Oliver Stone on New Cannes Documentary ‘Lula,’ Donald Trump’s Trials and Money in Politics: ‘Corruption Is a Way of Life’

Oliver Stone on New Cannes Documentary ‘Lula,’ Donald Trump’s Trials and Money in Politics: ‘Corruption Is a Way of Life’

Oliver Stone is talking about “Lula,” his new documentary about Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, which is premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, when the conversation turns to American politics. The conspiracy-minded director, who’s never seen a grassy knoll without glimpsing a second gunman on it, is drawing an analogy between Lula’s political travails, involving a corruption investigation that led to a 580-day prison stint, and those of Donald Trump. That’s when the film’s publicist interjects and politely tries to steer the topic back to the documentary. But Stone waves him off and plunges ahead.

“The charges on both sides of the Trump-Biden election are pretty wild — that Biden is corrupt and Trump is corrupt,” he says. “It’s a new form of warfare. It’s called lawfare. And that’s what they’re using against Trump. And I think there’s interesting parallels here in America, as well as all over the world, you’re seeing this kind of behavior. [Trump’s] got four trials and some of these charges, whether you for him or against him, they are minor.”

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Stone, who, it should be said, is no fan of Trump, argues that corruption is just a constant throughout human history. Too much was made of it when it came to Lula — Stone doesn’t buy the claims the Brazilian president was guilty of money laundering, noting that he lives “modestly” — and he believes that corruption is a charge leveled against political figures without examining the root causes of the rot.

“Corruption is a way of life,” Stone says. “It goes back to the Greeks, the Romans, and before that the Babylonians, There’s corruption all through history, so let’s not be Pollyannas about it and think we’re ‘America the clean’ and we’re better than anybody else. That’s such bullshit.”

Stone goes on to suggest that the more pernicious problem in politics is money. “If you’re a poor man or a middle-class man it’s very hard to run for office in the United States, unless you have money and corporate sponsors. Money controls politics in the United States. If you go to European countries, you’ll find that their elections are very mandated. The British elections are very low cost, or they used to be until recently. In France, they have election rules. And we need that in the United States. Let’s get the money out of the politics.”

But I’m not following Stone. What does the high cost of presidential elections have to do with Trump’s legal travails? I wonder. After all, Trump’s trials involve mishandling of classified documents, as well as allegations that he obstructed attempts to retrieve his files; illegal efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat; and claims he falsified business records in order to mask his pay off to an adult film actress. Stone doesn’t directly answer the question.

“In a broad sense of the word, it’s manipulation of your office,” Stone says. “You’re trying to control what the perception of you is in the public eye. And if you’re willing to pay money for that. That’s part of the concept of corruption, isn’t it?”

Frankly, I’m baffled. Is Stone suggesting people should just shrug off corruption because there were crooked politicians in Ancient Rome too? After all, poverty, armed conflicts and other terrible things have been recurring themes of human history. Shouldn’t we still try to alleviate them?

“That’s how things are,” Stone counters. “There is life, there is death and there’s corruption. But it’s a scale. You can’t point fingers at another country and say that is a corrupt country and that president has to be removed from office or we have to attack them or end a regime. Who are we to say those things when we are deeply corrupt? Look at the [two] parties. We should be multi-party and we should have public money in politics like they do in Poland. Or look at the English and the French models.”

But if he’s a skeptic about the court cases against Trump, Stone is a Lula convert. He believes the Brazilian leader, who served two terms in office from 2003 to 2011, before mounting a remarkable comeback that saw him defeat Jair Bolsonaro in the 2022 presidential election, is a hero. He credits him with lifting millions of people out of poverty and strengthening Brazil’s social safety net.

“He had two tremendously productive terms as president. It was beautiful; you couldn’t have asked for a better two terms,” Stone says. He’s pleased by Lula’s approach since coming back into power. “I like his fighting spirit,” Stone offers. “I love how he’s made it clear that we’re not going to have fascists in our government, and we’re going to run a clean government.”

Stone’s documentary details Lula’s fall from grace as well as the many twists and turns that led to his conviction getting overturned. By then, public opinion had shifted in the former president’s favor after it was revealed that Sergio Moro, the judge who oversaw a larger corruption probe into misappropriation of public funds, had improperly colluded with prosecutors to build a case against Lula. Moro also raised eyebrows after he took a post in Bolsonaro’s government as Minister of Justice.

“There was serious evidence of misconduct on Moro’s part,” Stone says. “He was like a Torquemada — he just became excessive in his zeal for reformation.”

Moro also reportedly shared information with FBI agents and U.S. officials about his probe into Lula. Stone sees this as further evidence of American meddling in the region, something he notes the U.S. has done for decades in countries like Chile and El Salvador.

“We have a horrible record in South America going through many years of interventions,” Stone says. “Recently, it’s been quiet on that front, but who knows what’s really going on?”

Stone doesn’t rule out the possibility that the U.S. government played a role in the death of Venezuela’s leader Hugo Chavez from cancer in 2013.

“He died very mysteriously,” Stone asserts. “He had a very sudden cancer that came on quickly. If you know the history of deaths from quick cancers like [Lee Harvey Oswald assassin] Jack Ruby, you have to begin to question if there’s something mysterious going on? Certainly, a lot of Venezuelans believe [there was U.S. involvement]. But we don’t know and we can’t prove it. But still, there is a shadow.”

As for the razor-thin Brazilian presidential election of 2022, Stone makes it clear that the stakes could not have been higher. Bolsonaro and his right-wing forces were threatening all sorts of anti-democratic crackdowns, but rising crime made his authoritarianism attractive to many voters. He had also opened up the Amazon to more logging, mining and other industries, which posed an existential threat to the environment, Stone argues. Lula, in contrast, pledged to reduce deforestation and institute stricter environmental controls.

“It was very close,” Stone says. “But Brazil has had a good democracy for a while, and I’m so happy that they kept it. When we were making the film, you could see it on people’s faces, their love for their democracy.”

Stone hasn’t made a feature film since 2016’s “Snowden” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the controversial whistleblower. Instead, he’s busied himself making documentaries on the JFK assassination and nuclear power. But he says he’s almost ready to roll cameras on a new narrative film, which he’s writing with journalist and “The Devil’s Chessboard” author David Talbot.

“I can’t tell you what it’s about,” he says. “We’ve done several drafts and we’re getting there. I hope to make it next year.”

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