Ask any journalist who has interviewed Oliver Stone, and you're bound to hear the same story. He is hardly the man you might expect from his movies, argumentative and hyper-caffeinated. He speaks in an even, measured tone of voice. His arguments are thoughtful and intelligently reasoned.
He's even polite enough to ask you about how the weather has been in Texas.
For two-plus decades, Stone has been lambasted by historians (for his expansive, conspiracy-minded re-examination of the Kennedy assassination in 1991's JFK), by moral guardians (for his scabrous satire of our sex-and-violence-obsessed culture in 1994's Natural Born Killers) and most recently even by the critics who used to champion him (recent titles like 2004's Alexander and 2010's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps have been especially poorly received).
In which case, perhaps Stone has learned to rise above all the noise, and remember that it's his work -- probing, searing and technically dazzling, even if it does occasionally devolve into grandstanding -- that speaks loudest.
"I think we're in a time that we can take the gloves off, stop the mythologizing about America," he says, quietly, reflectively, of his determination to keep pushing our buttons.
Stone is calling from New York City, where he's doing the publicity rounds for his latest, a thriller called Savages, opening this weekend. Based on Don Winslow's 2010 novel, which Stone acquired before it was published, it tells the story of two handsome young marijuana dealers (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson), the beautiful girl they both love (Blake Lively) and the vicious Mexican drug cartel that tries to move in on their turf.
In many respects, it's one of the director's least evidently political movies. Stone throws us into a turbulent and exceedingly violent world, which also features a deadly Tijuana widow (Salma Hayek), her two henchmen (Demián Bichir and Benicio Del Toro) and a DEA agent on the take (John Travolta).
But there's also no avoiding the movie's real-world parallels. Stone doesn't flinch from the outsize, unimaginable violence being reported regularly out of Mexico -- at various points in the film, characters are beheaded, stabbed or tortured. And underlying the drama is a distinctly Stone-ian sense of exasperation about the failures and hypocrisies of America's war on drugs.
"It's an unmitigated disaster, and has cost this country friendships abroad, and has cost us half a trillion dollars," Stone says when asked about the federal government's drug-control policy.
"The thinking on it is perverted. Do we ever learn anything from history? Prohibition only gave America a new gangster class that went on into other rackets, after they were finished with liquor. We only create more criminals."
(Stone's attitude toward the criminalization of marijuana can perhaps be summed up by the fact that he posed for the cover of the August issue of High Times smoking a joint.)
With its sometimes unlikely twists and elaborate double-crosses, it's clear that Savages is a movie more about showing the audience a good time than inspiring any sort of sustained policy debate. Yet the director's days of controversy-making also appear to be far from over.
His next project is a 10-part documentary, The Untold History of the United States, which is expected to begin airing on Showtime in November. It will question conventionally held wisdom on a host of major historical topics, from the bombing of Hiroshima to Bush v. Gore.
And given the opportunity, the director is still willing to toss off one of his trademark conspiracy theories, albeit in calm and perfectly reasonable-sounding fashion. Moments before our interview began, the Supreme Court had just announced its decision to uphold the healthcare act. Stone was predictably skeptical and iconoclastic in analyzing Chief Justice John Roberts' motivations.
"Roberts is under a lot of pressure there," Stone said. "I think if he had his druthers, he'd have gone the other way."
Christopher Kelly is the Star-Telegram film critic, 817-390-7032