rights," explains Berloff, who grew up in Framingham. "She gave me an article about their rescue and said, 'What would you do with this?' "

The Stone experience astonished and exhausted Berloff. "There was not a word in the script we didn't spend time discussing, over and over again," she says. "He was incredibly demanding. He makes you work to your limit — not just me, everyone around him. His attention to detail is unlike anything I've seen."

Stone antagonists will be crestfallen to learn that he was not a maniac on the set. "Nobody was out of control. It was focused from the top down," recalls Berloff. "It was a quiet set. Very civilized. Oliver's not a yeller."

Nor, she was relieved to learn, a script killer. "I thought he'd just fire me," she says. Instead, he gave her mountains of notes: "We did it together. Ninety-eight percent of the content stayed the same. People who saw my first draft and then the movie said they saw no difference.

"The most interesting thing to me was his embodiment of the project. He lived for months as if he was buried in the rubble."

Cage calls Stone, in a rather perfunctory way, an excellent director and then adds: "Having said that, he's presumptuous. He assumes things are which aren't. At times he'll wonder if someone's trying to debate him or in any way being confrontational when it's not happening at all. Where that comes from — I don't know where it comes from. . . . I like to think it's performance-driven."

Stone, for his part, describes his approach to the job as follows: "I view directing as a Socratic enterprise, which is to say, think before you speak and ask the right question. If you ask the right question, it will suggest something to the actor, perhaps something he hasn't thought of. If you have nothing to say and you're happy, move on."

The key, always, is a fresh eye. "Look at this movie: threadbare story — two cops buried, rescued, wives at home, worried, right? Threadbare in its essence. It was turned down by other directors. I tried to get it six months before I got it. We went beyond the cliche by talking to the participants in detail."

Oliver Stone has been wrestling with demons since his parents divorced when he was 14. He dropped out of Yale twicetvice: first to teach English in Vietnam and then to fight there.

One thing to remember is that he volunteered for infantry. No one in his right mind volunteered for infantry. "It was a form of suicide to go in and ask for infantry," he says. "I just didn't know if life was worth the candle.

"I was the only child. I had no family. There was no place to go," he says of his parents' divorce. "I basically said, 'Let's let God sort this out. I'm confused, I don't know if I want to stay alive.' "

He did 15 months as a grunt with the 25th Infantry and the 1st Cavalry. Saw a lot of combat. Won a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Returned home a very different puppy. Which may account for the personal and professional mayhem — the drugs, the booze, the women, the rage — that infused his subsequent life.

He may have finally calmed down. After two failed marriages, he now lives with his third wife and plays father to three kids. That said, he mounts a robust defense of his past use of psychedelics and does not deny reports that he still adores an hallucinogenic tea called ayahuasca. Reports of a volcanic temper pop up, so you make Ozzie Nelson comparisons about this guy at your peril.

And Vietnam? "My feeling was we all came out of there stained, darkened forever," he says. "It changed me forever. I was never going to be like the other filmmakers.

"It was like, once you've seen that, you've got to say to yourself, 'This is political.' If George Bush had spent two months in the bush in Vietnam, he would never have gone to war so easily. Nor would Rumsfeld or Cheney, and that's what makes the military sometimes the best leaders. They've experienced the pain."

I ask him to compare the truths of three major Vietnam films — "Platoon," Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" and Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket."

"I would look at 'Platoon' as a tunneler," he says. "Both other movies were made with a lot of money and they're beautiful. 'Platoon' was made for $6 million. We shot it in 55 days in the Philippines. When I say 'tunneler,' it was a realism movie. 'Full Metal' was a great movie but it's Stanley at his metaphorical self and 'Apocalypse' is Francis at full operatic mode. 'Platoon' was an attempt by me to go underneath and find out what it was like at ground zero. Much like 'World Trade Center.' "

The message of Vietnam, he maintains, resurfaces in "World Trade Center": "At the end of 'Platoon,' if you remember, Charlie Sheen in the voiceover says something to the effect that we the survivors have an obligation to those who didn't make it, to bring with what's left of our lives a goodness and meaning to this life."