Not so long ago, Vietnam vet-turned-filmmaker Oliver Stone could be counted upon to talk crazy and play dirty. From the late-'70s until the early-'90s Stone seemed plugged into the zeitgeist in ways that transcended box-office success and showbiz clout.
But these days, is anyone still afraid of him?
After a dazzling career as a screenwriter – he won an Oscar for Midnight Express (Alan Parker, 1978) and wrote Scarface (Brian de Palma, 1983) and others – he emerged as a major director with two fierce, angry films: Salvador (1985, though no one paid much attention to it, and it got some terrible reviews), and Platoon (1986).
In a way, Stone's bio is one of comebacks. His famous triumphs came in the wake two now-forgotten disasters – Seizure in 1974 and The Hand in 1981 – directed on the cheap by Stone when he was still a struggling writer, and living a fast life of drugs, women and torrid deal-making.
It's a critical truism to claim that Stone's hit movies, like Wall Street (1987) are quintessentially '80s. That film is a simple-minded melodrama, with an anguished message about the trap of capitalism. Still, compared to the sweet-smelling hits of that Age, Stone's movies were like stinking sores.
Consider that this was the time of Reagan, the Cold War, pastels, Flashdance and Simpson & Bruckheimer. Top Gun released the year before Platoon, was in love with war, hardware, and Tom Cruise's hairstyle. Stone worshipped soldiering but loathed its patriotic purpose, since, as he never tired of saying, he, and all troopers everywhere, were victims to that kind of cant. Later, Cruise would play Ron Kovic, a marine 'nam vet who had his spine severed in combat in Stone's Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Based on Kovic's memoir, it was so wound-up and fierce it was like watching some inconsolable soul weep for two-and-a-half hours. It was said that young men fled screenings when they discovered that the Kovic character could not use his penis. Despite this, or maybe because of it, Born was a success and it won Stone his second best director Oscar.
Today, Stone is considered a left-winger; recently he's made two docos about how US foreign policy has got it wrong in South America in South of the Border (2009); in the Middle East, with Persona Non-Grata (2003). But in truth, critics, at first, never knew what to make of him. After Midnight Express and the vigilante cop film Year of the Dragon (1985), co-scripted by its director Michael Cimino, Stone was declared a racist and a fascist.
Salvador restored liberal confidence in Stone; the movie called Reagan and his government murderers. After that Stone was 'dangerous'.
But for some time now Stone has been seen as a talent in decline; witness the general disdain that has greeted World Trade Center (2006), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), W. (2008). Savages, his new film, has provided more evidence in this prosecution. Still, it is in many ways what we have come to expect from Stone. It is full of flash. It's vulgar. The politics are crude. But I think critics have been unkind for a sound reason: the dangerous promise in its title is missing in action. Stone's personality has never been about holding back. It's been about going on the attack. Savages is timid. Even his football film, the underrated Any Given Sunday (1999) had more bite (and showed convincingly that Stone could wear a happy face).
It is possible to make too much of all this. At nearly 70 Stone is trying to find ways to remain a player in a Hollywood that is a) hostile to intellectualism of any kind, and b) remains suspicious of Art, and c) does not admire old age, and d) wastes no time in looking back. Savages, is then, in business terms, 'good sense'.
But it's worth remembering that in the years before the Savages deal, the Oliver Stone of JFK, Platoon and Nixon was still banging away. There was, for instance, Pinkville. Planned for 2007 this would have been a return to Vietnam. It was to deal with a notorious war crime, the My Lai massacre. Sets were built. Then Stone lost his star, Bruce Willis. The financing fell through and United Artists pulled out. Stone told Hollywood Reporter recently that the producers were “worried shitless” over the project because of the Iraq War.
Stone hopes to revive Pinkville, with Nicholas Cage. In a Hollywood not known for its political courage is 'an Oliver Stone film' a thing of the past? Would they accept the 'brand' without the 'product'?
I think it's important to be sane about Stone. I'm no apologist. I agree with critic David Thomson that he can be “very bad and very foolish”. I don't think Stone was ever as subtle, sophisticated or indeed as 'political' as Arthur Penn was in say, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Night Moves (1975).
The Stone of the '80s and '90s wanted to connect with a Big Audience in ways that are deeper than spectacle and more lasting than sentiment. Stone was a warrior: arrogant, assertive, knowing, wearied, a seeker in a quest to heal a deep agony in his culture and he wanted to do it in the disreputable style of the action film and B-movie.
In a current cinema where the mainstream seems engrossed in trivial subjects told in an anonymous style, Stone's kind of sensibility seems both worthy and necessary – faults and all.
To hear Stone tell it, his decline – in power and prestige – began with Alexander (2004). To be sure that epic was a dreadful mess and it gave Stone's boosters serious pause in trying to explain it. Was it drugs? Too much hubris? Or a famous over-reacher stretching too far?
The Alexander affair was bruising. But I think Stone and others exaggerate its importance. The re-think about Stone in the mass media and in Hollywood actually began a decade earlier over a film that many still believe is his best: JFK (1991). Stone's thesis, based on a raft of well-known conspiracy theories, was simple: it proposed that President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas in November, 1963 in a military style coup d'état by opponents in his own government. Brilliantly made, the film was wonderfully persuasive imaginative fiction; the most elegant, most perfectly shaped of Stone's films. After it he was branded paranoid, a nut. The New York Times and other bastions of the US press published a multitude of solemn testimonials for and against JFK. Stone and his cohorts published a book; essentially to defend the attacks. (Stone would do the same with Nixon). Few defended his 'counter-myth' to the official history of The Warren Report and those that did were mostly critics like Roger Ebert and David Ansen, the latter, one of the few who recognised that the JFK plot recycled a now forgotten B-movie called Executive Action (1973).
The JFK saga brought Stone a strange kind of infamy; JFK gags became pop culture classics and Stone became a 'holy fool'.
Stone still knows how to bait journalists. Witness his lavish claims of social responsibility and political engagement apropos Savages, which has Afghani vets of the US forces as heroes in a drug-war with Mexicans: “I don't want to be preachy,” Stone told Film Comment, “but you don't fight foreign wars and expect them to stay there. The blow back comes and not only in the form of Osama bin Laden in 2001.” Stone isn't fooling anyone. Natural Born Killers and U-Turn, like Savages, were experiments in post-modern neo-noir and perverted hard-boiled black comedy. Savages is merely pretentious.
The Old Stone, the one who sees enemies in government and is on point searching out 'cultural' lies, survives in an upcoming doco series called The Untold History of the United States. Stone's stalwart enemies, historians and academics, are already on the attack and no one has seen it yet. But I hope Stone will make it back to the multiplex soon, too.
There is too much sanity in movies these days; which is to say so little risk. In a cinema prepared to take comic book movies as 'serious' filmmaking that's something to mourn.