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Group protests oliver stone 911 movie

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Oliver Stone minus the edge
Updated 8/7/2006 9:30 AM ET
By Anthony Breznican, USA TODAY

Oliver Stone has spent his film career pointing out the flaws in the country he loves.
He is one of his generation's most provocative filmmakers, exploring themes of greed, nationalism, secrecy and war in movies such as Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, Platoon and JFK. Now the celebration of heroism at the heart of his latest film, World Trade Center, a true story of rescue from the ruins of the twin towers on 9/11, is surprising both his fans and detractors — and both sides seem to like it. The movie opens Wednesday.

The apolitical surface of the film has earned Stone unlikely support from right-wing pundits as well as left-wing admirers of his more incendiary anti-authoritarian themes.

Stone, who turns 60 next month, remains a political firebrand but says he took a non-partisan approach to 9/11 because something extraordinary emerged in Americans that day.

"The beauty of the film is that we get into it through their suffering and how they overcome their fear and suffering and put them together as something stronger: hope or love," the director says in his editing office in Los Angeles.

World Trade Center focuses on two Port Authority cops trapped in the rubble, their wives awaiting word of their fate and the lone former Marine who puts on his old uniform to sneak into the disaster area to help find survivors.

"These men and women remind us of that day. They acted well, they acted with courage, and we can too," Stone says.

Stone compares the straight-facts approach to therapy for a person who has been assaulted. "A therapist would sit you down the first day and say, 'Look, you've got all this fear, sit down, tell me what happened that day.' That's how you begin the process of recovery."

But how can anyone — especially Stone — avoid the political implications of that day? "That's another issue beyond the confines of this film," Stone says. "(Partisans) took that event and politicized it both ways. (The movie) is just about those two men and women and that Marine and what they did that day with the rescue team."

The two-time Oscar-winning director bristles at the label "conspiracy theorist," which has followed him since he explored the elaborate assassination theory in JFK. The common thread in his other films —The Doors, Nixon, Natural Born Killers, even the football drama Any Given Sunday —is a mistrust of authority and warped values. Stone doesn't consider them conspiracy movies, but he doesn't apologize for being an iconoclast.

"In these articles, you know where they're going the moment they use 'conspiracy theorist.' It's some kind of derogatory term," he says. "Some conspiracy theorists are completely insane. But it's not wrong to question the official story. Never. That's been the story of my life and in all my films."

One group seizes moment

A group called 911 Courage ( is using the film to draw attention to what organizer David Slesinger calls unanswered questions about the day. Though he hasn't seen the movie, he says, "it'll be the first time people see the collapse of (World Trade Center) building 7," which was not struck by a plane. "I don't go with the Pentagon version" of what happened that day, Slesinger says. Members of his group will distribute leaflets at theaters in Rockville, Md., Tampa and San Francisco. "Somebody needs to be asking important questions."

But Slesinger says he isn't upset that Stone doesn't ask those questions. "It's not for a propagandist like myself to question an artist like Oliver Stone."

Stone acknowledges that World Trade Center is unusual for him because it focuses more on hopefulness than skepticism and does not question the motives of any leadership figure. In fact, it lauds Port Authority Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) as a hero, praised by his fellow trapped officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena of Crash) for adherence to policy.

That his movie does not criticize the actions or policies of President Bush should not be read as an endorsement. Stone is not a fan.

"Bush makes Nixon look like St. Augustine," he says of the saint known for his zeal in confessing wrongs. "At least Nixon had some intelligence and a conscience .... Bush is The Manchurian Candidate," a reference to the 1962 movie about a presidential contender manipulated by immoral handlers.

Books and television programs about 9/11 have done well, but movies have been more difficult sells. Universal's United 93, released in April, took in $31 million. That's healthy, considering it cost half that to make, but those are not blockbuster numbers.

World Trade Center, which cost $63 million to make, hopes to capitalize on its optimism.

Paramount Pictures, which is releasing World Trade Center, reached out to conservatives and Republicans to gain their support for the movie, and it worked. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas says the movie "is one of the greatest pro-American, pro-family, pro-faith, pro-male, flag-waving, God Bless America films you will ever see." An editorial in the right-wing Washington Times praised it as "a truthful work of art with the ability to touch all Americans."

On one hand, they're celebrating his movie for not politicizing 9/11; on the other, Stone says enlisting it in their own red-state cause "would be a usage of the film and it would not be correct."

Arianna Huffington, who runs the left-leaning news and opinion site, says the values in World Trade Center "are not right-wing or left-wing; they're American human sentiments."

Stone's movie reminded her of the unity among Americans that day and the worldwide goodwill directed toward the USA. "I immediately thought, 'And what happened to that incredible awakening?' It was squandered," she says.

Band of brothers

Stone compares World Trade Center to his 1986 Vietnam drama Platoon, which won Oscars for best picture and best director, among others. Though that movie is regarded as an anti-war classic, "Platoon doesn't come down on either side. It just showed a very rugged situation," Stone says. Critic Emanuel Levy agrees both movies are objective stories of "ordinary Americans, and it doesn't glamorize them. This is the day-to-day survival." It has one major difference, Levy adds: "To me World Trade Center is a very simple movie, a morale-boosting movie."

Stone is a Vietnam veteran who enlisted in the Army after dropping out of Yale. He served combat duty in the infantry and was wounded twice, receiving the Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster and a Bronze Star for valor.

"I questioned authority after that much more so," he says.

On World Trade Center, for the scenes in which the men are trapped in the rubble, Pena says he often asked Stone about Vietnam to get a sense of tension: "I'd ask for some advice: Give me something that can help me. How was it for you? And he would go back into his own memories and thoughts." Pena won't reveal what Stone told him, but says it's still a raw experience for the director. "I don't know if anybody is that eager to talk about something like Vietnam, but he's a man who wears his heart on his sleeve and he gets hurt."

On the horizon

Stone is a fan of the hit Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth and would like to develop a drama about the environment. "To dramatize that and make it exciting would be brilliant. But how do you make carbon dioxide poison exciting?" he laughs.

Stone's future hinges on the success of World Trade Center, particularly after his 2004 historical epic Alexander bombed, which still stings. And he says his outspokenness has made studios wary. "It hurts my career and chances in Hollywood. They've been attacking me for so long, these people in the media, and it has damaged me. I've been ultra-controversial for the wrong reasons and people in this business want to make movies."

Would he have preferred to make a film that explores the political implications of 9/11 instead of a strict rescue docudrama?

"If I could go back, would I change it? Good question. At what point am I a filmmaker and at what point am I John Q. Citizen?" He begins quietly, and then rouses his own anger. "I hate that kind of censorship which says celebrities can't speak." Stone hammers an open palm against his chest with each syllable: "John Q. Citizen — that's my right. I served my country. I've got a host of medals. I paid my taxes. I raised children, went through the whole system. And I can't (expletive) speak, as John Q. Citizen, about the state of the nation?"

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