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Oliver Stone talks history and character development at the Michigan

Teresa Mathew/Daily
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By Matt Easton, Daily Film Editor
Published October 26, 2012

Film director Oliver Stone doesn’t deal with small issues.

“We’re dealing with huge issues here,” Stone exclaimed near the end of his interview with University alum and journalist Bob Woodruff, as part of the Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series at the Michigan Theater.

Talk about an understatement.

The topics touched upon during the acclaimed filmmaker’s interview were much bigger. Stone, with his full attention turned to a packed audience, contemplated the nuclear shadow his generation lived in, cracked jokes at the expense of George W. Bush (apparently, a certain member of the Reagan clan loved his film “W.”), solemnly discussed his experiences during the Vietnam War and doled out advice for burgeoning artists.

Throughout the interview, Stone reiterated his opinion that American history, as taught in schools, lacks “empathy for the other.” As a result, Stone’s latest project, a 10-part Showtime documentary, “The Untold History of the United States,” aims to tell the story of the evolution of the American National Security State.

Clips from the documentary were shown, and while it was a lesson in history, Stone’s narration never seemed like the monotonic drawl of a tired history teacher.

Stone talked of how, while he is considered a political filmmaker, he primarily looks to understand and develop characters — he merely prefers those in political power because “history is determined by the top,” and he, as an artist, looks toward history for understanding, or lack thereof.

Discussing his film “Nixon,” Stone said in his movies he attempts to get into the shoes of the characters of history. Stone may not have agreed with the decisions of the Nixon administration — saying that Nixon wasn’t a “good” person (though he noted a respect for Nixon’s self-loathing) — but nevertheless wanted to humanize the former president.

“I empathized with him, but I didn’t sympathize with him,” Stone said of Nixon.

Throughout the talk, Stone expressed how he wanted to inspire a younger generation of filmmakers with a sense of questioning, emphasizing how important it is to not believe everything they learn in high school.

Stone just laughed when he spoke about backlash from his attempt, as a liberal director, to disclose an alternative history of the United States.

“Of course I’m going to be ridiculed,” Stone said.

He added though, that if you make the film entertaining enough, both conservatives and liberals will want to watch it.

Some audience members found the lack of film discussion troubling, others, like University of Toledo film student Sylvia Keller said they were intrigued by the more political nature of the conversation.

“I thought it was a very interesting topic, mostly about how ideas in popular culture can be divided into binaries, and how Oliver Stone’s work sort of takes those binaries that we segregate ourselves into and turns it into a dichotomy, and has us look at it from a different perspective,” Keller said.

During a question-and-answer period with audience members, Stone listened eagerly to stories about experiences in Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. It’s in moments like this where one sees past the politics and controversies, and recognizes the man for someone deeply interested in the world around him, the present and the past.