b. 15 September, 1946, New York City, New York, USA
“You can’t be an individual in this world, Huckleberry, and expect to get away with it. Only a few do.”1
Following in the footsteps of such controversial luminaries as D.W. Griffith and John Ford, Oliver Stone emerged in the final decades of the twentieth century as one of cinema’s foremost chroniclers of American history. Delving deeply, passionately, and sometimes contentiously into the accomplishments, faults, and enduring demons of the nation’s fundamental character, his relentlessly inquisitive spirit also extended to varied stories of contemporary, though still mostly American, endeavor. While primarily working within the strictures of narrative filmmaking, where he evinces the consideration of a historian without relinquishing a dramatist’s liberty — a juxtaposition that places him at odds with overreactive critics, politicians, and scholars — Stone’s more recent output has yielded an uptick in documentary explorations of international volume. With his ear to the ground, as noted by agent Mike Menchel, and no matter what “echelon of the social strata he’s at,” Stone has an ability to “foresee the proper times to make films about issues. Political hotspots, social hotspots, things that should be questioned and brought to the attention of the public.” 2 Accordingly, for better or worse, Stone’s prescient knack for what strikes a chord has given the best of his work a sense of urgency, fervency, and fascination, diverging in terms of formal practice but unwavering in its commitment. And at the very least, his films have been nothing if not entertaining.
But before Stone attained Oscar-certified status as a significant filmmaker with provocative personal insight, he struggled to establish himself in the motion picture industry, eventually directing his first feature in 1974. Set in a secluded space of illusory tranquility, Seizure brings together an eccentric assembly of unpleasant personalities. Mixed into a volatile situation of atmospheric and behavioral tension, emerging from economic and sexual animosities, the unusually bitter group is further tested by the arrival of a threatening trio of strange, cultish characters. Ensuing power plays reveal each individual’s capacity for deceit and betrayal. Inspired by one of Stone’s dreams, the film’s erratic nihilism never settles and its disconcerting tone mirrors its own crude, Canadian-based production, which was shambolic on set and marred by poor distribution. Still, Seizure presents a world persuasively askew, with low, wide angles, lurid colours, manic violence, and rapid editing to offset its occasionally-tedious development. Unassuming and sporadically effective, it is a low budget debut with a disturbing, sadistic bent.
Seizure’s development of preexisting tension became a trademark narrative foundation for Stone, and the film’s artistically-induced alarm (its main character’s writing may have spawned the horror that unfolds) carried over to his sophomore effort, 1981’s The Hand. Here it is comic book artist Jon Lansdale (Michael Caine) who is plagued by haunting concerns of overlapping reality and fantasy. After his right hand is amputated in a car accident, the debilitating catastrophe leads to his mental breakdown and personal-professional disenchantment. Combined with his perceptual deterioration, the symbolic emasculation and genuine loss of livelihood threaten Jon’s purpose at home and at work. Rooted firmly within the horror genre, propelled by this psychological bearing, The Hand’s strain of marital strife is compounded by the introduction of Jon’s malevolent, reanimated appendage, brought to animatronic life by special effects master Stan Winston. Based on the “The Lizard’s Tail,” by Marc Brandell (where the killer hand is only implied), The Hand is a considerably more polished feature than Seizure, controlled and assured and benefitting immensely from Caine’s sincere performance, despite the film’s overworked theatrics. But while Stone liked the idea of The Hand, he was not yet content with his cinematic productivity. The film’s serviceable editing, for example, failed to function as a strategic authorial tool, as editing would so imperatively do in his subsequent features. He acknowledged the film’s “vision,” but did not consider it “fully relaxed.” 3
That vision, however, would materialise by 1986 into the type of cinema for which Stone is best known. With Salvador, his stirring perspective on global affairs is revealed in the personage of photojournalist Richard Boyle (James Woods), as he travels the film’s eponymous region of Central America in search of a profitable scoop. Based on the real Boyle’s experience in the tumultuous territory, Salvador grew from semi-documentary origins (with Boyle himself initially starring in a low-key rendition of the story) to an ardent look at fierce social dichotomies and antagonistic partisan divisions. Proceeding headlong into a brutal civil war milieu, dominated by rebel forces, death squads, warlords, and humanitarian efforts throughout the 1980s, Stone cleverly applies authentic contextual exposition within a brisk fictional framework, reinforcing his polemical historian/dramatist duality. As Boyle traverses the field of battle, camera in hand (like Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson, in their first of 11 collaborations), Salvador promotes a persistently-potent, frequently-brash form of guerilla filmmaking. “Raw, … crude, … what it was supposed to be,” 4 Salvador is characterised by abrupt fluctuations in tone, moments of sincere reflection, and necessarily graphic brutality. Played to the sleazy extreme by a regularly improvisatory Woods, the originally dubious Boyle moves past his cynical push for a lucrative, albeit dangerous thrill and emerges on the other side with compelling, convincing moral persuasion.
Visceral and intense, Salvador “has an edge to it, … a madness and a fury,” which is what Stone was aiming for: “I like anarchy in films,” he said, “and this one has plenty of anarchy — that’s what I’m proud of.” 5 Although some of the film’s more explicit content was in fact reigned in, the picture pulls few punches. “Perhaps Salvador lacked subtlety,” notes Ian Scott and Henry Thompson, “but its key ingredients — leftist politics, gritty visual pyrotechnics and committed central characters — provided a film template that would define Stone’s political agenda for much of his career.” 6 Expressing the progressive zeal to decry American intervention, the film prompted some to question Stone’s anti-American tendencies, previewing even more bellicose and hyperbolic accusations to come. But as was often the case, the film isn’t anti-American so much as it is “anti-American foreign policy … anti-American Government ….” 7 Furthermore, and again, not for the last time in his career, Stone was criticised for his fictional modifications, his exaggeration of actual events and characters, and the film’s melodramatic resolve, which pitted historical and political relevance against a fictionalised picture of antecedent hostility.
There are also in Salvador understated remnants of the Vietnam War, a traumatising, similarly ideological conflict and arguably the seminal event in Oliver Stone’s life. Born to an affluent New York family, Stone followed his boarding school years by enrolling in Yale University. He dropped out in 1965, began teaching with the Catholic Free Pacific Institute in Saigon, and joined the Merchant Marines as a boiler wiper. Returning home, he reenrolled at Yale and flunked out. In 1967, after he started writing a novel about a young man’s experience in Vietnam, Stone added credence to the material by joining the infantry as Bill Stone, reporting for duty as a member of the 2d platoon of Bravo Company, 3d battalion, 25th infantry. He distinguished himself in battle, was twice wounded, and was decorated with the Bronze Star, which he received after conducting “extraordinary acts of courage under fire,” and a Purple Heart with one Oak Leaf Cluster. After his tour ended in 1968, Stone entered New York University, where he made three short films, black-and-white, 16mm efforts the most notable of which was Last Year in Vietnam, an 8-minute sample about a returning Vietnam veteran. Adopting the medium of film, Stone felt the form “suited the sensitivities of someone who had spent fifteen months in the jungle, learning to survive off the six senses free of the inhibitions of thought and choice.” 8
While striving for the films he hoped to direct himself, Stone busied himself by penning scripts like Midnight Express (Alan Parker, 1978), for which he won a screenwriting Oscar, Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983), and Year of the Dragon (Michael Cimino, 1985), three films where, according to Matt Zoller Seitz, one gets a sense of what an “Oliver Stone screenplay” was: “grand, brusque, oddly romantic, sometimes crude, often violent, occasionally sadistic or masochistic, and stocked with obsessive, macho heroes who had something to say and demanded that you listen.” 9 One of the other scripts Stone wrote was a semi-autobiographical account of life during Vietnam, featuring characters who formed the basis of his fourth feature, perhaps the most personal of his entire career: Platoon (1986).
Embedding his cast in a preparatory boot camp led by Vietnam veteran Dale Dye, an advisor on this and later Stone productions, and filming on location in the Philippines, where the shoot was nearly aborted due to the county’s own political disorder, production on Platoon was an immersive experience for its burgeoning stars, chief among them Charlie Sheen, who played Platoon’s Stone stand-in, Chris Taylor. Following acclaimed Vietnam epics like The Deer Hunter (Cimino, 1978) and Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), Platoon distinguishes itself by its intimately subjective rendering of the sights and sounds that consume these young men: pounding heartbeats, blurred vision, the bedlam, the stillness, the concentration. Stone’s authentic recreation of their grueling perception is then accented by the physical and emotional exhaustion brought on by the firefight and the toil of the jungle undergrowth, the heat, the insects, and a lack of sleep. Platoon conveys a relative smoothness compared to the jarring Salvador, a paradoxically disorderly choreography of bodies within the prodigious foliage, but it has the same unflinching realism and the same complex treatment of conventional heroics. Its representation of the Vietnamese enemy is subordinate to the poignancy of how the men cope with a broader situation, how they acknowledge the influence of class and race, and how even within the brotherly solidarity there exists opposing factions. Platoon, in other words, is “like its maker,” according to Riordan, “a startling mass of contradictions held together by the powers of its convictions.” 10
“By any standard,” notes Ian Scott and Henry Thompson, Stone has “been a product of war: intrigued by it, physically and psychologically marked by it, propelled to action by it, and galvanised in opposition to it.” 11 And while he has been “[n]either boastful nor contrite about this past, he has used it to construct a critique of foreign policy that no one else in Hollywood could come close to emulating.” 12 Certainly, especially with Platoon, Stone felt an admitted responsibility to present the war as accurately as possible. “First I survived the war,” he said. “That’s a minor miracle. And then I was able to write about it and film it. So that seemed as if it completed the action.” 13 In this regard, the film is noteworthy for its attention to detail and a precise jargon essential to its respective field. Yet while much of it developed from Stone’s own personal rigor, what was or wasn’t included nevertheless divided sticklers for strict validity, a reaction to which Stone maintained, “Movies are only, finally, an approximation of reality, and, as such, Platoon is an approximation of Vietnam.” 14
Born on the Fourth of July (1989) faced similar dissention. Stone, who had optioned fellow veteran Ron Kovic’s autobiography in 1978, wrote the film with Kovic, covering his idyllic youth in small town America, his time in the United States Marine Corps, his paralyzing injuries and the atrocious treatment he received at a New York veterans hospital, his troubled reacclimating process at home, and his eventual entry into political activism. Pointing to certain sequences in this film, however, a film obviously covering a vast swath of Kovic’s life, some chided Stone for his (re)arrangement of historical detail and his allowances for artistic license. Among the milder observations, Robert A. Rosenstone called one scene in particular a “creation of director Oliver Stone … not a complete fabrication but, rather, a cunning mixture of diverse visual elements — fact, near fact, displaced fact, invention.” 15 More reasonably, as Jack E. Davis argues (an argument worth retaining throughout the director’s career), “Stone collapses multiple events and personalities into one so that an otherwise complicated story will make sense to average moviegoers ….” 16 What comes across either way is the dueling discrepancy between romanticised masculine patriotism and the anguish of a harsh, battle-scarred reality. The naïve glory of all-American might is countered by Born on the Fourth of July’s conflicting trepidation and inner discord. And the disturbing upheaval resumes even after the war, as Kovic is granted no emotional reprieve. Contending with his guilt, his uncertainty, and Kovic’s essential determination, Tom Cruise turns in a brilliantly motivated performance, communicating prevailing combinations of pain and fear, anger and desperation. As Kovic’s illusions are shattered, Stone scrutinises the seemingly constant conflicts between protestors, families, and other veterans, and his evolving portrait of the Vietnam War becomes layered with embattled rage.
The third film in what became an unplanned Vietnam trilogy for Stone presented another side to the prolonged engagement. In Heaven and Earth (1993), the men involved in the fighting are ancillary to the women affected by the unrest, specifically the young Vietnamese woman Le Ly Hayslip (Hiep Thi Le), and the groups of soldiers are secondary to the relationship forged between a husband and wife. Based on two books by the film’s resilient heroine, Heaven and Earth demonstrates an at times unusual tenderness from Stone, a sympathetic portrayal of war’s multinational ravages aside from the skirmishes typically front and center. “Better than any other feature film from Hollywood,” Hayslip stated, the film “shows a Vietnamese perspective of the Vietnam War,” 17 and indeed, Heaven and Earth’s handling of the Vietnamese people is a harrowing, deeply felt depiction. In the face of national devastation and the brutal raping of the local women and the land, Heaven and Earth promotes a perseverant peasant class as they endure recurring exploitation, despondency, and violence. Against a bucolic, unsullied wilderness, ultimately torn asunder by ceaseless bombardment, the film considers a neglected history (certainly by American standards) and presents a foreign entity’s own brand of patriotism. From there, Stone pivots to the kindness that can transpire, however fleetingly, between tortured souls desiring cathartic compassion. Le Ly enters a poignant alternate reality when she is brought to America and is stunned by the size of clean, abundant American homes, by the ease of appliances, and by the overwhelming everything epitomised in the suburban grocery store. Although it is ultimately tragic, especially as Le Ly’s American paradigm masks an abusive Marine Corps husband (Tommy Lee Jones), Heaven and Earth’s periods of acceptance and serenity furnish a gratifying conclusion to Stone’s three-film survey of one of America’s most notorious conflicts.
Moving away from the specter of Vietnam, while nevertheless remaining invested in the corresponding era, Stone shifted in 1991 to the sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifestyle embodied by performer Jim Morrison, troubled front man of The Doors. In a series of biographical snapshots, The Doors charts Morrison’s whirlwind rise and fall as an expressive psychedelic trail of emergence, transcendence, and degeneration, ending with his premature death at the age of 27. Beginning with the subtly mystical experiences of Morrison as a young boy, the film connects his later forays into filmmaking, poetry, and songwriting with an ecstatic, orgiastic tailspin of self-destruction. To inform Morrison’s impudence, his shocking sexuality, and his physical dynamism, Stone engenders a visualised psychological sampling of Morrison’s altered states, and between this variable style and the expansive concert set pieces, Stone “loved making (the) movie.” He was “wild and free,” feeling “more the director than anything.” 18 A spirited portrait of a unpredictable dreamer concerned by both life and death experience, The Doors is a near-mythic take on an iconic figure, but as a result of Morrison’s legendary stature, the film was greeted with resistance from certain band members who objected to Stone’s interpretation, and from certain members of the public who felt the film failed to live up to their own preconceived ideals.
Whatever audiences thought of The Doors, though, it paled in comparison to the firestorm generated by JFK. Stone’s dazzling 1991 exposé commences with an agile introduction to the film’s copious, composite context: the assorted sociopolitical clashes and concerns surrounding the 1963 assassination of American President John F. Kennedy. Working from “On the Trail of the Assassins,” by JFK’s protagonist, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, and “Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy,” by Jim Marrs, Stone takes the central occurrence of Kennedy’s murder and swings the focus to tenacious prosecutor Garrison (Kevin Costner). Escalating a conspiratorial inclination seen as early as his unproduced screenplay, “The Cover-Up,” 19 Stone manages an elaborate narrative immersed in links of pervasive paranoia. Buttressed by an entwined cast of characters, played by a host of famous faces, and heightened by an accelerating momentum maintained for most of the film, JFK sifts through a massive dissemination of detail, paced remarkably well in balanced, riveting fashion. Through passages of expository dialogue and speculative inquiries, with manifold flashbacks and the visualisation of true and hypothetical scenarios, JFK is one of Stone’s most involved formal accomplishments. The picture remains a breathtaking masterpiece of film assembly, combining compound material content, conspicuous editing, and an audio-visual onslaught.
Although Stone says there was no theory behind JFK’s complex visual structure, 20 he also acknowledges the use of different film stocks and formats to “question the nature of reality.” “To a large degree,” he notes, “JFK is not a political film; it’s philosophical. It shows how the truth is fractured until we don’t know what the reality is.” 21 Cultivating a tense national mystery, JFK sustains Stone’s passionate authorial voice, which makes Garrison a relatable crusader for justice. Still, fallout ranged from those who questioned Stone’s legitimacy (and competency) to actual legislative action, and the ostensible conclusions posed by the film were greeted with everything from hostility and criticism to a renewed interest in America’s secretive, unsavory past. Though presented with robust resolve, JFK’s quest was never meant to be the truth, Stone maintains, but rather “a combination of facts plus speculation.” 22 In any event, it was, as Stone reflects, “fundamentally the most subversive film [he] ever made, the most destabilizing for America.” 23 “I never got a fair shake after JFK in terms of the movies,” he said. “I think the rest of my movies were judged in the light of JFK.” 24
Slightly less scandalous was Stone’s 1995 biographical opus about litigious American president Richard M. Nixon. Clocking in at 192 minutes, Nixon is a capacious study of the 37th president’s childhood, his troubled interactions with his parents and siblings, his relationships with assorted allies and adversaries, and his much-publicised involvement in the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War (by now a subject synonymous with Stone). It’s an immediately portentous feature, in part because of the well-known implications of its subject but also because of its foreboding presentation. Employing multiple optical effects, an ominous score, and a fragmentary, elliptical timeline interspersed with historical touchstones, Nixon reveals a White House besieged by incessant drama. Stone’s “cinematic tour de force” 25 is an engrossing, tragic tale of betrayal, menace, secrets and lies, and certain downfall. And Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Nixon is, fittingly, that of a painfully pathetic man in the grips of uncertainty, straining to preserve his power and, relatedly, his diplomatic identity. Capturing the physical and psychological essence of Nixon, Hopkins and Stone construct a study of stubbornness, blind ambition, social awkwardness, and adept political manoeuvering. The result is a dense and empathetic (if not exactly flattering) example of Stone’s underrated humanity and his ability to probe the mindset of those less popular or easily likable: “I don’t like Nixon,” he said, “but I understand him.” 26
While Stone expressed an obvious interest in his country’s recent past, his analysis goes further than war and politics and grand figures of modern American history. Wall Street is about as far from Vietnam as a film could get. Located in another sort of jungle, though, one defined by urban bustle and the unique energy of 1980s New York City, this 1987 film stages an impulsive, isolated world tainted by its own corruptive macho ruthlessness, replete with its own war-related metaphors and tactics. Partly inspired by Stone’s father, a former stockbroker to whom the film is dedicated, Wall Street takes this private inspiration and weaves together another tale of innocence lost. Initially called “Greed,” evoking its famous “Greed is good” tagline, Wall Street is a time capsule of excess and sleek surface extravagance. Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox is an aspiring young stockbroker under the manipulative tutelage of Gordon Gekko, a prominent Wall Street player brought to mesmerizing life by Michael Douglas in an Oscar-winning performance. Undergoing a test of his moral bearing, Bud gains a conscience and stakes a claim for his personal vendetta, while Gekko, the embodiment of a capitalist shark thriving on insatiable American affluence, advances the fine lines between persistence and obstinacy, envy and temptation. Examining the workaday lives behind the scenes alongside the charming schemers who rely on their intellectual savvy, Wall Street resonates with its critical interpretation of American ambition and the casually receptive nature of its anti-hero’s objectives.
As the 1980s continued, Stone fostered a slate of current controversies in the cutting cultural critique Talk Radio. Written by Eric Bogosian and Stone, based on Bogosian’s play of the same name, which itself stemmed from Stephen Singular’s “Talked to Death: The Life and Murder of Alan Berg,” Stone’s 1988 portrayal of sensationalistic Dallas, Texas shock jock Barry Champlain (Bogosian) was filmed after a delay in the production of Born on the Fourth of July (which was also prepping in Dallas) and after a film about the CIA’s involvement in Nicaragua was abandoned. A self-righteous opportunist who recognises his indebtedness to big business commercialism while also sounding off on a checklist of social ills, Barry is judgmental, jaded, and preachy. He also toils in danger, and his masterfully inflammatory lambasting invites fated antagonism. Like other Stone protagonists, Barry has a gift for what he does, and his occupation defines both his external identity and his self-perception. But of all the films Stone had done, at least by 1996, he considered it his “least favorite movie.” 27 Be that as it may, Talk Radio brandishes a swift, capricious energy, augmented by its editing, cinematography, and Stone’s proficient staging. Animating an enclosed space by shooting through strata of illumination and reflective/transparent glass, balancing the combustible recording booth with that of the rarely-seen outside world, the film is a vociferous powder keg of contention.
Six years later, however, Talk Radio’s approach toward media-driven scandal would appear downright tame compared to Natural Born Killers (1994). Based on a story by Quentin Tarantino, Stone’s film is a furiously satirical commentary on current events, expressed in an experimental aesthetic offensive. By Stone’s own admission, Natural Born Killers is an uneasy film to settle into: “You can’t get a point of view; you have to surrender to the movie. If you resist the movie with conventional ethics, you’ll have a problem.” 28 At its twisted core is Micky and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), two serial killers joined by vengeful wrath and mutual admiration. Their relationship is a series of incongruous romantic interludes punctuated by shocking acts of murder and mayhem, all against an illustrated periphery of American pop culture. Stone posits potential reasons for what Micky and Mallory do but offers no firm solutions; their backstories are marred by abusive parents, a generally toxic environment, and a primitive excitement toward violence — in reality and in the movies (including clips from some of Stone’s own work). There is something between the demonic and the spiritual that possesses and distorts their hyperkinetic bloodlust, leading to a distressing escalation in chaos. Explicit and sensational, severe and self-conscious, Natural Born Killers transfers an exhilarating, chilling sense of freedom.
But such freedom came at a cost, and Stone went five rounds with the American ratings board in order to get Natural Born Killers down from an NC-17 rating to an R. The film’s kinetic, kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of over-the-top technique was one thing, but the board couldn’t identify specific scenes that were objectionable; their “real problem was the film’s terrifying, chaotic energy.” 29 Adding to Natural Born Killers’ controversy was the way young people connected with the material; there were several copycat crimes associated with the picture. Perhaps, as Stone argued, this was because it is “essentially a love story.” Or maybe, as he also contended, it had to do with the film’s “aura of optimism,” something he said all of his film have, with the exception of U Turn. 30
True enough there. U-Turn, Stone’s 1997 hyper-noir, is a seedy, gritty, and acerbic film, its constitution best illustrated by one of its opening images: rotting roadkill on the sweltering desert asphalt. Based on “Stray Dogs,” by John Ridley, who wrote the script with Stone, U-Turn’s insidious menace consumes Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn), a desperate drifter in debt to the mob and stranded in Superior, Arizona. With a harsh look to reflect its hostile environment, the film is a pitiless, hallucinatory dark comedy. Demented and unnervingly humorous, most in the film harbor cagey backstories not unlike the flashback glimpses of Bobby’s own problematic past, and the hints of what has previously taken place in the town lead to occasionally amusing, occasionally erotic provocation. Channeling Bobby’s simmering, frustrated rage, Penn seizes the film’s non-stop intensity, its cruelty, and irony. Compared to Stone’s weighty works of national significance and sociopolitical interest, U-Turn is a quick and dirty slice of caustic Americana.
Exhibiting a stylised aggression of its own, Any Given Sunday (1999) submits Stone’s customary refrains of dissecting mythification within, like Platoon and Wall Street, another male-dominated institution. Filming a screenplay by he and John Logan, based on anecdotal stories from multiple sources about the corrosive culture of professional American football, Stone’s film is a blunt, brutally honest delineation of the sports entertainment industry, from its medical manipulations to its callous business practicalities. Yet despite the omnipresent venality, there is with Al Pacino’s coach Tony D’Amato a genuine love of the game, which transcends the sport’s sexism, the corporate greed, commercialism, drug addition, promiscuity, and the precarious nature of fame itself (not surprisingly, the National Football League refused to cooperate in the making of the film). Finding competition not just within but surrounding the sport, Stone exerts the same ingrained realism established with Platoon, similarly instituting a training camp where the actors learned dozens of plays and participated in vigorous drills, lending the film its hard-hitting validity. Any Given Sunday is an exuberant movie about the pain and pathos of professional sports, realised with a dynamic impression of speed and frenzied on-field action.
But if Any Given Sunday concerned itself with the ferocious athleticism of modern-day gladiators, Stone’s next film moved out of contemporary times to explore the fabled heroes of centuries gone by. Alexander (2004) is an epic in every sense of the word, a large-scale, intricate story that unfolds, like Nixon before it, in a fluid encapsulation of one man’s youth, his knotty familial relationships, his friends, lovers, and rivals, and various engagements respective to his authoritative standing. Although some disputed Stone’s handling of Alexander’s homosexuality in particular, Alexander is an ambitious undertaking, spanning a shifting overview of Alexander’s miscellaneous campaigns. The scale of the action surpasses anything thus far seen in the Oliver Stone canon (with its regulated violence, merits of honor, courage, and pride, and its predominantly masculine responsibility and expectation, its closest counterpart is probably Any Given Sunday). Upholding unquestioned greatness while managing an unsettled persona, in this regard evoking The Doors, Alexander balances the idolatry of its subject with a majesty stained by engulfing distrust and fear. Alexander hit American theaters in late 2004, but Stone subsequently released four different cuts of the film on home video: the initial theatrical version and three director’s cuts. While it remains one of his most frequently maligned features — its narrative coherence is periodically consumed by its vast, visual dazzle — this ability to return to the same film multiple times granted Stone an unprecedented opportunity, allowing the chance to break the constraints of commercial/theatrical filmmaking.
Alexander notwithstanding, though, Stone had for most of his career substantiated a “constant and uncanny ability … to capture the zeitgeist of the American condition and make it cinematically vivacious, exciting and vital.” 31 With such a reputation, and with certain aligned expectations, he unsurprisingly irritated those who questioned his processing of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America, in his 2006 film World Trade Center, and the contentious presidency of George H.W. Bush, in his 2008 film W. Unsurprising, but for perhaps surprising reasons.
World Trade Center took the catastrophic events of Sept. 11 and narrowed the concentration to a few traumatic hours in the lives of Port Authority Police Officers John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (John McLoughlin), both of whom become trapped in the rubble of one of New York City’s World Trade Center towers. Enlisting the advice of individuals involved with the search and rescue operations, supporting the film’s requisite credibility, Stone added to the scenario’s dramatic fulfilment with less stylistic flourish than immediately preceding features, but he still stressed the gravity of the situation in his use of slow motion and his emphasis on the intense claustrophobia of McLoughlin and Jimeno’s condition. Intermittingly alleviating the contained burden of the two sequestered officers, Stone opens the film to follow the simultaneous anxiety of their concerned, grieving families as well as the impact of the attacks on a stunned, somber outside world. The event’s inherent tension and emotional resonance worked to produce a film that is, more than anything, a testament to the bravery and professional camaraderie of those facing bewildering disaster. But for persons anticipating the typical Oliver Stone turbulence, World Trade Center’s apolitical, inoffensive approach, its sentimentality (in the best possible way), and its avoidance of any overt blame or geopolitical repercussion proved routine and uninspired. “Taken together,” writes Scott and Thompson, Alexander and World Trade Center “invited the ire of social conservatives on the one hand, and the disdain of liberal supporters on the other,” 32 and while questions of accuracy and Stone’s relative restraint seemed unavoidable, worsening World Trade Center’s unfavorable reception was the box office failure of Alexander just before and Stone’s misfortune to have his Sept 11 film come out just after the more successful United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006).
Anticipation again peaked with the announcement of W., a film expected to be a scathing takedown of admonished American president George W. Bush. While there was ample opportunity for Stone to pick at Bush’s days as a frat boy simpleton, his personal and professional failures, and the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq, his depiction of the 43rd president was more like the satirical story of a foolhardy good-old-boy grappling under the weight of his domineering birthright. As played by Josh Brolin, Stone’s Bush is an almost endearing caricature of a man whose earnest beliefs, however flawed and misguided, prompt an ingenuous, simplistic black and white worldview. Hitting on several of the major issues and buzz words associated with the Bush administration (“shock and awe,” “WMDs,” “mission accomplished”) W. dumbfounded many with its light treatment of a heavily-criticised politician, approaching the Bush legacy with wit, humour, and agility. “Bush may turn out to be the worst president in history,” Stone argued, “But that doesn’t mean he isn’t a great story.” 33
Setting himself up for a different sort of expectancy, based even more literary on his own preceding output, Stone filmed a sequel to Wall Street in 2010, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. This time around, the newly-released-from-prison Gordon Gekko (Douglas) attempts to reintegrate himself into a world that left him behind, and to reestablish his relationship with his estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), as well as her fiancé, Jacob (Shia LaBeouf), a young investment banker. With several nods to Stone’s earlier film (including a cameo by Sheen), this second consideration of America’s financial industry features Gekko as a semi-forgotten pillar of a recently antiquated past. What remains relevant, however, is the heartlessness and volatility, the same alienation, determination, and questionable ethical tolerance. New is the film’s increased dimension, its representation of global machinations and summarily abused risk-taking. Following the 2008 financial crisis, there is in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps a subtle scrutiny assigned to American consumers and the American government. As Scott/Thompson observed of it and Stone’s next film, Savages (2012), both “celebrate aspects of the American Dream – the possibilities and freedoms what wealth can offer – but the narratives also highlight the presence of a distorted sense of entitlement, and share an emerging realisation of the limitations for redress that are available through institutional justice: as crucial a development for Stone as it has been for the country as a whole.” 34
W., Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and Savages “all have things to say about their subject matter,” writes Scott and Thompson, “but all did so with noticeably more muted polemics than supporters and critics alike had expected.” 35 Muted polemics, perhaps, but as far as Savages is concerned, it found Stone working with a fresh exuberance that was both vivid and assertive. Based on a Don Winslow novel, the film pits two American marijuana growers (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), alongside their shared girlfriend (Blake Lively), against an incrementally explosive association that includes a Mexican drug-cartel enforcer (Benicio del Toro), a corrupt DEA agent (John Travolta), and a cartel boss (Salma Hayek). In addition to hints of post-war trauma (one of the young men is an Afghanistan veteran), Stone merges the gradations of the twenty-first century drug trade — its speed, spread, and suspicion — with a genuine, unorthodox love. “As bilious and flaming a passion as any of his classic films from the 1980s and 1990s had displayed,” 36 Savages is a blistering mishmash of genres and styles, which sometimes keeps its characters, and an appreciation of their paradise lost, at a distance.
After several projects fell through, including films about Martin Luther King Jr. and the My Lai massacre, Stone settled on another subject of widely varying opinion. Based on “The Snowden Files, by Luke Harding, and “Time of the Octopus,” by Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden (2016) tracks several years in the life of former N.S.A. operative Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who revealed to the world the extent of America’s illegal, widespread electronic surveillance. Framed by Snowden’s secluded time in a Hong Kong hotel with filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), Snowden supports its subject’s liberalised views and his compounding outrage as optimism turns to skepticism and Snowden suffers bouts of understandable paranoia and disappointment, all of which carries personal, domestic, and international repercussions. Before shooting Snowden (Stone’s first digital feature), the director met Snowden multiple times in Moscow, and between their clandestine conversations and the controversial basis of the film itself, it was often as if the production’s secrecy and divisiveness mirrored that of its titular traitor/patriot.
But in one of the more stinging ironies of Stone’s career, audiences who had rebuked him for soft-pedaling the content of World Trade Center and W. seemed to all but ignore the challenging statements behind Snowden. What was also missed in the argument concerning Stone’s supposed decline in cinematic incitement, was how much political substance he had been exploring in documentary form. As far back as 2003’s Comandante, about then-Cuban president Fidel Castro, and Persona non Grata, a 2003 film made for HBO, looking at the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Stone was broaching issues of pronounced, combative, and misconstrued disputation. In the latter, his West Bank interviews with Israeli officials and Hamas militants give voice to the territory’s chaotic insanity. In intrepid, cinéma vérité fashion, Persona non Grata expresses the instantly explosive distress derived from the territory’s surface conflict and its more nuanced emotions and beliefs. It is a brief but fascinating document of seemingly inevitable hostility.
With Comandante, as would be the case with his 2009 documentary, South of the Border, Stone met disapproval for even giving the time to such a polemical head of state. His multifaceted portrait includes newsreels and instances of Castro’s public adoration, and Castro talks about shaving, fast food, and celebrities with the same casual platform as he discusses international scandals, triumphs, and existing political tensions. Although he appears slightly impatient from time to time, he and Stone engage in amiable conversation. Still, naysayers reproved Stone’s lack of categorical condemnation, especially toward some of Castro’s more dubious policies, and for some, Castro’s mere presence — and Stone’s mere willingness to entertain the infamous revolutionary — was reason enough to overlook any attempts to see past the social and political spectrum and to humanise such a controversial figure. “I’m opening a dialogue,” Stone said. “It’s a dialogue. Look at the man is all I can say. The film is its own reward.” 37
South of the Border, a comprehensive primer about a “new wave of left-leaning leaders” in Latin America, a “101 introduction” according to Stone, 38 had a reception similar to that of Comandante. With a substantial amount of information and debate packed into its 78-minute overview, the film’s juxtaposition of political discernment and personal revelation has Stone giving playful screen direction to Hugo Chávez and munching coca leaves with Evo Morales. He shows the men and women amongst their constituents, speaking of labour and international relations, of their militaries, economies, the so-called “war on drugs,” and political and popular progress. But Stone’s informal manner led to accusations of sycophantic sympathies and generally simplistic acuity (Stone’s mocking of American media’s own blatantly misinformed misperceptions didn’t help). To South of the Border’s criticisms, Stone acknowledged, “We are dealing with a big picture. And we don’t stop to go into a lot of the criticism and details of each country.” 39
Nonetheless, the outraged intensified with Mi Amigo Hugo, Stone’s 2014 memorial for Chávez, released a year after his death. Shot in Spanish for the Caracas-based Telesur, Mi Amigo Hugo is Stone’s “goodbye to a solider and a friend.” But to others, instead of discussing Chavez’s work ethic and his sleeping and coffee habits, the film should have been an absolute vilification, which is certainly isn’t. More recently, Stone’s four-part Showtime documentary The Putin Interviews, featuring his in-depth conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, tread casually on a man many see as nothing less than a cruel dictator and, especially in the wake of the 2016 United States election, a criminal adversary. Stone, while acknowledging Putin as “an authoritarian,” also salutes the contested leader as respected, “Very clear-eyed. Rational. Unemotional. He is a fervent patriot who believes in a strong Russia.” 40
These documentaries, in the words of Scott and Thompson, “confirmed [Stone’s] continuing appetite for challenging the establishment’s political narratives, and disrupting what (he) saw as the mainstream media’s collusion in the promulgation of those narratives.” 41 The mythology of modern United States history was one such narrative, which Stone sought to rectify with his ambitious 10-part Showtime miniseries, The Untold History of the United States (2012-13). Inspired by the woefully inadequate way children are taught American history, Stone launches a thorough, tremendously intricate chronicle of American undertaking, from the atomic bomb and World War II, to the Cold War, the fight against Communism, and the administrations of George H.W. and George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Comprising a massive amount of research, with routine revisions and fact-checking, the program is, according to Stone, “the most powerful documentary [he] ever made.” 42 Probing established and often one-sided or incomplete views of American history, “Stone’s work in the 2000s not only continued his activism, but arguably reaffirmed basic tenets of a philosophy that possibly was more unpopular in the new century than it had been in the last.” 43
While Stone admits a penchant for excess — “I won’t ever make boring movies … I like grandiosity of style” 44 — his films have never sacrificed emotions or intellectual consequence for the sake of mere formal advance or sheer provocation. Initially approaching filmmaking in a “cerebral way,” he became more “instinctive and sense-oriented,” 45 and as noted by Tom Cruise, who gave perhaps his finest performance for Stone, he is the “Van Gogh filmmaker” – “his films are intense, vibrant, explosive, unrelenting … just like he is. His films are very personal. The imagery is what he sees.” 46. However, because his chosen subject matter is often “complicated (with) the central facts generally unagreed upon,” Stone concedes he is repeatedly a “passionate blunderer who puts his foot in the proverbial dog shit now and then.” 47
As Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. comments, “Few contemporary filmmakers are so intensely involved with history as Oliver Stone. Few reshape — or, as he would say, deconstruct — history with such technical virtuosity.” 48 This historical grounding, and the necessities of narrative invention when it comes to his fictional output, make it nearly impossible to evaluate Stone’s oeuvre in the same way as most American filmmakers. Accepting quibbles based on the selective parsing of any given film’s entirety, Stone firmly contends, “As a historian or a dramatist, what you really need is an intellect that’s capable of absorbing contrary points of view,” 49 and it is his job as a dramatist to “[take the] license to put composite events and characters into a condensed space; moving fact around.” 50 For Stone, then, as James R. Farr argues, “historical truth is plural and depends on perspective, on points of view.” 51 Though he has never thought of himself as a “cinematic historian,” 52 critics and the public alike can struggle with Stone’s provocateur persona and his cinematic endgame. To this, he has unreservedly participated in public debates about the controversial aspects of his movies. This includes countless interviews and academic discussions and books published to accompany JFK and Nixon in anticipation of the likely debate. “I have a great love for this country,” Stone says, “and I believe that my movies have had a positive impact on it, raising points and asking questions that merit and answer or an investigation.” 53
“Oliver Stone has changed the film industry,” writes Michael Douglas, putting a fine point on what makes Stone the unique figure he is. “He has changed it because of his experiments in technique and his adventurous attitude toward how movies can be made. He has changed it because he has shown a rare professionalism that enables him to make numerous quality films with without going over budget. And most of all, he’s changed it because he’s shown all of us that enlightenment can be entertainment if you have the courage to do it right.” 54
Seizure (1974), also writer and producer
The Hand (1981), also writer
Salvador (1986), also writer
Platoon (1986), also writer
Wall Street (1987), also writer
Talk Radio (1988), also writer
Born on the Fourth of July (1989), also writer and producer
The Doors (1991), also writer
JFK (1991), also writer and producer
Heaven & Earth (1993), also writer and producer
Natural Born Killers (1994), also writer
Nixon (1995), also writer and producer
U Turn (1997)
Any Given Sunday (1999), also writer and producer
Comandante (2003, documentary), narration and producer
America Undercover (TV Series documentary, two episodes, Looking for Fidel , also narration; Persona Non Grata )
Alexander (2004), also writer
World Trade Center (2006)
South of the Border (2009, documentary)
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), also writer and producer
Castro in Winter (2012, documentary)
Savages (2012), also writer
The Untold History of the United States (2012-2013, TV series documentary, 12 episodes), also writer and producer
Mi Amigo Hugo (2014, documentary)
Snowden (2016), also writer
The Putin Interviews (2017, TV series documentary, four episodes), also writer and producer
James Riordan, Stone: The Controversies, Excess, and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker (New York: Hyperion, 1995).
Ian Scott and Henry Thompson, The Cinema of Oliver Stone: Art, Authorship and Activism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016).
Matt Zoller Seitz, The Oliver Stone Experience (New York: Abrams, 2016).
Charles L.P. Silet (ed.), Oliver Stone: Interviews (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2001).
Robert Brent Toplin (ed.), Oliver Stone’s USA: Film, History, and Controversy (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2000).
- Oliver Stone, A Child’s Night Dream (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), p.13 ↩
- James Riordan, Stone: The Controversies, Excess, and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker (New York: Hyperion, 1995), p. 513. ↩
- Oliver Stone, The Hand, Audio Commentary, Warner Home Video, DVD, 2007 ↩
- Riordan, Stone, p. 170. ↩
- Charles L.P. Silet (ed.), Oliver Stone: Interviews (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2001), p. 13. ↩
- Ian Scott and Henry Thompson, The Cinema of Oliver Stone: Art, Authorship and Activism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), p. 82. ↩
- Silet, Interviews, p. 79. ↩
- Stone, A Child’s Night Dream, p. viii. ↩
- Matt Zoller Seitz, The Oliver Stone Experience (New York: Abrams, 2016), p. 94. ↩
- Riordan, Stone, p. 203. ↩
- Scott I and Thompson H, The Cinema of Oliver Stone, p. 29-30. ↩
- Ibid., p. 32. ↩
- Silet, Oliver Stone: Interviews, p. XI. ↩
- Ibid., p. 54. ↩
- Robert Brent Toplin (ed.), Oliver Stone’s USA: Film, History, and Controversy (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2000), p. 26. ↩
- Ibid., p. 140. ↩
- Ibid., p. 178. ↩
- Seitz, Oliver Stone Experience, p. 230. ↩
- Riordan, Stone, p. 84. ↩
- Seitz, Oliver Stone Experience, p. 257. ↩
- Riordan, Stone, p. 408. ↩
- Silet, Oliver Stone: Interviews, p. 98. ↩
- Ibid., p. 106. ↩
- Seitz, Oliver Stone Experience, p. 276. ↩
- Scott/Thompson, The Cinema of Oliver Stone, p. 98. ↩
- Silet, Oliver Stone: Interviews, p. 173. ↩
- Ibid., p. 169. ↩
- Ibid., p. 129. ↩
- Toplin, Oliver Stone’s USA, p. 193. ↩
- Scott/Thompson, The Cinema of Oliver Stone, p. 256. ↩
- Ibid., p. 4. ↩
- Ibid., p. 9. ↩
- Ibid., p. 57. ↩
- Ibid,, p. 153. ↩
- Ibid., p. 10. ↩
- Ibid., p. 121. ↩
- Seitz, Oliver Stone Experience, p. 442. (original italics) ↩
- Scott and Thompson, The Cinema of Oliver Stone, p. 106. ↩
- Ibid, p. 106. ↩
- Nathan Gardels and Alex Gardels, Oliver Stone: Snowden Is A Patriot Who Wants To Come Home (Huffington Post, 2017) https://www.huffpost.com/entry/olive-stone-edward-snowden-patriot_n_57d1853ee4b00642712c001f ↩
- Scott/Thompson, The Cinema of Oliver Stone, p. 12. ↩
- John Lynch, Oliver Stone says comparing ‘disaster’ of Bush’s presidency to Trump is ridiculous and ‘trivializes the situation,’ as he reflects on his biopic ‘W.’ 10 years later (Business Insider, 2018), https://www.businessinsider.com/oliver-stone-bush-biopic-w-militarization-more-dangerous-than-trump-2018-10 ↩
- Scott and Thompson, The Cinema of Oliver Stone, p. 15. ↩
- Riordan, Stone, p. 343. ↩
- Ibid., p. 208. ↩
- Ibid., p. 293-294. ↩
- Toplin, Oliver Stone’s USA, p. 43. ↩
- Ibid., p. 212. ↩
- Ibid., p. 55. ↩
- Riordan, Stone, p. 360. ↩
- Toplin, Oliver Stone’s USA, p. 161. ↩
- Ibid., p. 40. ↩
- Ibid., p. 255. ↩
- Riordan, Stone, p. xvii. ↩