Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Weird Interview

With Oliver Stone:
"Sorry About Your Country"

Veteran director Oliver Stone talks about Lebanon and his latest film, 'World Trade Center' By Ali Jaafar, special to the Daily Star

LONDON: Midway through an interview about his new film "World Trade Center," Oliver Stone notices the Leb-anon wristband peaking out from under a reporter's shirt cuff, a remnant of this past summer's various charitable drives in London in support of the beleaguered country after 34 days of Israeli bombardment.

"My first wife was Lebanese, you know," Stone says, somewhat unexpectedly.

Did he ever visit Lebanon?

"I went before the war," Stone answers.

Which one?

The veteran director responds with a wry grin.

War has, of course, played a dominant role in Stone's films and "World Trade Center" is no different. This time around, however, he captures the moment before a 21st-century war begins in earnest.

The film follows the real-life story of two New York Port Authority officers who were among the last living survivors to be pulled from the rubble of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. "World Trade Center" concerns the morning before the day after, a time before terror became a way of life, before the term 9/11 symbolized a paradigm shift in global affairs, particularly in the Arab world.

"I think most of the Arab world was with us and they were moderates. I'm not disputing [Osama] bin Laden and Al-Qaeda's reasons, because they're legitimate to them. It's the methods which are disgusting," he says.

"To say it's in the name of God is a distortion of the Bible and Islam. It's a distortion of the basic human goodness. Any culture that is spiritual will tell you that. You don't kill innocent people in the name of your cause," he says. "That's the issue for me. I think most Arab people know it in their hearts, and they condemn it."

The director is probably more aware of the labyrinthine nature of Arab politics than most other Hollywood A-list directors. His 2002 film "Persona Non Grata" attempted to capture Palestinian President Yassir Arafat on film, as part of a supposed trilogy of documentaries on controversial world leaders that would also include "Commandante," about Fidel Castro. "Persona" saw the director venture to Palestine in search of the elusive chairman. Stone's efforts to gain a much sought-after interview with the bestubbled Arafat comically degenerated into little more than a photo op.

In "World Trade Center," the director moves away from the journalistic response to 9/11 and toward a more conventional, Hollywood-style take on the day's cataclysmic events.

A faithful adaptation of the stories of John McCloughlin and Will Jimenez, played respectively by Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena, the film eschews the conspiracy theories one would normally associate with an Oliver Stone feature, in favor of a simpler, more human story of life defeating death against the odds. It's a theme Stone returns to when the conversation veers back to Lebanon and the latest, devastating assault by Israel.

"The best shot in Lebanon, I don't know if you saw it, was a newspaper image of the wreckage of the southern suburbs in Beirut and there were these Lebanese jet-setters in a car, driving through it and looking at the ruins while eating ice-cream cones," he remembers.

"Now look at 'World Trade Center,'" he continues. "It's unbelievable that I should make a movie so uncontroversial as this and it still became controversial. You should have seen Germany and Spain. It's insane. It's all politics. But the critics lose sight of the heart. The movie's about heart. It's about people helping each other. It's about lighting a candle in an insane world."

In the United States, "World Trade Center" has garnered Stone some of his warmest reviews - and biggest box office receipts - for years. This despite the protests of liberal European film critics who have looked on in alarm at a perceived rightward shift by one of the left's favorite sons, particularly with regard to the film's depiction of one real-life figure, Marine Dave Karnes. Karnes comes across onscreen as an almost-biblical figure of vengeance who helps find the two officers trapped in twisted steel.

With the film now opening across the Middle East, Stone, a vocal anti-war figure in Hollywood, is keen for Arab audiences to not misinterpret the character.

"If the Middle East can see the film and they cry, that's a good sign for humanity. If man would care about man, that's the important thing," he says.

It's a redemptive conclusion, and typical of the film, but Stone isn't quite finished yet. As he is ushered away to yet another interview, he has time for one last missive.

"Sorry about your country," he says, with genuine regret.

Me, too.

Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" is now playing in theaters throughout Greater Beirut

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