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The Films Of Oliver Stone: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 5, 2012 at 11:05AM

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.
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The Films Of Oliver Stone
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
"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
"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
"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-]

This article is related to: Oliver Stone, Features, The Essentials, Savages


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