His new film Savages, I must admit excites me a little. It’s been quite some time since Oliver Stone, two-time Academy Award winning Best Director has made a picture that really stunned audiences, the stirred things up and got people talking. At the height of his career, the years spanning 1986-1995 Stone could be counted on to anger conservatives, to challenge beliefs held sacred, and to purely piss people off. He has been called gifted, maddening, infuriating, annoying, hard-hitting, and much more, and his films get under people’s skin, get people talking, debating the events within. You walked out of Stone film talking about not just the film, but the ideas within the film. Man, after seeing JFK (1991) the first time, I remember going to the bar with other critics to discuss what we had just seen, and that rarely happens. The day it opened I took my wife and some friends to see it because I felt they should see it, and again we hit a place afterwards to discuss the film and the ideas within the movie. It was interesting that we all the same film, but so many of us took different aspects away with us. One thing was always clear, no one believed Oswald was the lone shooter, if a shooter at all.
Stone is not subtle. He bangs you over the head with his message to the point you might want to hit back. Many a time he’s been called out for shouting too loud from his soapbox, but again he got people talking. His career waned after the release of U Turn (1997) with Sean Penn, stepping in one week before shooting started, and the collapse of his film version of Evita (1996) which was said to take the wind out of Stone. He had cast Meryl Streep and then Michelle Pfeiffer in the film only to see it fall into the hands of Alan Parker, and eventually the film was made with Madonna. Since 1997 his films have been an interesting series of failures at the box office, though some of them deserved an audience. Certainly World Trade Center (2006) was an excellent film, made with restraint and genuine emotion, including fine performances from Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena as well as a stirring story of heroism and being there for one in need. His vicious satire W. (2008) which explored the life of President George W. Bush was an acid soaked imagining of the life of the unpopular President while the man was sitting in office. One cannot accuse Stone of being afraid of anything, he just goes for it.
That said he has been accused of playing fast and loose with facts in his work, and been called out on it. After attacks on him for JFK (1991) he made Nixon (1995) and for the published version of the screenplay he made sure it was an annotated version, with sources and references out down for anyone wanting to question the director and his film.
I confess to being a huge fan of Natural Born Killer (1994) thinking he got the vicious, and it is vicious satirical tone for the film just right, and the performances of the cast, Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones and Rodney Dangerfield remain superbly frightening, each in their own way. As a Canadian, I remember all too well when Paul Bernardo and his wife Karla Homolka, became media stars for kidnapping, torturing and killing two young girls, though they should have also been charged with the death of Homolka’s younger sister Tammy. It was pathetic to see the newspapers play to their narcissism. And his ill-fated Alexander (2004) does have some extraordinary moments, the best being Colin Farrell, all but swooning, eyes closed as he marches into a city he has conquered to the cheers of the people. There is just as much to dislike about the huge mess of a film it was, and sadly there is much that is unwatchable in it.
After a strong career as a writer, winning an Oscar for Screenplay Adaptation in 1978 for Midnight Express (1978) for which he was attacked for his portrayal of the Turks, he would write Scarface (1983) for Brain De Palma and Year of the Dragon (1985) for Michael Cimino which led to attacks on the portrayal of Asians. The first film he directed, The Hand (1983) was terrible, but he finally got a second chance and got it right, and for the most part kept getting it right. Though there have been failures along the way, the most obvious being Alexander (2004) and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), the latter being more of a too late case, no one remembered Gekko, Stone remains a respected director who very likely has one or two more great ones in him. Here’s hoping.
1. JFK (1991)…One of the most controversial films of the decade, the film raises many questions about the assassination of President John Kennedy, chiefly, who shot him or who had him shot? In my opinion there are more disturbing truths in this film than we all really want to know. Using evidence gathered New Orleans DA Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) Stone puts together several theories for the audience, allowing each to unfold in great detail so that we see that various organizations wanted Kennedy dead, or would profit from his death, including the United States government. “Who killed Caeasar” he asks, the answer of course being, “his senators.” There is one mesmerizing sequence with Donald Sutherland as a character known only as X in which he very carefully explains to Garrison why the government would want Kennedy dead, and who stood to profit from it. He then carefully goes through several facts that actually exist surrounding that fateful day in Dallas, and you leave shaking your head, how is this all possible?? How do they really think this man did this on his own?? Why would the United States let back in a man who defected to Russia at the height of the Cold War, unless they had a use for him? It all makes very good sense, but the greatest evidence against Lee Harvey Oswald being the only shooter remains the Zapruder film, which blown up on the big screen is rather telling. We see Kennedy’s head snap back, much it coming off in his wife’s lap, over and over, and yet Oswald was at that point behind the President. There are other theories as well, including the Cubans, the mob, but the one that makes the most sense is his own government. When you start hearing the many coincidences which happened in and around the days of and after the killing, it will blow your mind. An array of fine performances best of all being Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw, a dark homosexual businessman with an agenda against Kennedy, and Joe Pesci as the paranoid David Ferry who knows too much and is terrified of what he knows. Gary Oldman portrays Oswald for what he was, a patsy and enigma whom we never got the chance to hear tell his side, which is all too perfect. And Costner, never really given his due as an actor, carries the film on his shoulders with an honest performance in which he captures the obsession of a man who knows something is very wrong, and is trying to find it. Using different stocks of film and video gives the film a sense of urgency and the editing is whiplash and fast, moving from point to point without ever losing the audience as loads of information is conveyed. I do hope I am still living when the official findings of the Warren Commission are opened for the public, I really do. Thrilling filmmaking.
2. NIXON (1995)…As a soldier in Viet Nam, Stone must have hated Nixon for escalating the war, so when I heard he was making a film about the disgraced President’s life, I was worried. Oh boy, here it comes! Instead he made a sensitive and very fair study of Nixon, who never quite believed he deserved to be President, who never felt loved by the American people, and though he lied to them, though he committed criminal acts he was a great President. History bore that out with each President to follow him seeking his advice on matters of foreign affairs until his death!! Nixon left office in 1974 disgraced by the Watergate scandal, and yet over the next twenty years became thought of as a great elder statesman. While in office he opened China and Russia, ended Viet Nam and lied to the nation, eventually resigning the office after a landslide re-election that must have told him the people trusted him? Standing in front of Kennedy’s White House portrait, he says aloud, “when they see you they see what they want to be , when they see me, they see what they are” as though he was ordinary and not the shining God Kennedy was. You do not rise to the Presidency being ordinary. Portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in the film, the actor neither looks nor sounds like Nixon, but within fifteen minutes you will swear you are watching Nixon on-screen. He does what all great actors should do when portraying a real life character, he captures the soul of the person he is playing, in this case, a fractured wounded man. In everything I have read about Nixon, including his many books and biographies written about him, he was an outsider looking in, always trying to belong. There is a sequence in the film based on a real life though little known happening, which drove the Secret Service mad, Nixon ventured out in the wee hours of the morning, before dawn, with his faithful servant Manalo to the Lincoln memorial where he confronted a group of students protesting the Kent State shootings. It is in this scene we see him at his most vulnerable, his most human. Hopkins is brilliant, along with Joan Allen as Patricia Nixon, Paul Sorvino as Kissinger, and a chilling Ed Harris as Howard Hunt.
3. PLATOON (1986)…His first great film wiped out the comic book mentality that had swept America and movies when dealing with Viet Nam. Remember Rambo: Fist Blood Part II (1985), Missing in Action (1984), Uncommon Valor (1983) in which Americans go back to Viet Nam and win the damned war? Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) actually asks his commander, “Do we get to win this time?” OK, dumbass. Platoon (1986) is made from the grunt soldier’s point of view, the new guy, portrayed by Charlie Sheen, obviously playing Stone, arrives and is expendable because he is the new guy. There is a moment at the beginning of the film that has always haunted me. Taylor (Sheen) has just gotten off the plane and sees a group of vets going home and locks eyes with one who stares back, This man’s eyes betray the hell he has seen, the nightmares behind the eyes, the soul that has slipped out, and Taylor knows at that moment what he’s in for. He hacks through the jungle not realizing it could be booby-trapped, he struggles to stay awake with enemy soldiers approaching silently, and he watches as the war erodes the minds of the men around him, leading to in fighting that tears the platoon apart. Tom Berenger does the best work of his career as scarred Barnes, a warrior who shoots first, at odds with Elias (Willem Dafoe) an outstanding soldier, but one willing to feel compassion for the people they are fighting for. Grim and realistic, it might be the most authentic movie made about the war, though I am not sure it is the most powerful, for that look to Apocalypse Now (1979). I watched it last night and was surprised that it maintains its power, and though might be a tad preachy sometimes, Stone’s passion is on every frame and in the performances of the entire cast.
4. NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)…An alarming, cautionary tale about how the media elevates criminals to stars with their coverage and adoration. Told in a frenetic style, with fast cuts, lightning fast sometimes, utilizing different film stocks, black and white, and animation the film hurdles along at frightening speed telling the story of Mickey and Mallory Knox (Harrison and Lewis) two fugitives with blood on their hands who kill for sport it seems. Filled with wild set pieces, the most outlandish, and yet brilliant being Mallory seeing her life as a TV sitcom complete with abusive father portrayed with gusto and perversity by Rodney Dangerfield, doing the finest work of his career. Another is the breakout of the maximum security prison where a riot ensues and the two lovers, re-united take TV host Robert Downey Jr. with them as a hostage though he thinks they have n=bonded in some crazy way. The end is startling with the happy family cruising along in a motor home to the strains of Leonard Cohen. Creepy, terrifying and timely, the film hit nerves because it was so accurate in what it was saying. FRom the moment it became clear the public was fascinated, though rightfully repelled by killer such as Manson and Son of Sam, the media has inadvertently made them stars!! Has Lewis, as a dangerous little harpy, ever been better than she is in this film?? Nope. And it was the first indication that Harrelson was the real deal. What does the elevation of such monsters really say about our society? I remember being in stunned at the news of Bernardo/ Homolka and wondering how much Karla likes reading her headlines? All I could think of was the poor families of the victims and what they had to hear, read and see, my God.
5. BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989)…In his second major work on the war in Viet Nam, Stone sought out veteran Ron Kovic to bring his book Born on the Fourth of July (1989) to the screen. This was not the first time the two men had attempted to do so, as they were once set t go with Al Pacino, but everyone got cold feet after seeing Jon Voight’s performance in Coming Home (1978). Universal, ten years later and after the success of Platoon (1986), had no issue giving Stone the funds to make the film providing he cast one of three actors, Nicolas Cage, Sean Penn or Tom Cruise. He went with Cruise because he believed in him, saw that Cruise was hungry for such a role, and tough he could use the Top Gun kid image within the film and turn it all around. Cruise threw himself into the part and was rewarded with his first Academy Award nomination. Aging from 17 through to mid-forties, he was superb, rabidly attached to the role and was effective most in the film’s final third. Brilliantly he captured what it was to be haunted by events in a war, by events he had no control over. There are some fine supporting performances from Willem Dafoe and Kyra Sedgewick, but this is Cruise’s movie and Stone won his second Oscar for Best Director just three years after his first. He then sat stunned when the film lost Best Picture to Driving Miss Daisy (1989). Caroline Kava is the one weak link, wildly over the top a Kovic’s religious mom; she is so shrill and wide-eyed you might take her for a zealot.
6. SALVADOR (1986)…Shot for a couple of million dollars with no frills, when the pay cheques started bouncing the actors kept working because they believed in their director. Stone’s fierce style, in your face, on the ground and gutsy served the story of Richard Boyle (James Woods) very well, and Woods responded with the performance of several lifetimes and surprise Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Broke, owing money, out of drugs and options the photo journalist heads to El Salvador hoping to score some hot photos for Time or Newsweek, often putting his life in peril doing so. There he will see a dark side to humanity that somehow allows him to find his own and think about others than himself for once. Woods is terrific in the film, you can see the transition happening to him, you can see the decency struggling to escape. Watch his eyes, they capture for us what his camera does. John Savage is brilliant in a small role as a famous shooter who takes dangerous risks for his shots ultimately paying the price for it. Gritty and raw, the film made it clear Stone could direct and do so with great power. James Woods has never been better.
7. WORLD TRADE CENTER…I don’t care, let the howls begin, I like this film, and I really like the performances of Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena. In fact, I toyed with the idea of placing it higher on the list. A conspiracy theorist, Stone leaves all of that behind to make a very human story about 9/11, and though he captures all of the familiar images with breathtaking realism, he is after something different here. What gives the film greater power, is that it is true. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) were Port Authority police officers who when they arrived at the scene of the towers knew that people needed help getting out. McLoughlin, after seeing the first jump from the burning building ran into the buildings, with Jimeno behind him as well as others hoping to save lives. When the towers came crashing down McLoughlin knew their only chance was to get to an elevator shaft, which they did but became trapped by the debris, just the two of them left alive. For hours they were trapped, spending their time talking to one another bout their lives, what really mattered to them, their children, their wives, their hopes for the future, anything but the terrible situation they were in. Like an older brother to Jimeno, McLoughlin struggles to keep the younger man from falling asleep. It’s a powerful human story set in the midst of the most inhumane of events. INteresting also that we see the wives and families of the men trapped and their frantic search for information, for anything. Michael Shannon is wonderful as Sgt. Karnes who helped get the men out, and both Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal make the wives real characters, as opposed to the cut outs they could have resorted to playing. Made with restraint and a great deal of respect. To think men such as this, the ones who ran into the building as others were running out, walk the earth gives me hope for humanity.
8. THE DOORS (1991)…I became a fan of The Doors late in my life, after hearing Morrison croon The End in APocalypse Now (1979), thus i was anxious to see this film. There had been talk in the late seventies and early eighties of John Travolta or Richard Gere playing Morrison in a film based on several books written about the LIzard King, but Stone found the perfect choice in Val Kilmer, who captured Morrison’s soul and did his own singing, sounding eerily like Morrison. IF the film has a flaw it is that it does not capture what a rotten human being Morrison could be when the spirit so moved him, but part of that comes from the hero-worship of the director who loved the music or Morrison and The Doors. He was a film student who lucked into a gig fronting for a band called The Doors and they hit big in LA before moving onto to rock legend and larger venues. But Morrison drank heavily and used drugs (who didn’t then?) and was arrested for obscenity on stage when he cursed and pulled out his penis. The film focuses more on Morrison than it does the band, and Ki,mer is riveting enough to make that worthwhile.
9. W (2008)…I thought Josh Brolin captured the essence of the George W. Bush we do not know, the man known only to family and friends. Striving to the best, in the shadow of his father, and once in office worrying that he might not have the stuff to do the job. Admittedly I am not fan of George W. Bush, believing him to be the worst American President in the last fifty years, but Stone’s spot on satire about Bush, his life and his presidency strikes the perfect tone and Brolin is terrific. But equally good are James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn, as George Sr., and Barbra, and Richard Dreyfuss as “Vice” Dick Chaney. Without getting political I believe Bush created a war predicated on a lie, and poor Obama has been left with a horrific mess to clean up. The film asks the question without ever asking…how did this man get elected to the highest office in the land? Watch how Brolin never quite seems to get the questions he is being asked, they do not seem to register fully. A gutsy film to make with the man still in office.
10. TALK RADIO (1988)…A small little picture Stone knocked off in less than a month, based on the play by Eric Bergosian an interesting stage actor he then cast as the lead, an arrogant shock jock DJ lashing out at everyone much in the manner of New York’s Howard Stern. No one is safe with this guy, Barry, despite the death threats that come into the station. It’s a superb piece of acting from Bergosian, who wrote himself a great part, and he obviously understands from playing it onstage. One of Stone’s most contained films, where he allows the actors to take over and do their thing, which is exactly what they do. I just cannot imagine the film really challenged the director? Just saying.