The Films Of Oliver Stone: A Retrospective

Features
by The Playlist Staff
July 5, 2012 11:05 AM
16 Comments
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Oliver Stone loves his country, but he is also its loudest critic. Whether tackling history head-on in films like "Platoon" or "Born On The Fourth Of July," or profiling presidents in "JFK," "W." and "Nixon," and even in seemingly genre-centered material like "Natural Born Killers" or "Any Given Sunday," Stone views America in his own unique, if sometimes contradictory ways. His track record is certainly marked by tremendous highs, definite lows and curious middles (mostly with genre excursions like "U-Turn," "Any Given Sunday" and "The Doors") but he is never one to sit still. For evidence of Stone's constantly changing priorities one can look to his last few films — "World Trade Center," "W.," "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" — and truly get a sense of a director driven both by passion and finance, and by a love for his country that is also pained by its failings.

As much to his detriment as it is to his advantage, Stone remains one of the most unique and vocal voices among working American filmmakers. While his output might be uneven, his films are hardly ever boring. Often experimenting with different lenses, film stock, techniques and camera angles, Stone continually finds new ways to shape and tell his stories. With that in mind, and with "Savages" hitting theaters this weekend, labeled by some (though not us) as a return to form, we're taking a look back at Stone's films (excluding documentaries like "South Of The Border," and those he only wrote the screenplay for, like "Scarface"), determining which ones worked, which ones didn't, and highlighting the ones we wouldn't mind seeing again.

"Salvador" (1986)

Given Oliver Stone's perpetual (and justified) indignation with American imperialism in the last century, and his general predilection for politically controversial subjects, it's no surprise that his directorial debut was about the problems in Central America and, more specifically, the violent civil war in El Salvador that raged from 1980 through 1992, complete with the meddling of the U.S. government and military. Seen through the eyes of a downtrodden, irresponsible and unreliable American journalist and photographer (James Woods), the film tracks the hack as he travels to San Salvador with his equally dubious friend (Jim Belushi) in hopes of reviving his career and glory days by capturing footage of the war. Entangled with both leftist guerrillas and the right wing military, the journo soon finds the romanticism of Robert Capa-like war photography is gone and all that's left are the ugly horrors of war. The picture also co-stars Michael Murphy, John Savage, Elpidia Carrillo, Tony Plana, Cynthia Gibb and Juan Fernandez, and while not as overt as, say, "JFK," it's not exactly subtle either. While Stone does try and paint the picture of both sides (sort of), it's clear his sympathies lie with the lefty revolutionaries struggling to overthrow their corrupt and death-squad-happy government. That really wouldn't be so bad if the dialogue wasn't a thinly veiled attempt to deliver a ham-fisted and diatribe-y monologue about U.S. hegemony or creating a second Vietnam (while all valid concerns, it's far too obvious and stilted). Still, while dated, "Salvador" remains a respectable piece of work, and is certainly entertaining enough to sit all the way through without feeling too restless. [B]

"Platoon" (1986)

The past is another country; they do things differently there — like give Oscars to Oliver Stone, and cast Charlie Sheen as a bookish innocent — which makes rewatching “Platoon” in 2012 an unintentionally poignant experience. It’s not a bad film — indeed, in terms of craft and performances, it is one of Stone’s best — but prevailing attitudes towards war have undergone such a philosophical revolution in the intervening years as to make its message, if not irrelevant, then anachronistic. Controversial at the time for its suggestion that at least some of the bad guys in Vietnam could be found in the ranks of U.S. soldiers, today it feels trite — did we really need to have the Vietnam war reduced to the fight for the soul of one privileged white boy before we could understand its horror? That Stone transposes the good vs. evil axis away from the U.S. vs. The Enemy, and onto the internal struggle of mentality and ethos between martyr Elias (Willem Dafoe) and his pot-smoking followers, and the treacherous Barnes (Tom Berenger) with his cadre of murderers and rapists, may seem like progress of sorts, but in so doing he ascribes every virtue of nobility to the former, and every cruelty to the latter, so all he has really done is switch one bogeyman for another. These simplistic dichotomies do the film no favors in our muddier moral times; to us now, the idea that the U.S. might be involved in a protracted foreign war for less-than-pure motives and for which the true cost is measured in human lives, and yes, souls, is not a revelation, it’s a daily debate. For better or worse, the world and its wars have moved on, and as much as "Platoon" is a well-made, intermittently affecting film, it has been left behind like a buried artifact, its interest now mostly archaeological. [B]

"Wall Street" (1987)

At this point, what can really be said about "Wall Street" that hasn’t already been said? The Gordon Gekko character is an American icon (for better or worse...), numerous pop-culture catchphrases have emerged and endured from the ridiculously quotable script, Michael Douglas spent the rest of his post-Wall Street career doing riffs on the same character (something he’s very good at), and Charlie Sheen became a legitimate box office presence as a result. Because Wall Street is so much a product of its time (in many of the same ways that a film like "Top Gun" was a product of its time), it’s tough to look back and criticize it for being one thing or not. It was a reflection of where we were at a particular point in time, and a foreshadowing of what was to come in the future. Stone and Stanley Weiser’s propulsive screenplay moves like a locomotive bound for the next stop with a sense of never-ceasing urgency. Sheen, as the naive newbie with his post-"Platoon" baby-face still intact, was a great match for Douglas’s icy villain; their Central Park show-down, as photographed by the incomparable Robert Richardson, reaches near epic/mythic proportions as the two of them trade verbal blows before Gekko pops his top. It’s father vs. son, mentor vs. student, man vs. man. And that’s what Stone has always excelled at — showcasing men of strong wills going up against one another until someone hits the floor. "Wall Street" shares a lot in common with De Palma’s "Scarface" (also scripted by Stone), and much like that film, has taken on a new life over the last decade in a way that Stone and his collaborators probably never thought it would. It’s one of Stone’s most influential films, and a defining work in his canon. [A-]

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16 Comments

  • easy company | July 6, 2012 10:53 PMReply

    his best film-born on the 4th
    my favorite-the doors

  • Chris138 | July 6, 2012 4:38 PMReply

    Born on the Fourth of July is far and away Oliver Stone's best movie to date, with Nixon not too far behind it. I also liked JFK, but I still don't understand how Tommy Lee Jones got an Oscar nod for his rather forgettable work in that film (at least to me it was). I thought Gary Oldman was far more memorable and deserving of his nomination that year.

    Platoon is his most overrated, and I'm glad to see it not getting as high of praises here as it does elsewhere. There are definitely some powerful moments contained within the movie, but overall the experience comes off as heavy-handed and even a bit stodgy at times. I'm well aware that subtlety has never been one of Stone's strong points, but I feel it comes off more annoyingly in Platoon than in a lot of his other work. It just hasn't aged well to me, especially compared to other Vietnam classics such as Apocalypse Now.

  • Tobias Bowman | July 6, 2012 9:00 AMReply

    Excellent retrospective. Oliver Stone has always been hit and miss for me, I lean more towards his biopics. There is a theme running through most of the films that fell down, the scripts were written by Stone on his own or with a weaker writer. Most of the great films Stone directed were co-written with stronger writers or technical advisers. E.G JFK - awesome - Zach Sklar a journalist and a professor of journalism/U-Turn - missable - John Ridley - jobbing TV writer. Savages is with Don Winslow and Shane Salerno, which points to the fact it is going to be poor.

  • JD | July 6, 2012 5:49 AMReply

    You guys got so many things wrong here that it would take longer then the director's cut of Alexander to list them (just a few: ignoring Stone's work as a screenwriter, except for one mention of Scarface; forgetting Seizure and The Hand; labeling Platoon as "irrelevant"; saying Natural Born Killers has no story; describing The Doors as being "shot and edited like a TV movie" (!??!?); however, you recognize Nixon as being Stone's unacknowledged masterpiece, and that alone justifies this entire article.

  • Matthew Dowd | July 6, 2012 1:09 AMReply

    Matthew Dowd says: Oliver Stone is CIA.
    https://twitter.com/matthewdowd

  • AS | July 5, 2012 1:57 PMReply

    Talk Radio has always been my favorite of his. I also love Natural Born Killers, JFK, U Turn and 2/3 of Nixon.

  • Ken | July 5, 2012 1:46 PMReply

    In my view, Platoon, Wall Street, and JFK are undeniable classics. Natural Born Killers is Stone at his most psychotic and (in my opinion) enjoyable. Born on the Fourth of July is great too. The rest of his filmography is spotty, but he was like Rob Reiner and Barry Levinson. Filmmakers who could do no wrong in the '80s and early '90s and then fell off.

  • tristan eldritch | July 5, 2012 12:58 PMReply

    "What could have been an interesting and in-depth look at a tortured musician battling America's prudish and naive idealism...."

    I'm a huge Morrison fan, and Stone's film remains a guilty pleasure for me since I was a kid. The fact is, Morrison simply wasn't a "tortured musician battling America's prudish and naive idealism"; he was a narcissistic, booze and drugs-drenched ROCK STAR, and Stone's film is somewhat closer to the reality for not trying to make him into some kind of Lenny Bruce.

  • Phil Esteen | July 11, 2012 3:38 PM

    Tristan,

    To be a 'huge Morrison fan,' your view of the movie seems a little dismissive and simplistic, but this isn't personal because I believe most Stone movies are panned by reductionists who are uncomfortable with Stone's tenacious and uncompromising grip on a subject. Oliver Stone does not use a soft and delicate stroke like Rembrandt, he's more like LeRoy Neiman.

    Nonetheless, reducing Morrison to a drug-addled rock star doesn't seem fair at all. I'm not a big Morrison fan, but the guy was an obvious poet who was both sickened by the excesses of the rock star lifestyle and enamored of the whole Dionysian legend. Morrisson was proud of his poetry, not so much of his shenanigans. This conflict captured Stone's imagination for Jim Morrison and it is one of the details about his life that he wanted to translated to the screen.

    I adored the movie, but I certainly understand a certain wariness about Stone's approach.

  • Marrrk | July 5, 2012 3:37 PM

    I've always found the best part of The Doors to be the way the band's music is used and interwoven throughout the film. Completely seamless, and always the right choice made between original album cuts or live cuts, Kilmer or Morrison, etc. Plus, many call-outs to instances in the band's music history only a serious fan would recognize. Many a music bio-pic director should take note.

  • daniel | July 5, 2012 1:43 PM

    I agree. Still hate that movie though.

  • brian cardio | July 5, 2012 12:57 PMReply

    Seizure was Stone's debut.

  • rotch | July 5, 2012 11:27 AMReply

    No mention of The Hand? One of my favorite bad horror movies ever, and Michael Caine is pretty solid in it. Also: pretty much agree with all the grades on this list.

  • 1% rule | July 5, 2012 11:15 AMReply

    American imperialism? Fuck off Playlist. Was there no way to add this 1% or 99% bullshit in this? Stone, like you fucks, is just an out-of-touch lib.

  • James | July 5, 2012 5:41 PM

    Ouch! Sensitive on this topic, are you? The lady doth protest too much, methinks... It's not possible to intelligently discuss Stone's films without bringing this topic up.

  • AS | July 5, 2012 1:56 PM

    Right, cause you don't sound out-of-touch at all...

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