Eighteen months ago, Tariq Ali got a call from Oliver Stone: could he help with his new film? The result was a powerful documentary about Latin America – and a new friendship …
Almost a year and a half ago I received a phone call from Paraguay. It was Oliver Stone. He had been reading Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope, my collection of essays on the changing politics of Latin America, and asked if I was familiar with his work. I was, especially the political films in which he challenged the fraudulent accounts of the Vietnam war that had gained currency during the B-movie years of Reagan’s presidency.
Stone had actually fought in that war as a US marine, which made it difficult for others to pigeonhole him as a namby-pamby pacifist. Many of his detractors had avoided the draft and were now making up for it by proclaiming that the war could have been won, had the politicians not betrayed the generals. This enraged Stone, who detested the simplistic recipes now on offer on every aspect of American domestic and external politics. In the original Wall Street (1987), for instance, he had depicted the close links between crime and financialised capitalism that ultimately led to the crash of 2007.
The Vietnam war played a large part in shaping Stone’s radical take on his own country. One of JFK’s most striking scenes, almost 10 minutes in length, portrays a talking-heads duo: Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and an unidentified military intelligence officer (Donald Sutherland) are walking by the Potomac river in Washington DC, discussing who killed Kennedy. The Sutherland character links the president’s execution to his decision to withdraw US troops from Vietnam some months previously. For me, it is—together with the depiction of French officers calmly justifying torture in Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic Battle of Algiers, and the Greek far-right plotting to kill the leftwing deputy Lambrakis in Costa-Gavras’s Z—one of the three finest scenes in political cinema.
A steady flow of jeremiads from critics on the left and the right denounced this particular scene in Stone’s JFK as pure fantasy. Later research, however, including the recently published biography of one of the Kennedy administration’s leading hawks, McGeorge Bundy, has overwhelmingly vindicated the director’s approach. Kennedy had indeed decided to pull out—largely on the advice of retired General Douglas MacArthur, who told him the war could never be won. read more