The Films Of Oliver Stone: A Retrospective

Features
by The Playlist Staff
July 5, 2012 11:05 AM
16 Comments
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"JFK" (1991)

Probably Stone's most intricate picture, and possibly even his best, "JFK" takes up the cause of controversial Louisiana district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), who prosecuted local businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) for involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. Historically speaking, the evidence is thin, but as a piece of propaganda, Stone's film is second to none; by the time you walk out, you're convinced that Kennedy was the victim of a terrible conspiracy, and the director expertly lines up the inconsistencies of the official story (if there's anything more powerful and persuasive in political cinema than the "back and to the left" scene, we've yet to see it). While your head knows that it's less than convincing, your heart goes with Stone, and that's a testament to the quality of filmmaking on display. The helmer makes a talky, three-hour-plus story fly by with bravura direction; the fill-in-the-blanks sequence with Donald Sutherland alone is a masterclass of editing. But it would be a mistake to undervalue the performances he draws from his cast: Costner has rarely been better, or more likable, while the mammoth supporting cast, from a near-unrecognizable Jack Lemmon to a scenery-chewing Tommy Lee Jones, is uniformly excellent. [A]

"Heaven & Earth" (1993)
17 years ago, Oliver Stone completed his Vietnam trilogy with "Heaven and Earth," a searingly melodramatic look at the Vietnam war through the eyes of an innocent Vietnamese woman. Stone, not known for showcasing strong, central female characters in his movies, went for something different in "Heaven and Earth"; it’s a work that feels distinctly feminine while still retaining the Stone edginess that he’s become famous for. Overall, it may be the weakest of his three Vietnam films, but it’s not without its merits. Unfairly dismissed by most critics upon its initial release (Roger Ebert was one of its few notable champions) and ignored by audiences (the film grossed less than $10 million domestic on a $35 million budget), "Heaven and Earth" tells the true story of Le Ly (the excellent Hiep Thi Li), a Vietnamese woman whose life was destroyed by the Vietnam war. Separated from her family after numerous village raids and assaults, she meets a seemingly nice and caring U.S. soldier played by Tommy Lee Jones, in one of his customarily intense performances. Her marries her and takes her home only to be confronted by repressed battlefield demons, which help destroy his life with Ly. As mentioned earlier, Stone has never been a “woman’s director,” which may be why "Heaven and Earth" lacks the focus that his other works have. Far from a bad film, it’s simply uneven, but as always, it’s ambitious and great in many sequences and respects. Robert Richardson’s stunning cinematography joined forces with Victor Kempster’s outstanding production design to create a film that feels genuinely epic in scope, while Stone’s script is more intimate than his usual work. It’s a solid effort that seems to have been lost in the shuffle. [B-]

"Natural Born Killers" (1994)

The director's 1994 serial-killer film was the filmmaker at his most kaleidoscopically strange; a savage, of-the-moment take-down of the media and its fascination with true-life killers (contextualizing it amidst O.J. Simpson, the Menendez Brothers, and those serial killer trading cards doesn’t make the movie any less bonkers), it should have been a revelatory experience, especially when you factor in its A-list cast (including Robert Downey Jr., who for some reason has an Australian accent) and its bold visual experimentation. But as it turned out, Stone was so hyped up on the movie (and the moment’s) over-sized much-ness, that he forgot to, you know, tell a story. The movie was very loosely based on a script by Quentin Tarantino, and starred Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as a pair of star-crossed spree killers, and that’s pretty much all you’ll get out of the plot. Instead, we’re forced to endure painful, sitcom-y flashbacks with Rodney Dangerfield as Lewis’ pedophile father, and such lush visual embellishments as rear projections in which a Pegasus flies by their vintage American convertible. What any of this means, exactly, seems beside the point: this was Stone going for a mood more than a movie, the fever-dream of the current American climate, which, in the end, lacks any real punch. The best thing that came out of the movie was the fascinating nonfiction book “Killer Instinct” by producer Jane Hamsher. [C-]

"Nixon" (1995)
Stone’s truly underrated masterpiece. It could easily have been a more sanctimonious take-down of the infamous president, but Stone, with a crack team of collaborators (many of them from “JFK” - composer John Williams, cinematographer Robert Richardson) created a richly dense and layered portrait of a weak-willed man with more than a few co-conspirators that were just as ruthless and cutthroat as he was, if not more so. Since the movie lost money and only received a smattering of critical acclaim, most will only remember Anthony Hopkins’ hypnotic performance as Nixon: sweaty, concerned, able to erupt into furious rages, and always listening to his wife Pat (Joan Allen), who comes off as more than a little Lady Macbeth. But what’s interesting to note is that, on such a huge film, Stone really pushed the envelope in terms of experimental editorial work; in what other major studio biopic would you see a scene, in which a floral bigwig meets with Nixon, while time lapse footage of a flower blossoming is super-imposed over the shots? “Nixon” combined the trippy go-for-broke-ness of “Natural Born Killers” with a much more coherent script, one of the most impressive all-star casts ever assembled and, mercifully, a dogged determination to actually tell the story; the story of Nixon. [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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