(1946 - present)
Three Key Films: Platoon (1986), JFK (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994)
Underrated: Nixon (1995) and W. (2008). These two films, though controversial, are not as easy to argue about or as quick to ruffle feathers as JFK. And, though political, they don’t touch the same kind of raw, emotional nerve as a subject like the Vietnam War, like Stone did in Platoon and Born of the Fourth of July (1989). As a result, they’re both overlooked, a shame considering what Stone manages to accomplish in them: painting a human, even sympathetic, portrait of a figure that stands for everything he’s against personally. The two imperial presidents are cast in very different lights: Stone’s Nixon, in his quest for power, causes his own undoing, while his George W. Bush is almost totally powerless, haplessly flubbing his way through his own presidency. And yet Stone manages empathy for them both, and gets award-worthy performances out of Anthony Hopkins and Josh Brolin in the process.
Unforgettable: A crisp, dark power suit and diagonally-striped tie. Hair so thoroughly gelled you can still see the path the comb took. A giant, 1980s microphone. And then a speech: “Greed, for lack of a better term,” says Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), “is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” With Gekko’s speech, Stone gives voice to a powerful, yet nebulous enemy: American business. And yet, coming from Douglas, who cuts such a striking figure, it’s easy to see how the lure of big business can seduce young men and women who should otherwise know better. Wall Street (1987) is Stone’s takedown of the culture of the finance industry in the 1980s but, in typical Stone fashion, he makes his villain so interesting that it’s hard not to root for the bad guy, even though, without such a charismatic figure to cloud your judgment, you know that greed is not, in fact, good.
The Legend: Oliver Stone is not a timid director. His films, though not polemic, are unafraid to take a firm position on a subject—especially an unpopular one (even if it’ll land him in hot water with his fellow lefties). World Trade Center (2006) showed that he’d be one of the first to brave territory where wounds had not yet healed. Besides the aforementioned Nixon and W., the documentary South of the Border (2009), about Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, tries to tease out the most relatable characteristics of a figure who is often vilified. And he’s made a trilogy about his favorite cause: the consequences of the war in Vietnam.
But his films aren’t just mouthpieces for his messages. Stone draws heavily upon his own personal experiences for his film. His life is not unlike a lot of Baby Boomers’: He dropped out of college to go to Vietnam, and returned passionate and disillusioned. His films became a vehicle for retelling Boomer history, covering Kennedy’s assassination (JFK), Vietnam (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July), ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll (The Doors) (1991), ‘70s paranoia (Nixon), and so on. Even Wall Street and its sequel come from a personal place, since Stone’s father was a stockbroker. So while yes, he tries to provide evidence for his personal view—and, in the case of JFK, perhaps overwhelming amounts of sometimes questionable evidence—he never forgets to filter everything through an emotional, human story.
Which is not to say that, since Stone draws on his own personal experiences, that his storytelling comes through the gauzy haze of personal nostalgia. Nothing is muted about his films. If he wants you to absorb the messages, he’ll get you to pay attention to what he finds important, attacking your senses with jittery jump cuts; shifts between slick, smooth images and battered, grainy footage; newsreels; slow-motion; and, when he needs to, even on-screen graphics. But while those elements certainly jazz up his visual style, he doesn’t depend on them to capture an audience. Chances are, given his ability to marry a strong viewpoint with an engaging story, the audience is already hooked. Marisa LaScala