Controversial American filmmaker Oliver Stone has regularly impressed audiences and critiqued American history in such powerful films as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street and JFK.
Stone’s life is as eventful and reflective of American history as are his films. Born in 1946, he was the only son of a wealthy couple regularly at odds and eventually torn apart by their affairs. He grew up in New York, holidaying with his maternal grandparents in France where he was fascinated by stories of war. While attending boarding school his parents divorced and seemingly abandoned him, feeding his loneliness but fuelling his interest in the solitary hobby of writing.
In 1964 he enrolled at Yale, but dropped out after a year to begin teaching English in South Vietnam. However, two semesters later he quit his job and joined the merchant navy, desperate to travel and see the world. His work on ships took him to Mexico and eventual he returned to New York and Yale, all the while pouring his soul into a manuscript entitled ‘A Child’s Night Dream’, which he hoped would be the next great American novel. Panned by potential publishers, much of the manuscript littered the East River until it was eventually published in 1997. Crushed, Stone joined the military, forgoing the officer training his privileged background permitted to become a private in the infantry, shipping to Vietnam in September 1967.
The brutality of Vietnam soon demolished Stone’s notions of a just war, realising it to be ‘rotten and corrupt’ with no ‘moral purpose’. Along with fighting the enemy, Stone fought to find himself among the working class soldiers, racial tensions, and a world of drugs, drink and music. Comfort came in writing lengthy letters to his French grandmother: sound familiar? Stone later transformed his experiences into his Oscar-winning war drama Platoon (1986), for which he won his first Best Director Award.
Returning to America decorated but disillusioned, Stone worked a number of jobs – including taxi driver and salesman – while studying film at NYU, where one of his teachers was a young Martin Scorsese. His achievements there earned him the directorship of two small horror films, his debut, Seizure (1974), and The Hand (1981), starring Michael Caine. While not directing, Stone wrote furiously, penning the first draft of Conan the Barbarian (1982) for John Milius, Scarface (1983) for Brian De Palma, as well as receiving an Oscar for his Midnight Express (1978) screenplay.
His big break came in the mid-eighties with Salvador (1986) and Platoon, soon followed by Wall Street (1987), Talk Radio (1988) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Across these films Stone delved into recent American history with an anger and ferocity that shocked audiences. Brave and brutal, his rich dialogue drew powerful performances from his stars that matched Stone’s increasingly adventurous direction and editing. This was taken to a new level in the 1990s, with his musical biopic The Doors (1991), controversial dramas JFK (1991) and Nixon (1994), his multivalent look at American football in Any Given Sunday (1999)and the stylised violence and satire of Natural Born Killers (1994).
However, Stone’s commercial and critical acclaim waned during the 2000s with the likes of the critically-savaged Savages (2012) and his epically-underrated Alexander (2004). However, Stone remains politically active, producing a number of fascinating documentaries on Fidel Castro and Central America, as well as The Untold History of the United States in his ten part miniseries.
Stone is a divisive figure; his politics are often hard to pin down, while his rapid editing, use of different filters and film stocks and non-linear storytelling give his films a kinetic erraticism that overwhelms the senses. However, this style can be understood as a reflection of subject: the varying styles representing the many forms of perspective that shapes history, and he encourages us to question what organisations tell us. Despite attacks on the accuracy of some of his films, Stone is an obsessive researcher who will proudly – and admirably – defend his films and views on history.
Perhaps reflecting his upbringing, Stone’s films are regularly concerned with parent/child relationships, especially the father-son dynamic. He appears fascinated by powerful figures and their flaws, from Alexander the Great to Richard Nixon, Jim Morrison to George W. Bush. Stone’s films are invested with copious amounts of detail, thought, visual metaphor, and thematic resonance; wherever you stand on his style, his films are catalysts for debate: which is what Stone intends.
A passionate and committed writer-director who truly invests himself in his filmmaking, Stone’s films are combative, aesthetically striking and urge his audiences to think of the bigger picture: of politics, power, the past and the present. He is a larger than life figure with the body of work to prove it.
Top 5 Oliver Stone films:
Platoon (1986): A young, privileged soldier is thrown into the vortex of violence that is the Vietnam War. Raw, superbly acted, written, and directed, this is the defining cinematic depiction of that terrible conflict.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989): The story of real-life Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic’s troubled return home, acceptance of his injuries and move towards political activism, this is a powerful tale of domestic heroism brilliantly delivered by Stone’s direction and Cruise’s performance.
JFK (1991): Following Jim Garrison’s attempts to expose a conspiracy behind the assassination of President Kennedy, Stone keeps up the drama and momentum through a complex procedural and the resulting court case.
Natural Born Killers (1994): From a story by Quentin Tarantino, the film uses a mix of stylised formats to depict the media fascination with violence. A full-on visual onslaught, you don’t watch this, you experience it.
Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut (2007): Stone’s radical re-edit of his passion project finds phenomenal form in this ambitious, intelligent vision of one of history’s most divisive figures.
Where do you stand on Stone? What would your top five be? Let us know…