The Films Of Oliver Stone: A Retrospective

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by The Playlist Staff
July 5, 2012 11:05 AM
16 Comments
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"Talk Radio" (1988)

Oliver Stone found a compatriot in Eric Bogosian, whose play and performance supplies much of the grunt work in this tightly wound drama. Essentially a one-man show, Bogosian is aces as Barry Champlain, a shock jock whose passion for spitting vitriol at anyone unfortunate enough to cross his airwaves is matched only by his own self-aggrandized caustic personality. Stone follows Champlain through a sweltering, nerve-wracking day, whirring his camera around the sound booth like a madman but maintaining a firm grip on Bogosian’s exacting performance (despite an over-reliance on sarcasm that typically goes hand in hand with the nervy Jewish film stereotype), while Leslie Hope, Alec Baldwin and Stone regular John C. McGinley all do solid work behind the scenes. "Talk Radio" must have been a passion project for Stone, and it shows — this is personal work for both author and filmmaker, but Stone renders it just conventional enough to stay on the rails, speeding to a surprising and saddening conclusion. Like Barry Champlain, Oliver Stone likes to go all out, but his direction here thankfully shows noticeable restraint. [B+]

"Born on the Fourth of July" (1989)

We cannot pretend to know Oliver Stone the man, but if his films are any indication, Vietnam is a festering wound constantly aching at the soul of the director. With "Born on the Fourth of July," Stone finds an outlet altogether different from the ideological jungle hell of "Platoon" or the straight-laced drama of "Heaven & Earth." The story of Ron Kovic, based on his memoir (an honest and heart-breaking read, seek it out), it stars Tom Cruise as the paralyzed Vietnam vet, struggling to come to terms with a life-changing condition and a country that labels him a hero almost out of desperation. Cruise goes for the (pardon the pun) gold, delving heart and soul into Kovic. Spending most of the film in a wheelchair, Cruise is believable and relatable as a young man unwilling to rehabilitate and assume the role everyone wants him to play. Kovic’s attempts to come to turns with his sacrifice and a costly mistake he made on the front are engrossing, and the supporting cast is as good as they come, with Willem Dafoe again making his mark as another wheelchair-bound veteran who whisks Kovic away to a temporary paradise. Stone’s stylistic choices are right on the money here, whether he’s using color temperature to separate flashbacks from the main story or a brief display of slow motion to capture the incident that permanently upends Kovic’s existence. "Born on the Fourth of July" is an outpouring of emotion, and a well-earned one at that. [A-]

"The Doors" (1991)

Oliver Stone's semi-factual look at the life and times of Jim Morrison and his acid-rock band, The Doors, infuses the standard tripped-out and conspiracy-laden Stone rhetoric. Who was Jim Morrison, and why did he fall apart? These seem to be the basic questions posed by Stone, but in the end the viewer is left wondering why they cared in the first place. With mere glimpses of twisted, half-baked memories from Jim's early years, it's hard to understand the evolution of this man, whom Stone seems hellbent on approving of and having us fall in love with. Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll were key notes of the 1960s, but what Stone left out of this film is any of the soul or art that usually coincided with them. It's shot and edited like a TV movie, or worse, a film school project, and there are too many throwaway characters to give the film any real biographical merit. On the positive side, Val Kilmer is sensational as Jim, psychotically engulfing himself in his role, and he made it difficult for many to think of Jim Morrison without conjuring up his portrayal. What could have been an interesting and in-depth look at a tortured musician battling America's prudish and naive idealism, became two hours of whining rock star shaky footage. Stone adores deconstructing and critiquing social norms, and has had great success with it previously, but this picture completely missed the mark. The rise and fall of one of the most noted bands of the 1960s is not captured in "The Doors," and Stone missed many opportunities to make this more than just a drug addled, sad sack story of indulgence and narcissism. It's watchable, if only for the soundtrack, an underutilized Kyle MacLachlan as Ray Manzarek, and Kilmer. [C-]

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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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