The Fall of the Oliver Stone Empire: A Director and His Critics

Oliver Stone is a name with many varying, sometimes contradictory, attachments to it. The brilliant director creates films so visceral (and usually political) they polarize everyone who is perceptive enough to absorb them. However, the blowhard filmmaker is also guilty of injecting radical ideas into already controversial pieces without enough facts to back up his egregious claims. See? One sentence just wasn’t enough to fully encapsulate such an enigmatic figure in today’s film culture.

Still it is the critic’s job to try. For the past three decades, Stone has been subjected to zeal of an unparalleled magnitude from those given the task to analyze his work. The man simply refuses to back away from any topic. The assassination of a United States president – why not? America’s media-fed obsession with serial killers – he’ll handle it. Not one but two Vietnam-centric films – why not make a third (the long delayed Pinkville)? Nothing is too taboo for Stone and no studio, star, or critic can keep him from depicting his material in the most ambitious manner possible. This is just the way his mind seems to work. At least it did, according to critical consensus, before this past decade.

The “Magic Bullet” Era

The 1980s and 90s were dream decades for Oliver Stone. Two Academy Award wins, 10 nominations, and four of his five highest grossing films all combined to catapult Stone to superstardom in the auteur universe. Platoon, Stone’s first venture into Vietnam, may still be the director’s career peak in terms of critical acceptance. The film won four Academy Awards in 1986, including Best Picture, and was almost universally praised. 14 years later, Chicago Tribune critic Michael Wilmington summed up the film’s reception bluntly when he said “…it’s still the standard against which all other movies about the Vietnam War are judged.”

Stone followed up one personal film with another. While he was writing about his own experiences in Vietnam for Platoon, he covered his father’s profession in Wall Street. The harsh look at the stock exchange earned Michael Douglas an Oscar for his portrayal of Gordon Gekko, the man who coined the infamous phrase, “Greed is good.” Despite its lasting impact (the film proved popular enough to spawn a sequel 23 years later), Stone did start to catch some grief for his political leanings. Desson Thomson’s review in The Washington Post read, “…you will see the evil, capitalistic impulses of man. Towards the end, you will see the self-righteous impulses of liberal finger waggers. It’s hard to tell which is worse.” With most people, though, Stone was still on top. He was a young, ambitious director willing to experiment onscreen and make accusations off it. His success would continue, for the most part, through the 1990s.

Sure, there were a few flops. Talk Radio at the end of the 1980s and Heaven and Earth in 1993 both earned less than $6 million and remain to this day two of Stone’s lesser known films. But they were still well received by critics. Even his critically antithetical 1994 film Natural Born Killers had its supporters. Roger Ebert gave it four stars saying Stone “goes for broke” with the film and “he’ll do anything to get his effect.”

This statement could have just as easily been applied to Stone’s 1991 three hour opus, JFK. It’s clear in the film Stone’s agenda is slightly more demanding than past efforts, even if his devices are similar. Taking Stone’s place in the film is Jim Garrison, a New Orleans’ district attorney who becomes enamored with the assassination of America’s 35th president. Everything takes a backseat to finding the truth for Garrision and Stone. They toss out every theory, clue, interview, and allegation possible just to see what will stick. With such a touchy topic, this practice obviously had a volatile effect on critics.

Peter Travers called JFK “a dishonest search for truth.” “As speculation, JFK is riveting,” Travers said in his review. “As proof, it’s bunk.” Thomson was more accepting of the mix, calling it “a riveting marriage of fact and fiction.” Ebert discarded the notion of accuracy entirely. “This is not a film about the facts of the assassination, but about the feeling,” he said in another four-star review of Stone’s work.

Popular opinion won out. The film ended up earning eight Academy Award nominations and won two (cinematography and editing). To this day, there has been more than five different DVD releases and a 205-minute directors cut indicating a continued interest in the film. More importantly, any negative response certainly didn’t faze the man himself. Of his own films, Stone said JFK is his personal favorite.

JFK may have been the peak of the critics’ indulgence, but Stone fared well throughout the decade. He earned another Oscar nomination for his biography of former president Richard Nixon in 1995. Nixon held plenty of similarities to JFK both formally and in its public reception. Factual accuracies were brought into question by some and dismissed by others in favor of the film’s entertaining aspects. Ebert again delivered a four star review and the film earned four Oscar nominations (but won zero).

Though some may want to mark the beginning of Stone’s cinematic skid with 1999’s Any Given Sunday considering its obvious box office potential (aka selling out), the football film still featured many of the director’s past techniques still unfriendly to mainstream audiences. The blurred camera moves, gruesome details, and analytical narrative meant to question the status of today’s game all feel like vintage Stone. The film received mixed reviews overall, but not more so than his equally questionable past work. He had moved past his 80s era prime, but continued to challenge his audience.

Oedipal Issues

Then came the 2000s. Stone entered the decade without a sound. He didn’t release a film as a director until the critically popular documentary Comandante, and it never received an American release outside the festival circuit. Take it as a sign or a mere coincidence, but everything went quickly downhill from there. Alexander was on the horizon.

Perhaps better known as its various titles on DVD and Blu-ray, Alexander: Director’s Cut or Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut, Stone’s biography of Alexander the Great was a failure on all fronts. Domestically, it failed to make back even a fourth of its $155 million budget. Though small grosses were nothing new to Stone, a complete critical ravaging was more than a change of pace – it marked a turning point in his career.

Ebert, usually a devout fan of Stone’s work, came out strongly against the film’s lack of convictions. He said Alexander’s “sexuality is made murky by the film’s shyness about gay sex and its ambiguity about Alexander’s relationships with his ‘barbarian’ bride and his tigress mother.” These sentiments are echoed in Peter Travers’ one star review in RollingStone. While discussing Alexander’s relationship with Hephaistion, the conqueror’s longtime friend and reported lover, Travers said, “the two exchange hot looks, but Stone – perhaps unwilling to kill the film’s box-office chances among homophobes –stops there.” Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times takes it step further in his review – “…this relationship is presented as so chaste and comradely you might mistake these lovers for Eagle Scouts comparing notes on merit badges.”

The real shock isn’t the exclusion of the homosexuality in Alexander but who excluded it. Stone was never one wary of approaching taboo topics. By 2004, he was known as one of the most controversial visionaries in Hollywood. JFK was even ranked as the 5th most controversial film ever made by Entertainment Weekly. Something clicked off in his brain and made it a little easier for him to toe the line instead of step over it. Whether it was frustration with grasping a subject close to his heart, a late life maturity taking hold, or an unknown personal or political discovery, something happened on the set of Alexander to really affect the usually sure-minded director.

Perhaps more troublesome to some was the lack of Stone’s visual tells throughout the majority of the film. Turan said “there’s nothing fresh about this plodding endeavor” before capping his review with “Alexander has not been nearly bold enough.” Manohla Dargis said in The New York Times “there are moments in Alexander that show Mr. Stone in fine form…but these grace notes are few and far between.” Critics were, for once, in agreement – Stone had missed his mark in meaning and presentation.

Some of the negative reaction can be attributed to the misplaced anticipation of controversy. It was well known by then that Stone was almost always reflected in the protagonist of his own films – perhaps he didn’t want to focus on Alexander’s homosexuality because he didn’t see it as that relevant. Turan said almost as much in his review. While discussing the heated sex scene between Alexander and his wife, Roxane, he said “it’s an emphasis Stone…feels both personally and commercially at home with.”

This was also Stone’s most expensive film to date. It was essentially a war movie with some serious Oedipal issues tossed in, making it friendly to a wide audience of moviegoers. This could have been his attempt to recapture the kind of box office success not seen since 1986 (at $138 million domestically, Platoon‘s grosses almost double those of his next best moneymakers). Money never seemed like a high priority in the past, but Stone’s last two projects certainly appeared to be potential cash cows in their early stages.

Yet, no matter the reasons, the aftermath of Alexander has yet to end. Like the great dictator he depicted, Stone had finally bitten off more than he could chew. Even his devout followers seemed to turn against the film. The director was suddenly fallible. He had made a war film with nothing socially or politically relevant to say. When had the grand philosopher been replaced by the grand poobah?

What could have been Stone’s return to glory was undermined in 2006 by a similar film receiving better reviews and a subject matter too touchy for even Stone to fully conquer. World Trade Center received mostly positive feedback despite irking Americans for its early, read “too soon,” release date. Ironically, had it been given an early April distribution date it may have fared better with critics. By the time World Trade Center entered theaters on August 9, 2006, everyone willing to see a 9/11 film had already gone to United 93. Even if they saw both, almost every critic agreed Stone’s film couldn’t compare to the handheld style of director Paul Greengrass (who later received an Oscar nomination for the film).

Those who disliked World Trade Center again pointed out Stone’s lack of experimentation and the thus unavoidable absence of controversy. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader said, “the way it’s told restricts what the movie can say about the larger tragedy.” “Its craft feels impersonal,” said Michael Phillips in his review for the Chicago Tribune. He went on to say “the film is a more limited achievement (than United 93).” Keeping in mind the majority of critics praised the film; many also enjoyed the straightforward presentation of such a personal tale. David Ansen of Newsweek said the film is “piercingly moving and utterly unpolitical(sp).”

Ansen also pointed out Stone’s disdain for convoluted press stories and how Hollywood producers’ looked at him as “tainted goods” after Alexander. World Trade Center may not have been the easiest topic to tackle after the critical scathing, but its presentation could have been linked to it. Its formal appropriateness could be the closest we ever see to Stone’s safe side.

Others may argue we saw the most caution in W.. Stone’s latest film was widely criticized for its passive look at one of the most unpopular presidents in American history. James Berardinelli summed up many of the opinions when he said “…this two-hour snooze fest isn’t even inflammatory enough to stoke a righteous anti-Bush brushfire.” Liberals were looking for something to stir them up. Conservatives and moderates just wanted the film to go away. Neither got their wish and W., a film Stone hoped would change minds, left theaters with a whimper after only seven weeks in theaters. It was a disappointing close to a devastating decade for the director.

Stock in Flux

Does this mean we’re in store for another ten years of disaffecting films from one of America’s most engaging thinkers? Without a film released since W., it makes it a bit hard to tell. Early footage of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Stone’s first sequel, looks promising. The director has an excellent cast of young stars and veteran Hollywood players. Yes, Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen both return (Sheen with a more limited role), but they’re not alone this time – Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Susan Sarandon, and Carey Mulligan round out another all star Stone cast. The script is by newcomer Allan Loeb, but Stone hopefully has a hand in more than enough of it to keep the franchise together.

Then came the inevitable impediment. Wall Street 2 was pushed from an April release to September 24. No matter the reasons given by studios and distributors, a delay is almost never a good thing. Whether it’s reshoots, a new marketing strategy, or merely delaying the inevitable poor reception, a delayed release almost always indicates serious issues with a film. September is also a pretty big dead zone during the film year. The summer season has ended and the fall’s Oscar favorites are waiting for November and December dates. Not to be overly pessimistic, but this move does not bode well for Stone’s prospects.

More intriguing yet is why Stone is making a sequel at all. The filmmaker has taken pride in his boldness and originality for years. After coming under decade-long scrutiny for the first time in his career, why add fuel to the fire of his chastisers? Does he simply not care? Does he see the act of making a sequel as one of originality in itself? Or perhaps the film is a “return to form” and thus beyond reproach? No matter — all critics will be waiting with bated breath to see if 2010 is the year Stone breaks his decade-long slump. Or is it Stone who will be waiting to see if critics will break his decade-long slump? Either way, let’s hope the once inquisitive director is back answering the challenging questions.