Matt Zoller Seitz was young when he first got into Oliver Stone. The film and TV critic cites “Born on the Fourth of July” as teaching him to think about movies as a visual language. He even says it made him think about politics, pushing him more to the left at a time when he leaned slightly rightward.
Seitz, now a critic at Vulture and the editor-in-chief of rogerebert.com, has already written two books about Wes Anderson, including “The Wes Anderson Collection.” Now he adds the controversial and Oscar-gobbling Stone to his bibliography. “The Oliver Stone Experience” is indeed one. For one thing, it’s a beast at 480 pages and who knows how many pounds. For another, it takes you through all of his films, from his early horror films “Seizure” and “The Hand,” through period as a populist rabble-rouser in “Platoon” and “JFK,” all the way up to his latest, “Snowden.” Running throughout is an epic interview with the man himself, who’s alternately friendly, gabby, defensive and ball-busting. (Seitz even includes footnotes in which Stone badgers him when he says anything critical about his films.)
Seitz talks to us about what people get wrong about Stone, defends his latter day works and tells us what it’s like to now be friends with a figure both volatile and sweet.
You just moderated a discussion with Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and, over Skype, Edward Snowden, a conversation that was beamed to 800 theaters sneak-peaking “Snowden.” What on earth is it like talking to Edward Snowden?
It was incredible. I talk to a lot of interesting people over the course of my job, but it’s very rare that I meet someone who actually moves me. This guy actually moves me. There was a part where I said to him, “There are a lot of people who say, ‘If you have nothing to hide, what are you worried about?’” And it was like Jimmy Stewart had come back from the dead. This monologue he gave, it was like “Mr. Smith Goes to Russia.” He concluded by saying, “Saying you’re worried about your lack of privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you’re not concerned about your right to free speech because you have nothing to say.” I’m not even kidding when I tell you this: If Edward Snowden moves back to the United States and runs for public office, I will quit whatever job I have to go work for him. I’d stuff envelopes for that guy.
“Snowden” is a very interesting Oliver Stone film, though I think it won’t be what some people are expecting. He’s often tagged as a conspiracy theorist, but I think that really only comes from “JFK” and parts, but not all, of “Nixon.” What he does more often is invert certain old fashioned tropes, like the inspirational Great Man biopic. He even cites the deeply uncool liberal-humanist Stanley Kramer as an influence.
He’s certainly the only major American filmmaker I can think of who’s equally influenced by Jean-Luc Godard and Stanley Kramer.
Although he’s usually more Stanley Kramer than Jean-Luc Godard.
I think that’s true, but especially in that middle period he was both. That’s one of the things that jumps out at me, too: He tells his stories and fashions the characters in extremely old-fashioned ways. But the visual language is often very jagged and modern.
“Born on the Fourth of July” starts out very classical and steeped in Norman Rockwell-like imagery, but it becomes very jagged and energetic.
It’s the energy of anger. That movie’s very much like “Snowden.” Like “Snowden,” “Born on the Fourth of July” is the story of a young conservative man who enlists to fight the forces that his government has deemed the enemy. And gradually he realizes that that’s a cover for another agenda. So he deprograms himself.