Today is ostensibly America’s birthday, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence from British rule. In the spirit of 1776, rather than take apart one of the usual movies that are run in celebration, my first choice Yankee Doodle Dandy comes to mind, I’d like to celebrate an American director with most of the attributes of the day, Oliver Stone.
For a lot of people, associating Oliver Stone with the day that most celebrates Americanism might be a stretch. This is the guy that they accused of skewering the assassination of one of the most beloved presidents, whose films doubted American involvement in foreign wars, talked to Castro, defended Russians in World War II and the director who turned some of his least sympathetic cameras on America itself. Oliver Stone is very independent and very American. Stone’s Showtime history series, which some might see as leftist apologetics, is actually a really big swing at how America still kowtowed to English whims and fancies. He was correct to point to Russian heroics. The numbers bear them out. Stone is the epitome of the independent American. He made Born on the Fourth of July, for Christ’s sake.
Oliver Stone is an undercover history professor. He’s taken a few U Turns in his career, but even those show a hidden history. Not the alternative history he’s been accused of presenting. He had a unique perspective in a larger historical event, the Vietnam War, and he writes the songs for unsung heroes. From his earliest works, Stone questioned American history. Well, not his first work, Seizure with Jonathan Frid, Troy Donahue, Hervé Villechaize and Bond Girl Martine Beswick, I bought that one for my wife, an avid Dark Shadows fan and the best you can say about it is that it starred Jonathan Frid, Troy Donahue, Hervé Villechaize and Bond Girl Martine Beswick.
Stone’s tenure as professor of alternative history culminated in a series of documentaries and finally the series Oliver Stone’s Secret History of America and its companion book. It’s a good thing he made tenure because a lot of people tried to get his ass fired over it. And he paid for a lot of it himself. Stone promised that the documentary would uncover truths behind the world wars, the Cold War, the bomb and America’s role as global cop, truths that were hidden on the front page of The New York Times. He was met with accusations that it was Cold War revisionism. Mikhail Gorbachev liked it.
Like the pre-tiger blood Charlie Sheen character in Platoon, Stone went to Vietnam to get out of finals at Yale. The first time he went as a teacher. He went back as an infantry soldier and requested combat duty. He took part in more than 25 helicopter combat assaults. He was wounded twice and decorated with a Purple Heart to match his Bronze Star, Air Medal and the Army Commendation Medal. He graduated NYU’s film school in 1971. Stone directed his short, Last Year in Vietnam, showing another alternative history, the swamps and lands of Vietnam, following a soldier who becomes increasingly claustrophobic, like a caged animal. One of his teachers was Martin Scorsese who muttered something about Taxi Driver, which Stone took to heart as he worked as a cabbie besides his other jobs in film production.
Stone had himself been briefly caged on pot smuggling charges, which were dropped. It colored his screenplay for Midnight Express, an adaptation of a best-selling true-life novel for British director Alan Parker. It got him criticism for anti-Turkish prison bias but won him an Academy Award in 1979. Stone told a rebel’s tale. An American jailed abroad where no one will do anything about it because he was smuggling drugs. Stone kicked cocaine while writing about it in his Scarface script. Scarface, a Brian de Palma vehicle for Al Pacino, was a dark take on the American dream. The inescapable excess of success, which Stone would explore again when he directed Wall Street, fucking the minds of a generation of MBAs who bought the motto “Greed is good.” Stone exorcised more racist demons in his screenplay for Year of the Dragon where Mickey Rourke definitely had a love/hate relationship with Asian people. Once again, Stone explored the underside of America through the eyes of an immigrant who is really good at crime. Even his script for Conan The Barbarian dripped with the skepticism of power and questions what is really right.
Stone doesn’t draw a straight divide between criminals and rebels. The same epithets have been tossed at Fidel Castro, who Stone interviewed for a documentary that raised the ire of less independent Americans. Stone was blamed for inciting violence when he turned Woody Harrelson into the ultimate rebel criminal in Natural Born Killers, a masterpiece of multiple styles of filmmaking that I watched five times its opening week, ripping pages of dialogue from a too-similar work of my own at the time. Fucking Tarantino, I love him. But I boycott John Grisham to this day. Mickey and Mallory also lived in an alternative United States, one that the rest of the country is catching up with now.
Stone had directed Seizure and The Hand while penning screenplays, but it was the one-two punch of Salvador and Platoon that scored the technical knockouts that made him a contender. Salvador cast James Woods in one of his best in a series of great roles, as a ruthlessly ambitious journalist tackling one of the most ruthlessly ambitious governments. The casting of Salvador is perfect, by the way, performers who have a history of giving great performances outdo themselves. John Savage is as one-minded in his search for the perfect image as Woods is in his quest for the horrible truths as James Belushi is in his search for a good time. Belushi’s character actually has the most growth as he is an outsider and it is through his eyes the audience can most appreciate it. Stone lays the blame in the Salvadoran Civil War squarely on the U.S.-supported right wing military and their clandestine death squads. Stone’s history lesson has the ring of authenticity in its liberal use of documentary styled setups. The film was nominated for two Oscars, which only encouraged him.
Platoon was a seriously personal film for Stone and for everyone who watched it, whether they had any wartime experience or not. His depiction of the My Lai Massacre was heartbreakingly brutal. It also underscored a much-overlooked point in history. On March 16, 1968, U.S. Army “Charlie” Company soldiers committed mass murder. The 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the America Division went crazy in South Vietnam. Soldiers killed between 347 and 504 unarmed women, men, children, and infants, mutilated bodies and gang-raped women. Stone brought the incident to life onscreen, searing forgotten history into motion picture consciousness. Platoon is called both the best war and anti-war film in American cinema. Stone planned on re-examining the My Lai Massacre in 2007, but his film Pinkville was cancelled by United Artists because of the Writers Guild strike.
Oliver Stone didn’t purge his Vietnam experience with Platoon. His wasn’t the only life transformed by the war. For his next lesson on mid-twentieth century battles he left the battlefield and came home broken and disenfranchised as Ron Kovic. Kovic’s life was changed after his tour as a Marine left him a paraplegic. He re-examined his heroic military life and was reborn even more heroically as a peace activist. Born on the Fourth of July made the after-battles of conflict as grueling as the brush fire. Stone has sometimes been labeled misanthropic, but when he looked at Vietnam from the vantage point of the young woman in Heaven & Earth, he saw a ravaged world scrubbed of humanity by war. Stone gets a really moving performance in his first collaboration with Tommy Lee Jones, but it is the Vietnamese women who dominate the afterimages. I’ve never seen Hiep Thi Le, who played the real-life Le Ly Hayslip, in anything else. Stone also brought Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, another tale of a Vietnamese woman in America, to the screen.
Having closed out his trilogy on the Vietnam War, Stone looked at one of its core causes. President John F. Kennedy signed an order to start pulling soldiers out of Vietnam shortly before he was killed. Vietnam was big business and the military industrial complex couldn’t afford to go without the ready cash of war. JFK was assassinated by a conspiracy of shady, shadowy, well-connected men of power. Stone took so much heat for this movie he had to give a history lesson to Congress, which led them to create the Assassination Records Review Board which passed the Assassination Materials Disclosure Act of 1992. The board finally concluded that the assassination was the act of a conspiracy not a lone nut. This didn’t stop people from calling the still-fiercely-independent Stone a lone nut himself.
After again skewering American finance in Wall Street, Stone took to the airwaves. He directed Talk Radio, Eric Bogosian’s Pulitzer-nominated play about a talk radio DJ who was killed for being Jewish, and The Doors, about the history of another independent American original. Both films showed American individualism at its most rebellious. The band led by dead rock icon Jim Morrison explored politics through sex and drugs and Tom Leykis, the character Barry Champlain was based on, never backed down. Not to commercialism, not to trends, not to racism and hatred. Micky and Mallory, the rebel anti-heroes of Natural Born Killers also never backed down. They are also still at large and very much in evidence on any reality TV show, including the cooking ones and the ones about the Amish. Give Honey Boo Boo a weapon, any weapon, and she’d stick Rodney Dangerfield too.
Stone couldn’t leave presidents alone. Sometimes criminals aren’t rebels, but the people in charge. He painted a bruised and broken lonely character defined by his failures in Nixon. Anthony Hopkins dug deep into a shallow soul to pull out a spirit that was buried in lessons and ambition. Nixon was the man who sent boys Stone’s age to kill men, women and children of all ages in a chess game against communist aggression played on a neutral board where every piece was a pawn. He painted a different picture on a similar canvass in W, which tried to bring some dignity to the overgrown frat boy king who ripped American freedom to shreds and spent international goodwill in reaction to a real national tragedy. Stone turned that tragedy personal by focusing on just two Port Authority cops who were trapped in the rubble of the Twin Towers after the 9/11 attack in World Trade Center. Stone has been accused of proselytizing, but it never gets in the way of performance. Even the smallest roles, like Madeline Kahn in Nixon, had depth and growth.
Stone didn’t make the same grades as a substitute teacher in ancient history. Critics skewered the historical epic Alexander as too long and a little too gay. Stone responded by adding an hour to the DVD release. Like the film Once Upon a Time in America, the long version is better, it benefits from the added room to breathe. U Turn was Stone doing his own take on film noir. It had some of the nastiest and most unsavory characters. Nick Nolte was screwing his own daughter and he was a man of power and influence. Like all men of influence he played with Sean Penn as if he was a plastic toy hammer he could break before he put it back in the Fisher Price tool box. Any Given Sunday was Wall Street on the football field. Stone gets something out of Jamie Foxx that he might not have known he had. He turned the comic powerhouse into a dramatic leading man who has been teething his acting chops ever since.
By picking at America’s scars, Stone opens fresh wounds and lets them breathe, callous over again and heal. This kind of dialogue between artist and power makes a country stronger. But, the more someone questions the powers that be, the more those powers change the rules of the conversation. Most history is written by the victors. The people who are conquered are demonized and forever recast as weak or ineffective at best. If we forget history, we relive it. Stone reminds us of the stories that used to make page one have been relegated to fetid footnotes. Oliver Stone is one of the most successful American directors and he stays that way consistently by declaring his independence with every film he makes.
Now get me a fucking cheeseburger with onions and peppers. And none of that government cheese either.