Reconsidering the Oliver Stone Filmography

Bryant Simon looks back at Stone’s first Best Director Oscar-winner.

Roger Ebert, in his 1986 review of Oliver Stone’s compelling Vietnam era film Platoon, quoted Francois Truffaut. The acclaimed French director once remarked that it was impossible to create an anti-war film, because all war movies turn combat into noble brawls or manly adventures. Not Oliver Stone’s Vietnam. Here war is mean, ugly, and even more, physically and psychologically disorientating. Hollywood recognized Stone’s accomplishment, awarding Platoon with Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Stone), Best Film Editing, and Best Sound.

The central character in Platoon is Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) and he bears a striking biographical resemblance to Oliver Stone. Like the filmmaker, Taylor is a well educated, upper-middle-class kid who enlisted in the Marines, when he didn’t have to, in search of glory, excitement, and manly validation. But the war that Stone depicts only takes; it robs soldiers of their morals, decency, and all too often their lives. Taylor sees this right from the start. Just as he is shipping out, he spots a line of flag-draped caskets coming back from the front.

In Vietnam, Taylor’s platoon, like the nation itself in the 1960s, is divided, split between whites and blacks, and between the juicers (who drink) and the heads (who get high). Even more fundamentally, the troops are split between two senior officers and two moral visions of war. With his scarred and grizzled face, Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) is the king of the juicers; he is a brilliant and fiercely Machiavellian warrior. He will do anything to win, to cut down the enemy, and make sure his men survive to fight another day. The heads are led by Sgt. Elias, who tries to wage war not just to survive physically, but to some how survive the killing with his humanity in tact.

Stone doesn’t take the easy way out here, celebrating bravery or redemption. Taylor is torn by these two visions. His instincts, even his class background, lead him towards the heads. But he knows that Barnes and his sometimes vicious juicers, notably the nearly psychopathic Bunny (Kevin Dillon), are products of a geo-political hell created by know-nothing policy makers thousands of miles away. But they are also savviest soldiers and the most likely to make it through to the next battle. The morals tensions between Barnes and Elias are always there in Stone’s film and to his credit, they never get preachy or reduced to simple choices.

But the real strength of the film is its unvarnished depiction of the war itself. Soldiers in Stone’s Vietnam face real conditions. They are always hot and always slogging through a wet jungle. They can’t ever get dry and their feet swell with puss. The land-mine spiked ground below them makes every step an uncertain and perilous one. Mosquitoes and snakes are everywhere. And boredom, not an easy thing to weave into a film, hangs over the soldiers, as they wait for what they didn’t want, another battle.

On the guns do roar and the napalm explodes, Stone captures the ambushes and firefights brilliantly. The battles are full of chaos. Like Taylor and the men in his platoon, you never where the bullets are coming from. You never really know where the enemy is or even who is the enemy. Again, like the Vietnam war itself and an unlike a sneakily romantic film like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon features no epic battles, there are no Normadies, no Battles of the Bulges here. This refusal to inflate or glorify is the essence of Platoon’s courageous anti-war sensibility.

Avoiding these kinds of dramatic moments and pushing up against the flag-waving rhetoric of the Reaganites and the Rambos of his own day allows Stone to capture the war’s huge psychological tolls on US combatants. (In a later film, Heaven and Earth, he tried to tell the war story from the Vietnamese perspective, and in Born on Fourth of July, he looked at the long-term costs of the conflict and government and social indifference to veterans.) Vietnam, Stone makes clear, was a war of attrition and the point was to kill. As Philip Caputo, who like Stone was also an enlistee from a middle-class, Ivy League background, writes in his stirring memoir, A Rumor of War, “Our mission was not to win terrain or seize position, but simply to kill: to kill Communists and to kill as many of them as possible. Stack ‘em like cordwood. Victory was a high body-count, defeat a low body kill-ratio, war a matter of arithmetic.”

In many ways, Platoon is the cinematic twin to A Rumor of War. In the first words of his book, Caputo states, “this book does not pretend to be history.” Neither does Platoon. But this lack of pretending is what makes both of the film and the book such great history. They both capture the past as it was really lived. In the case of Vietnam on the wet, dank ground, the war is portrayed in the book and the film is relentlessly wrenching, cruel, and costly.

The more we remember wars from the honest perspective of those who them, the less maybe we will start them in the first place. That surely is the simple, yet still powerful, anti-hawk position Oliver Stone, the war veteran and anti-Reagan-ite filmmaker, gives a messy life to in Platoon.

Bryant Simon

Reconsidering ‘Talk Radio’ (1988)


Steve Leftridge examines the expose of the talk radio shock jocks reaching national celebrity in the ’80s

Oliver Stone didn’t declare himself the King of the World after winning Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for Platoon, but, after following Platoon with the success of Wall Street, Stone clearly had his choice of projects in 1988. However, before the run of ambitious and controversial films that would follow, Stone made one of his smallest-scale films with Talk Radio. In adapting Eric Bogosian’s acclaimed play, Stone and the playwright added details from Stephen Singular’s biography of Alan Berg, a Denver radio host murdered in his own driveway by a neo-Nazi group in 1984. Shot in four weeks in Dallas, almost entirely in a warehouse converted into a radio station, the film is Stone’s examination of Reagan-era American culture through the transmission of a radio talk show in the middle of a Texas night.

Every aspect of the modern American cesspool that the film takes in — neuroses, self-destruction, corporate machinations, racism, schizophrenia, violence, stupidity — is filtered through Barry Champlain, the acerbic host of Dallas radio’s top-rated show, “Night Talk”. Barry, as his theme music warns you (or promises), is bad to the bone, in more ways than one. Barry is all of the things Americans desire in their highest-paid talk-radio hosts: loud, opinionated, short-tempered, condescending, and rude.

Those who call in to talk to Barry represent a cross-section of frightening insomniacs. These folks are stock-character masochists, calling in for a fresh Barry pole-axing. Hicks, derelicts, rapists, burnouts, bigots, simpletons — they all call in and convince Barry that, as he says, “this country is rotten to the core”. The voices of the night in one American city provide Barry with enough bile to keep him going, but it’s also a relationship that seems to be eating him alive. “I’m glad people like Kent are out there, and I’m in here,” Barry claims after one particularly gruesome call, yet when Barry spits vitriol about the decay of the American scene, he looks and sounds like a man on a suicide mission to be consumed by it.

All the while, people watch Barry from behind glass. He is an animal trapped in a cage, talking, chain-smoking, and watching people watch him. Stone creates a vortex of claustrophobia, circling Barry in arc shots with the camera or, in Barry’s final epic rant, rotating the background to circle a solitary Barry. Despite these occasional flourishes, the scenes of Barry at work — the bulk of the film — capture the single-set design of the stage show, and Stone is mostly content to stay out of the way and let Bogosian work.

It’s a sizzling performance. Bogosion crawls so deep into the troubled psyche of his creation, it’s impossible to distinguish between the two, especially given the frantic pace of shooting, as Bogosian looks exhausted and demented by the end of the film. Pushing Barry further over the edge is his boss, played with drippy smarm by Alec Baldwin, who kisses the ass of the corporate radio giant, Metrowave, interested in taking Barry and “Night Talk” to the syndication big leagues. Barry, however, is just self-destructive enough to raise the shock-talk ante and scare Metrowave away, that is if he isn’t too busy verbally mutilating his ex-wife, ruining his chance at reconciliation with her. Or goading his audiences into killing him.

Amid the neon lights and perms and skinny ties in Talk Radio, what holds up is the prescient examination of the downward spiral of America’s cultural perversity, not the least of all in the ways we communicate and the fascination we have with mutual abuse. Callers are essentially begging to be insulted and vilified by Barry, and thousands of others listen in for nightly doses of public humiliation. In an age of message-board flame wars, reality-television shouting matches, and muckumentary exercises in embarrassment, Talk Radio, for its time, was not only a table-turning expose of the Howard Sterns or Don Imuses reaching national celebrity at the time, but a dizzying, complex view of a country going straight to hell and one fascinated by watching it happen.

Steve Leftridge

Reconsidering ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ (1989)


Steve Leftridge revisits Stone’s second Vietnam themed film

As the second in Oliver Stone’s trilogy of Vietnam films, Born on the Fourth of July is the story of what happens when those soldiers from Platoon come back home to communities that have, in large part, remained oblivious to the war. The film tells the story of Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise), an idealistic Texas kid who joined the Marines in order to fight the Communists, and whose life was shattered when a bullet passed through his spine, paralyzing him. Stone crafts a film that updates The Best Years of Our Lives for a new generation who, in 1989, were following the twenty-year rule and reexamining the cultural and political ramifications of the 1960s.

The story follows Kovic’s return home as a paraplegic to find a community, including his family, who are at turns proud of and ashamed of him. The veteran becomes increasingly broken, feeling victimized by the dirty trick perpetuated by a country that has grown ignorant of the truths of the war and unsympathetic to those who gave their bodies for it. “There’s no God and there’s no country,” Kovic tells his mother at the depth of his despair, and the film follows Kovic’s harrowing efforts to make sense of his life, to find companionship, and, eventually, to fight back against a country that he feels betrayed him.

Cruise’s portrayal of Kovic is itself a relevation. Although Stone had scored big with Platoon, it was Cruise’s influence that helped align financing for Born on the Fourth of July. Stone had started work on adapting Kovic’s memoir a decade before — with Al Pacino attached to play Kovic — but it took Cruise to finally get the film off the ground. Much of Cruise’s industry pull, ironically, came from his performance in 1986’s Top Gun, but that film’s hawkish jingoism was wholly at odds with the story told in Born on the Fourth of July. Then again, nothing could quite compare audiences for Cruise’s performance as both a naïve 1950s high school virgin and a boozed-out, wheelchair-bound, long-haired hippie. Cruise himself spent weeks confined to a wheelchair to prepare, and his commitment to the often unpleasant verisimilitude of his character is thorough and complete. As good as Cruise has sometimes been, he’s never matched this gutsy, riveting performance.

Born on the Fourth of the July is a film of contrasts and parallelism. The opening sequence of young boys playing war games in the woods, with Little Ronnie getting “killed” by soldiers is a preview of things to come. Likewise, Ron’s high school wrestling match, featuring Stone’s crafty top-shot, is the first in a series of devastating losses that takes increasing tolls on his psyche. And the ’50s-era Fourth of July parade in Massapequa, NY, along with slo-mo baseball triumphs and first-kiss sentimentalism — what Stone calls “good corn” — are the calm before the storm, a fantasy of twirlers, fireworks, and Yankees hats taken in by anamorphic camera shots and John Williams’ sweeping score. But amid such seemingly idealistic nostalgia, there are harbingers of reality and of Ron’s destiny — amid the marching bands and clowns are armless and paraplegic combat veterans, including a cameo by Kovic himself, flinching at the pops of firecrackers.

These idyllic pre-war images — the prom, Mickey Mantle, “Moon River”, Jesus — come back to haunt Ron later in the film when he hits rock bottom, abandoned on the side of a desolate road somewhere in Mexico, wrestling with Charlie, a fellow wheelchair-bound vet (a maniacal Willem Dafoe, a Platoon alum). Ron leans into Charlie and laments, “I had a mother. I had a father — things that made sense. Remember things that made sense? Before we all got lost?”

What has destroyed Kovic’s world — his puritanical Catholic upbringing and his virginal naivete — is the psychological fallout of the war as much as his shattered spine, and Stone’s footage of Vietnam in Born, from the innocence of Massapequa, is a dissolve into the abyss, an equally chilling but different Vietnam from Stone’s imagery in Platoon. If Platoon was set in the green hell of the jungle, Born is the dusty, yellow wasteland, a place where Ron discovers a hooch full of dead children and, in the chaos and confusion, shoots and kills one of his own men. Ron is disgusted by his own actions, intensified by the scrupulosity of his Catholic upbringing, and although he attempts a type of confession, he’s rebuffed by his superior officer and ends up paying for his crime himself. After Ron is hit, we hear the sounds of childhood commingled with the blood gurgling in Ron’s throat. It’s a contrast at the very heart of the film.

Between the moment Ron is shot and his fight with Charlie in Mexico, Born presents a devastating story of heartbreak and eventual awakening, and there isn’t a wasted shot in the film. There’s Ron, bathed in white light, dreaming that he’s standing up and running, which cuts cruelly to an image of Ron strapped upside-down staring at his own vomit in a filthy veterans hospital, a place of horrors — rats, festering ulcers, screaming, racial strife, suicides — scenes as shocking as those from the war.

Then there’s the second Independence Day parade back in Massapequa, this one full of tumult and hostility and harsh light, where Ron can feel himself lying to the crowd during his speech about the war and finds himself unable to continue, as helicopter flashbacks invade his head. All around him are people who stayed behind to make money: his high school buddy has opened a successful burger joint (a hole in the middle of the burger — that’s smart capitalism). Ron is an outcast in his home, first arguing with his peacenik younger brother (“Love it or leave it, Tommy!”), then coming home drunk and laying his wounds bare before his horrified mother. Most heartbreaking of all is his tender relationship with his father, to whom he asks, “Who’s ever going to love me, Dad?”

The scenes from Mexico are hypnotic, everything shot from low angles from Ron’s perspective, as is much of the post-war film. It’s a place where Ron looks into the eyes of Charlie, Defoe’s character, and sees a scary version of himself in a few years, as a guy who’s grown desperate enough to burn out hard and fast with liquor, drugs, and whorehouses (“If you don’t have it in the hips, you’d better have it in the lips”). Ron descends deep into this world — Stone channels Fellini in a hallucinogenic montage — yet Ron is still an adolescent at heart, bringing gifts to prostitutes who only make him realize what he’s missed in life.

The film ends with Kovic returning home, going public, confessing to the family of the boy he killed, and joining (later leading) the war protesters. In depicting the Republic National Convention of 1972, Stone creates another war scene of chaos, screaming, and gas attacks interspersed with shots of Nixon speaking, a preview of Stone’s future work (as was the clip of JFK’s speech earlier in the film). Finally, the film ends at the 1976 Democratic National Convention as Kovic prepares to address the crowd, a fulfillment of his mother’s earlier prophecy. Stone, with a sentimental ending, outs himself as a cine-romantic, finishing with the kind of “good corn” with which he opened the film. However, between those bookends, Stone has never been better at presenting the unflinching realities of a tragically representative American story.

Steve Leftridge

Reconsidering ‘Any Given Sunday’ (1999)


Thomas Britt takes a closer look at Stone’s all-star football flick.

Before the release of the 1999 football testosterone-fest Any Given Sunday, Oliver Stone had only released one or two films absent of controversy. Not only controversy, but also premature anger and protests before each film’s release. This, though, was a totally different monster. The only heated voices came from film fans accusing Stone of selling out. After all, his previous work wasn’t exactly 100 percent commercial friendly.

Any Given Sunday was. It turned out to be Stone’s highest grossing film since the Best Picture winning 1986 picture Platoon and his second highest grossing film ever. Released at the peak of the 1999 football season (December 22), the lengthy drama didn’t bring Stone back to the Oscars but did jumpstart the career of future Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx.

As third-string quarterback turned all pro “Steamin” Willie Beamen, Foxx stands toe-to-toe with Al Pacino and a drove of former real-life football stars. He moves fluidly, but carries the ball like a loaf of bread. He has a quick side step, but never appears physically threatening. Even his throwing motion looks proficient. Yet he still makes mistakes all inexperienced quarterbacks make. In short, Stone and his stars nail the essence of the game throughout Any Given Sunday.

Unfortunately, Stone’s quest to capture every facet of professional football doesn’t end with in-game accuracy. He goes after the business of football, too. Granted, that aspect of the game is a supple one, but following every cold-hearted decision made by an ever-angry Cameron Diaz as team owner Christina Pagniacci adds too many minutes to a lengthy picture. It doesn’t help that she’s the weakest character in a movie packed to the gills with them (watch for a cameo by Stone himself as a boozy color commentator).

All of these players fit into three overlapping central stories. The development of Beamen is one. The backdoor dealings of a slightly corrupt owner are two. The third is supposed to tie the other two together and almost pulls it off. Legendary head coach Tony D’Amato (Pacino) is stuck between the two worlds, and it’s his job to bring them together to form a winning team. For his a.m. schedule, he has to hear it in both ears from a furious front office frustrated with his lack of flair on the field. For his p.m. schedule, he needs to motivate a team to come together despite conflicting financial and personal incentives. He’s constantly juggling the two, but when we do get to see his free time it amounts to little real development.

Therein lies the real issue with an almost ideal film. All of these accurate inclusions pile up too quickly for Stone to properly develop the plethora of ideas stemming from each issue. Beamen’s development boils down to being a good teammate. Pagniacci’s greed is stemmed when she learns how to take a step back from the game. D’Amato is simply a coach. There’s no real flaw there. He just needs to find the right system to win, and he’ll be happy. Perhaps this is what Stone thinks of himself — he has no problem making a studio film as long as he can make it his way. I agree with the parallel to a point — Stone, unlike D’Amato needs a little less flair in his playbook.

Thomas Britt

Reconsidering ‘World Trade Center’ (2006)


Ben Travers reconsiders Stone’s 9/11 response World Trade Center.

When it first came out that Oliver Stone was going to make a movie centering on 9/11, it was met with mostly pessimistic skepticism. Less than subtle filmmaking doesn’t usually lend itself to a poignant story requiring a grand amount of grace. Stone is certainly a powerful filmmaker, but these aren’t his strong suits.

Instead of trying to make his case via the media before the film’s release, Stone did what most knowledgeable professionals do to answer the question – he let his film speak for him. World Trade Center exemplifies all of the qualities no one felt Stone could depict without conveying his own agenda. It’s straightforward with the events and its message. It doesn’t delve into any conspiracy theories or even go beyond the events of the day.

It focuses solely on two men and the events surrounding them. Nicolas Cage plays John McLouglin, a Port Authority Sergeant put in charge of a group aiding the evacuation of the first tower. Younger officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) joins up and the two find themselves pinned under the rubble after the second plane hits. I don’t mean to be blunt, but this really is the sole focus of the film.

Stone cuts back and forth between the two officers and their families waiting for the news, good or bad. It’s simple, but effective. It also makes World Trade Center Stone’s most personal film. He usually sits back and examines from afar, letting history, his own knowledge and research fill out the story. In World Trade Center, there is no history. Sure, there’s obviously a back-story in real life, but not in the film. Stone keep everything pure. The emotion of these two stories carries everyone through to the end.

Stone doesn’t muck up the core of the story with fancy camerawork or cheap (in every sense of the word) gimmicks, a la Paul Greengrass’ use of vomit-inducing shaky camera-work and no-name, inexperienced actors in United 93. Most of the movie is made up of two angles. One is set above Jimeno as he lays trapped under a large slab of concrete. The other is next to McLoughlin, pinned in a similar position. The crosscutting between the officers and their wives helps break up the conversations, but it almost isn’t necessary.

Cage and Pena work well together, and both deliver tremendous performances given their limited space to work. Cage, though, is truly magnetic. Almost his entire performance is made up of facial movements and a rock solid Jersey accent. Some may have found it limiting, but the usually flamboyant Cage excels under the limitations. Stone’s direct presentation of the disaster allow for no misinterpretations and help his actors excel. He employs great, American thespians to tell a great, American tale. It’s an important story told by professionals. Nothing more. Nothing less. Who knew he had it in him?

Ben Travers

Reconsidering ‘W.’ (2008)

W. (2008)

Ben Travers takes a look back at Stone’s wacky vision of the most hated American president in recent memory.

W., director Oliver Stone’s biography of President George W. Bush, received quite a bit of buzz leading up to its late 2008 release. After all, the shoot and post-production for Stone’s third film dealing with a U.S. president were done in a matter of months to create an air of immediacy around a film centering on a sitting (though soon departing) president.

Stone actually went on the record saying he rushed the film into an October release in the hope it would change a few minds. Whether it did or not we may never know, but judging it as a stand-alone piece raises plenty of other pertinent questions.

For one, why did Stone make the film at all? When W. was released a few weeks before election day, the president’s approval ratings were in the toilet and he was about to drift into infamy. The film’s trailer portrayed it as a silly satire with look-a-like actors cast to play up each of their characters’ most notorious flaws. It was an abrupt change of pace for a director who’s past looks at presidents (JFK in 1991 and Nixon in 1995) were as dark and dour as dramas come, but it also starkly contrasted Stone’s last film, the straight-faced melodrama World Trade Center.

W. immediately caught fire from critics who seemed especially turned off by Thandie Newton’s tight-faced portrayal of Condoleezza Rice (PopMatters own Cynthia Fuchs, however, called the performance “creepily pitch perfect” in the film’s original review). Others seemed disappointed in the film’s lack of satiric edge. With so many well-publicized travesties during his eight years in office, many felt Stone was a little soft on the much-maligned commander-in-chief. Even the left-leaning Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers said the movie “comes perilously close to being W. for Dummies.” Though it had its share of supporters, W. was as quickly dismissed as it was made.

Yet, looking back on it now, W. seems surprisingly relevant. It stands as a surprisingly entertaining historical landmark of a time everyone would assuredly rather forget. What may have appeared to be a broad overview at the time seems like a gentle reminder today. We see plenty of the Bush back story, including lots of juicy interactions with Bush Sr, but the lowlights of the presidency are present as well. The mission accomplished speech. The lack of WMDs. The near-fatal pretzel. The appearance of each brings back a dearth of memories more powerful than any precise reenactment.

The only occasion missing is 9/11. What seems like an obvious, presidency-defining moment to include was most likely left out for two reasons: Stone had just made a tribute to the events of that day in World Trade Center, and he probably found it impossible to break up the comedic tone of W. by including an event completely absent of levity. It seems glaring when pointed out post-viewing, but the film’s flashback structure keeps it moving forward without questions.

The composition also helps paint the president in a shockingly harsh light. What first appears to be empathy turns nasty by the film’s final scene. Instead of critiquing Bush Jr. in a more commercially appealing light (the anticipated SNL skit style jabs), Stone lets our own decisions sink in throughout – how could we have elected such a spoiled, confused doofus (twice)?

Ben Travers