Decency and Muck: The Visions of John Sayles and Oliver Stone

Decency and Muck: The Visions of John Sayles and Oliver Stone

If any left-wing points of view still reach the broad American public, it’s usually by some accident of mass culture. Bruce Springsteen rose to fame independently of his Guthrie-like sentiments for the poor and oppressed (the more they dominate his music, the less popular he’s been); Al Franken achieved stardom on Saturday Night Live before he became the best-selling author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. Spike Lee is a more complicated example, because with him the distinction between ideology and careerism completely disappears (for example, his demand that black high school students get the day off to see Malcolm X). In general, though, it’s rare for a hero of popular culture to reach that status through work in which left-wing views are intrinsic. Almost always they’re pinned to celebrity like red ribbons on tuxedo lapels and gown bodices at televised awards ceremonies.

But at least two exceptions come to mind—the filmmakers Oliver Stone and John Sayles. Since the eighties they have been turning out movies that attempt to portray and interpret America with some consistent degree of sympathy for the downtrodden and suspicion of the powerful. Stone and Sayles put the individual stamp of writer-director on all the movies they make, and they have high ambitions for movies that encompass the large moral and social questions of our day—that try to fill the role that novels played in the nineteenth century. Both directors started out with literary dreams. Sayles has published three novels and a collection of stories; the rejected manuscript of Stone’s youthful and only novel ended up in the East River. Both were products of the sixties (Stone was born in 1946, Sayles in 1950). Both are lovers of history.

Yet Stone and Sayles make a study in contrasts. On the most obvious level, it’s a contrast in styles and personalities. Stone is notorious, an icon of op-ed pages, every movie leaving behind its own wake of controversy (most recently The People vs. Larry Flynt, which he produced but didn’t direct). An awed yet ultimately devastating New Yorker profile several years ago showed Stone bullying employees, goading cast and crew, going through women like cans of film stock—all the while murmuring about his “darkness” and complaining that the press has been unfair to him. He’s also neck-deep in Hollywood culture, his movies backed by major studios. Sayles, by all accounts, keeps a low, Hoboken, N.J. profile with his girlfriend-producer of two decades, Maggie Renzi. There’s an atmosphere of good spirits and mutual regard among the cast in all his films. Some of them come and go so noiselessly that you have to track them down on video.

But the contrast is deeper and more interesting, and in a way it goes back to the sixties. It’s the difference between reasonableness and paranoia, collective hope and individual excess, the Port Huron Statement and Mark Rudd. Sayles ...

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: