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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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JFK
"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 And Earth
"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
"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
"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-]

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


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