“If I can do one more ‘lost cause’ of a film, I will, with my last breath, try:” Oliver Stone on Activism in Film
by Oliver Stone

In our Spring issue, we asked Academy-Award winning director Oliver Stone if film can make a difference in vanquishing the darkness and rot that has pervaded through humanity’s ages. Stone, whose provocative Showtime documentary series The Untold History of the United States recently spawned an education project, is a veteran in the trenches of political and social justice. He offered us a sober call to arms from the frontlines.

Oliver Stone Untold History of the United States Photocall
Oliver Stone, courtesy of IPA Press

“The great German actor-director, Maximilian Schell died recently at 83 and his obituary noted his comment that of all the works of art he’d seen and participated in for the betterment of mankind, he could honestly say that none of them had added up to much, and that man had not civilized himself in the least. It was a depressing conclusion to a well-lived life, and one in which I find myself depressingly and increasingly in agreement with. Aside from the sum of poetry, literature, dance, opera, theater, etc—whether it’s Henry Fonda in Ford’s Grapes of Wrath, or the Frank Capra movies, Stanley Kramer, or all our own modern film efforts—we must wonder what happened! Eloquent recitals of Lincoln’s ‘better angels of our nature’ must be autopsied alongside the violence of his assassination.

For every time a filmmaker glorifies man and his humanity, there are corresponding nadirs of extreme irrationality and stress when we descend so readily into caveman emotions—whether it’s August 1, 1914, 9/11, or the roots of most wars. Why does the reactionary concept of military force, or the taking of vengeance without knowing who is actually behind a provocation, so easily predominate over diplomacy and the use of ‘soft power’ to render solutions? Peter Kuznick and I addressed this issue in our Untold History of the United States, particularly in the closing Chapter 10 (“Bush and Obama – Age of Terror”). We also made a point, in the early chapters, of comparing Franklin Roosevelt’s calmer, positive approach to a Grand Alliance to Harry Truman’s “take it or leave it” approach with the Soviet Union—which of course resulted in their leaving it. Out of this attitude grew the Cold War.

Copy of Sergey Maidukov_01_HR
Illustration by Sergey Maidukov

During a recent Facebook/Twitter Q&A, I was asked if I had any insight into why my most iconic characters tend to be reactionary instead of progressive. My response was that in life and politics, the outspoken and stubborn often receive far more attention than those who favor conciliation and appeasement. Appeasers are dismissed as soft and weak, although theirs is most often the superior approach; sometimes political goals are reached without decisive ‘wins.’ Movies parallel reality but also offer a larger-than-life reality, and escapes from reality. We like tough characters, we like ‘strength,’ but do we really want John Wayne to run the State Department? Weren’t Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush’s presidencies enough of an example to frighten us?

How can we as filmmakers improve this situation? The odds we carry from the last century of filmmaking and the resulting terrors and wars that have engulfed us are slim, yet ask any young, progressive-minded filmmaker, “What would you do if not this? Could you be satisfied the other way—making homages to violence, racism, torture, vigilantism, and revenge, as so many recent works have done, such as Lone SurvivorBlack Hawk Down, 24, or Zero Dark Thirty, etc?” This is an age of corporatized ‘democracy’ and a corporate media that justifies themselves with a view of American ‘exceptionalism’ that is more often propaganda than truth. In its name we create enemies, and like Christian Knights, we set out slay the dragons.

This is a very dangerous mindset and time. We as a country have become so militarily and economically powerful that we dominate the world without many of our citizens realizing how aggrandizing our power has become. The danger is that in our self-love, we applaud ourselves as ‘democratizers,’ ‘freedom-bringers,’ when in fact we can’t provide a true working democracy in our own country. When it takes a billion dollars to become president, that’s no democracy.

Still I continue to believe a film can at least keep the idea, if not the substance, of freedom and dignity of the individual foremost in our minds. And to that effect, if I can do one more ‘lost cause’ of a film, I will, with my last breath, try.” MM

Original illustration for MovieMaker by Sergey Maidukov. See more of his work here.

To subscribe to MovieMaker Magazine, click here.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to ““If I can do one more ‘lost cause’ of a film, I will, with my last breath, try:” Oliver Stone on Activism in Film
by Oliver Stone

  1. SaraG

    Love you Oliver. Keep fighting the good fight.

Latest Stories

Happy Bastille Day! Directed by the colorful, hyper-kinetic, and very French Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Mood Indigo tells the story of two lovers against the backdrop of Gondry’s typically fantastical Paris. Visual effects supervisor Romain Strabol explains how the team crafted two key elements of Mood Indigo‘s surreal mise-en-scène: a mouse-house […]

Copy of Road to Paloma 2

Towering over six feet four inches tall, Hawaiian born actor-director Jason Momoa’s powerful presence on screen is unmistakable. In the HBO series Game of Thrones, he is Khal Drogo, the fearsome Dothraki warlord who weds exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen. In Stargate Atlantis, he transforms into dreadlocked military specialist Ronon Dex. He goes mano y mano, […]

New Filmmakers LA is back with even more moviemaking wisdom, featuring interviews with directors Edward Shieh, Sam Barnett, Evan Matthews, Marko Grujic and Michelle Yu. NewFilmmakers LA (NFMLA) is a non-profit organization designed to showcase the innovative works by emerging filmmakers from around the world, providing the Los Angeles community of entertainment professionals and film goers with a constant surge […]

New Filmmakers LA is back with loads of moviemaking wisdom, featuring interviews with directors J.D. Ramage, Adam Rosenbaum and writer Matt Godfrey, Ross Kolton and lead actor Ryan Mazzei, Bettina Bilger and Chris Valenziano. NewFilmmakers LA (NFMLA) is a non-profit organization designed to showcase the innovative works by emerging filmmakers from around the world, providing the Los Angeles community of entertainment […]


This week, on the heels of Independence Day, director Hal Hartley (No Such Thing) discusses his latest feature film, My America, which knits together the emotions and people that define the United States. Commissioned by Center Stage, the state theater of Maryland, the film consists of a series of spirited monologues written and performed by […]


Richard Linklater is no stranger to the workings of time—both as thematic device in his films, and as necessary ingredient to the moviemaking process. After all, his two previous features had unusually long gestation periods: 2011’s Bernie had been cooking in the director’s head since 1997, while 2013’s Before Midnight comes 18 years after Before […]


Filmmaker and editor Dean Pollack’s work has appeared everywhere from Bravo and Hulu to Adult Swim. He just completed his second directorial effort, the feature film Audrey, which traces a single hour in a woman’s day. He discusses the advantages and disadvantages encountered shooting a film set in real time on a single location. Not […]

Still from James Broughton film The Bed. Courtesy of Frisky Divinity Productions.

Stephen Silha is the co-director of Big Joy: the Adventures of James Broughton, a lyrical documentary about the beloved director of The Bed, The Pleasure Garden, This is It and other counter-culture classics. Here, Silha recounts his friendship with the late Broughton, the subject he brings to luminous life along with fellow filmmakers Eric Slade […]

New Picture (12)

“The food in that movie looked so good.” There’s nothing quite as aggravating as delicious onscreen food. Think of the plump, glistening, jeweled globs of sashimied perfection served to the camera in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and weep with frustrated desire. Let’s face it: That film, and others like it, have honed the fine art […]