It was 20 years ago that Oliver Stone fired "Platoon" straight at the heart of American myths about the war in Vietnam, and scored a direct hit. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1986, Stone won for directing, and a spectacular directorial career was launched. Previously, Stone had written the screenplays for the Alan Parker-directed "Midnight Express" (for which Stone won his first Oscar) and "Scarface," directed by Brian De Palma. He'd directed a horror film called "The Hand" in 1981, but with the one-two punch of "Salvador" and "Platoon" in 1986, Stone scored a big impression.
No one has followed Stone's career with more interest than Roger Ebert, who in his review of "Natural Born Killers" wrote: "He'll do anything to get his effect, and that's one of the things I value about him." Ebert's review of "Born on the Fourth of July" seems particularly prescient, and relevant, today. Seeing the film as Stone's "apology" for the Vietnam War, Ebert wrote: "We do apologize for our mistakes in this country, but we let our artists do it instead of our politicians."
On the occasion of the release of Stone's "World Trade Center," here's Roger Ebert on the career of Oliver Stone:
"Salvador" is long and disjointed and tries to tell too many stories. A scene where Woods debates policy with the U.S. officials sounds tacked on, as if the director and co-writer, Oliver Stone, was afraid of not making his point. But the heart of the movie is fascinating. And the heart consists of Woods and Belushi, two losers set adrift in a world they never made, trying to play games by everybody else's rules.
After seeing "Platoon," I fell to wondering why Stone was able to make such an effective movie without falling into the trap Truffaut spoke about -- how he made the movie riveting without making it exhilarating. Here's how I think he did it. He abandoned the choreography that is standard in almost all war movies. He abandoned any attempt to make it clear where the various forces were in relation to each other, so that we never know where "our" side stands and where "they" are.
Instead of battle scenes in which lines are clearly drawn, his combat scenes involve 360 degrees: Any shot might be aimed at friend or enemy, and in the desperate rush of combat, many of his soldiers never have a clear idea of exactly who they are shooting at, or why.
Traditional movies impose a sense of order upon combat. Identifying with the soldiers, we feel that if we duck behind this tree or jump into this ditch, we will be safe from the fire that is coming from over there. In "Platoon," there is the constant fear that any movement offers a 50-50 chance between a safe place or an exposed one. Stone sets up his shots to deny us the feeling that combat makes sense.
"Wall Street" (1987)
Although Gekko's law-breaking would of course be opposed by most people on Wall Street, his larger value system would be applauded. The trick is to make his kind of money without breaking the law. Financiers who can do that, such as Donald Trump, are mentioned as possible presidential candidates, and in his autobiography Trump states, quite simply, that money no longer interests him very much. He is more motivated by the challenge of a deal and by the desire to win. His frankness is refreshing, but the key to reading that statement is to see that it considers only money, on the one hand, and winning, on the other. No mention is made about creating goods and services, to manufacturing things, to investing in a physical plant, to contributing to the infrastructure.
What's intriguing about "Wall Street" -- what may cause the most discussion in the weeks to come -- is that the movie's real target isn't Wall Street criminals who break the law. Stone's target is the value system that places profits and wealth and the Deal above any other consideration. His film is an attack on an atmosphere of financial competitiveness so ferocious that ethics are simply irrelevant, and the laws are sort of like the referee in pro wrestling -- part of the show.
"Talk Radio" (1988)
"Talk Radio" is directed by Stone with a claustrophobic intensity. The camera rarely leaves the radio studio -- and then it's only for brief flashbacks into the hero's troubled personal life, or for a personal appearance he makes at a basketball game, where some of the fans seem to have crawled out from under their rocks for the purpose of acting weirdly toward him. Most of the movie takes place during the long nights of the radio program. The movie's beginnings as a stage play are evident when several key characters -- including Champlain's former wife -- turn up on the scene to bare their hearts to him.
"Born on the Fourth of July" (1989)
For weeks now, we've been reading in the papers about public apologies by governments of the Eastern bloc. The Russians admit they were wrong to invade Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia. The East Germans tear down the Berlin Wall and denounce the secret luxuries of their leaders. The Poles and Hungarians say Marxism doesn't work very well.
There is a temptation for an American, reading these articles, to feel smug. And yet -- hold on a minute, here. We had our own disastrous foreign policy mistake, the war in Vietnam. When is President Bush going to get up before Congress and read an apology to the Vietnamese? Never, is the obvious answer. We hail the Soviet bloc for its honesty but see no lessons for ourselves. And yet we have been issuing our own apologies, of a sort. A film like Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July" is an apology for Vietnam, uttered by Stone, who fought there, and Ron Kovic, who was paralyzed from the chest down in Vietnam.
Both of them were gung-ho patriots who were eager to answer their country's call to arms. When they came back home, they were still patriots, hurt and offended by the hostility they experienced from the anti-war movement.
Eventually, both men turned against the war, Kovic most dramatically. He and his wheelchair were thrown out of the 1972 Republican convention, but in 1976 he addressed the Democratic convention. And if you wanted to, you could say his 1976 speech was the equivalent of one of those recent breast-beatings in the Supreme Soviet. We do apologize for our mistakes in this country, but we let our artists do it instead of our politicians.
Stone's film is hypnotically watchable. Leaving aside all of its drama and emotion, it is a masterpiece of film assembly. The writing, the editing, the music, the photography, are all used here in a film of enormous complexity, to weave a persuasive tapestry out of an overwhelming mountain of evidence and testimony. Film students will examine this film in wonder in the years to come, astonished at how much information it contains, how many characters, how many interlocking flashbacks, what skillful interweaving of documentary and fictional footage. The film hurtles for 188 minutes through a sea of information and conjecture, and never falters and never confuses us.
That is not to say that we are quite sure, when it is over and we try to reconstruct the experience in our minds, exactly what Stone's conclusions are. "JFK" does not unmask the secrets of the Kennedy assassination. Instead, it uses the Garrison character as a seeker for truth who finds that the murder could not have happened according to the official version. Could not.
"The Doors" (1991)
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the problem with American lives is that they have no second act. The problem with Jim Morrison's life was that it had no first and third. His childhood was lost in a mist of denial -- he never quite forgave his father for being an admiral -- and his maturity was interrupted by an early death, caused by his relentless campaign against his own mind and body. What he left behind was a protracted adolescence, during which he recorded some great rock 'n' roll.
If we can trust Oliver Stone's new biographical film, "The Doors," life for Jim Morrison was like being trapped for months at a time in the party from hell. He wanders out of the sun's glare, a curly haired Southern California beach boy with a cute pout and a notebook full of poetry. He picks up a beer, he smokes a joint, and then life goes on fast-forward as he gobbles up drugs and booze with both hands, while betraying his friends and making life miserable for anyone who loves him. By the age of 27 he is dead. Watching the movie is like being stuck in a bar with an obnoxious drunk, when you're not drinking.
"Heaven and Earth" (1993)
Oliver Stone has made films about Vietnam from the point of view of a combat infantryman and a disabled veteran, and now in "Heaven and Earth" he completes his trilogy by viewing the war through the eyes of a Vietnamese woman. The story is factual, as were Stone's "Platoon" (1986), inspired by his own combat in Vietnam, and "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989), based on the autobiography of Ron Kovic.
"Heaven and Earth" is based on two books by Le Ly Hayslip, who is now a successful Vietnamese-American businesswoman in California.
Stone is not known for his films about women. From "Salvador" through "Talk Radio," "Wall Street," "The Doors" and "JFK," he has made films about men to whom women were a pleasant but not central element of life. This is the first time he has tried to place himself inside a woman's imagination, and that he succeeds so well is due partly, I think, to an extraordinary performance by Hiep Thi Le in the leading role.
"Natural Born Killers" (1994)
Stone has never been a director known for understatement or subtlety. He'll do anything to get his effect, and that's one of the things I value about him. He understands that celebrity killers have achieved such a bizarre status in America that it's almost impossible to satirize the situation -- to get beyond real life. But he goes for broke, in scenes of carnage like a prison riot, which is telecast live while the "host" gets caught up in the bloodlust.
Oliver Stone's "Nixon" gives us a brooding, brilliant, tortured man, sinking into the gloom of a White House under siege, haunted by the ghosts of his past. Thoughts of Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear come to mind; here, again, is a ruler destroyed by his fatal flaws.
There's something almost majestic about the process: As Nixon goes down in this film, there is no gloating, but a watery sigh, as of a great ship sinking.
The movie does not apologize for Nixon, and holds him accountable for the disgrace he brought to the presidency. But it is not without compassion for this devious and complex man, and I felt a certain empathy: There, but for the grace of God, go we. I rather expected Stone, the maker of "JFK" and "Natural Born Killers," to adopt a scorched-earth policy toward Nixon, but instead he blames not only Nixon's own character flaws but also the Imperial Presidency itself, the system that, once set in motion, behaves with a mindlessness of its own.
Only Oliver Stone knows what he was trying to accomplish by making "U-Turn," and it is a secret he doesn't share with the audience. This is a repetitive, pointless exercise in genre filmmaking -- the kind of movie where you distract yourself by making a list of the sources.
When the mighty fall, it is from a greater height. So it was with Alexander the Great, and so it is with Oliver Stone's "Alexander." Here is an ambitious and sincere film that fails to find a focus for its elusive subject. Stone is fascinated by two aspects of Alexander: his pan-nationalism and his pan-sexualism....
It's clear enough that Alexander loves Hephaistion and has married Roxane as a political gesture. In that case it is a miscalculation by Stone to make Hephaistion into a pouting sideline figure who specializes in significant glances the significance of which the movie does not explore, while making Roxane into such an exciting hellion that we're disappointed Alexander doesn't let us spend more time with her, even if he doesn't want to. Dawson's Roxane is truly sexy, but Leto's Hephaistion is not allowed to be seen as a male beauty; he looks like a drag queen, with more eyeliner than Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. If Stone is not willing to make Hephaistion at least potentially as erotic a character as Roxane, he is not really engaging the logic of the story.
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