Frankly, film has missed Oliver Stone. The original button pushing infant terrible, the caustic controversy causer who loved to stir things up as well as entertain and engage, has been creatively MIA for far too long. It’s been only two years since his last film (the vastly mediocreWall Street sequel) and yet it seems like he’s been out of the cinematic limelight for twice as long, if not longer. Granted, he may have misfired through most of the Aughts, choices like Alexander and World Trade Center arguing for a man missing his main muse, but when you consider how brightly his contentious star burned throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, a little post-millennial malaise can be expected. In fact, to believe that Stone will ever be as creatively powerful as 1986 through 1996 is an aesthetic fool’s paradise.
With the opening of his latest work as co-writer/director, Savages, it’s time to look back at a motion picture catalog so dense and yet so diverse. Stone seems to have favorite subject matters—war and remembrance, crime and (the lack of legitimate) punishment, the conspiracy behind the veil of social reality—and when he stays within those limits, he’s luminous. It’s only when he strays from his considered comfort zone—pro football, ancient history, talk radio—that he falters, sometimes fatally. With this in mind, we have decided to pick through the 28 films he’s been responsible for either at the typewriter, behind the lens, or both, and pick our favorite ten. For the most part, the usual suspects are present, but as with the man who we’re celebrating here, surprises are par for the course, beginning with:
It seemed like an unlikely topic for someone like Stone to take on: a real life tale of survival inside the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil… ever. Indeed, when NYC policemen John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno found themselves trapped in the rubble of 9/11, they probably couldn’t have imagined their story becoming a hit film for a man more geared toward exposing the reasons behind the atrocity than the heroics within. Still, with the skill of a surgeon, Stone set up the horrible day, using inference and insight where sensationalism could have ruled. The result is a testament to the resolve of these brave men and all who died that horrible day.
For many, this is a seminal Stone effort, but for me, it’s as dated as a synthpop dirge by Duran Duran. The notion of ‘celebrating’ someone like Gordon Gekko was wrongheaded back then, a lesson learned with the release of the recent unnecessary sequel. Still, Stone does such a good job of explaining the almost unfathomable intricacies of leverage buyouts that we can forgive the frightening lack of a moral compass. What should have been a denouncement of the trickle down Greed Decade instead became its celebrity poster child. It’s a repugnant reality that Stone has yet to fully answer for.
Our first selection for Stone as screenwriter only may seem insignificant, but one simply has to remember the impact of this film to gauge the work of the artists involved. This thriller was a true eye-opener, a view into the horrifying world of international law enforcement without the veiled exploitation angle and/or naked girls in bondage sleaze. Instead, Stone took the true story of Billy Hayes and his arrest in Turkey for drug smuggling, and turned it into the ultimate story of survival and escape. With the help of criminally underrated director Alan Parker, Stone established his creative credentials, winning his first Oscar in the process.
With his status as effectual/ineffectual Commander in Chief in full blown flux, Stone stepped up to deliver a definitive dramatization of the Bush era White House. With more targets to take down than the typical Presidential overview, the filmmaker found a way to make his subject sympathetic while thoroughly demonizing those around him. Of course, the rush to war is the main focus, as is W’s devotion to his Christian causes. While not up to the level of his previous high office exposes, it was proof that Stone could still deliver on a high level.
After the success of Platoon, Stone decided to become the ultimate chronicler of the Vietnam experience. Eventually, an uneasy trilogy would result, this amazing middle movie making up for the less than stellar finale, Heaven and Earth. The choice of Cruise was controversial at the time, many seeing him as nothing more than a mainstream pretty boy with box office appeal and little else. Stone managed to turn him into an Oscar caliber actor… and the resulting epic a stinging denouncement of the treatment of our Vets by an angry, unsettled society. Another near masterpiece in the man’s intriguing oeuvre.