The filmmaker has sold himself to some of the worst tyrannies on earth
Writer-director Oliver Stone is one of the most gifted filmmakers the United States ever produced. In the late 1980s, Stone had a remarkable run, with Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July making him one of the most discussed, imitated, and controversial figures in Hollywood.
Left-wing but idiosyncratic in his politics, uber-literate and a maximal drug user, for a time Stone was the baby boom generation’s foremost guru.
So how deflating to see that Stone is reduced to shilling for Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former President of Kazakhstan. Qazaq: History of the Golden Man is an eight-hour documentary about Nazarbayev and his near three decades long, quasi-monarchical rule of the central Asian state. The film premiered on the autocrat’s 81st birthday — one of several gifts, which also included the unveiling of two new Nazarbayev statues in Kazakh cities.
The authorities in Kazakhstan regularly harass, arrest, detain, and send severed dogs’ heads to their critics. Nazarbayev himself is an out of central-casting kleptocrat who sits Smaug-like on an enormous pile of oil wealth. It’s that wealth that has tempted both Kanye West and Tony Blair to work in Kazakhstan over the years.
Oliver Stone is not exactly alone in doing some lackey work for Nazarbayev. Even so, History of the Golden Man looks particularly embarrassing, with the trailer splicing sterile shots of Nazarbayev’s face with footage of swooping golden eagles. L’aigle c’est moi! At least Leni Riefenstahl put a bit of effort into the Triumph of the Will. Stone probably just needs the money. “There’s a… mystical aspect to this Golden Man” Stone intones sagely, while Nazarbayev nods. This is both a throwback to the fantastical musings that once made Stone so popular in his home country, and very sad to watch.
As a director, Stone had success at an unusually young age. By the time he was in his early forties he’d won every prize going, and seemed to hold the future of American cinema in his hands. For this macho, brawny, unabashedly trigger-happy director, there were few worlds left to conquer.
It is notable that his recent memoir Chasing the Light is about the years from his birth to 1986 — before he became a cultural force. It’s as if he can’t bear to remember his real downfall, which arrived ahead of his association with Nazarbayev, or his other hagiographical tributes to strongman leaders like Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin.
Stone’s marvellously paranoid thriller JFK was released in 1991. Initially acclaimed, Stone’s liberties with the historical record (the film implies that Lyndon Johnson plotted Kennedy’s assassination) soon attracted heavyweight criticism from America’s prestige press and Hollywood power-brokers. “A man of technical skill, scant education, and negligible consequence,” was how the Washington Post‘s George Will described the director at the time. Stone was denounced as a conspiracy theorist, cancelled, and would never regain his position at the centre of American culture.
But there were good reasons why Stone’s education was scant. Unlike Will, who’d spent the sixties studying at Oxford, Stone dropped out of Yale to enlist as a private in the Army. He was wounded twice in Vietnam. This vital fact, I think, gives him some leeway as a skin-in-the-game critic of American foreign policy. He was there man.
For decades he’s had to scramble and stoop in the margins to make his living, largely for political reasons. In the end, as bleak as this journey has been, it means Stone has become a much greater entertainment than the movies he makes.