Oliver Stone: a historical view on cinema and American politics

The film school generation of the 1970s

An immense and flourishing production of both creative and commercially acclaimed films emerged during the 1970s, these films were made by great new talented directors who, for the first time in film history, came straight from film school. In California, Francis Ford Coppola went to film school at UCLA, Stephen Spielberg studied film and dramatic arts at California State and George Lucas graduated from University of Southern California among many others. In the East Coast, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Woody Allen and Oliver Stone all attended New York University. Many of these “film school generation” filmmakers became the new directors of the 1970s and 80s. These filmmakers had academic formation on film history, production, aesthetics and other related subjects as part of their graduate school program.

One of these filmmakers was Oliver Stone who was born in New York in 1946 to Jacqueline and Lois Stone, a stockbroker. Stone attended New York University and Yale. In 1967, Stone enlisted in the United States Army and then sent to Vietnam where he fought in combat duty with the 25th Infantry Division and then with the First Cavalry Division. He earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster before he was sent back home in 1968, after fifteen months in the service. His experience in Vietnam influenced his career and will become a key factor in Stone’s films. Stone’s professional experience with filmmaking didn’t come until 1974 when Stone directed a surreal horror flick called “Seizure”(1974) produced by Cinerama Releasing Corporation.  The film was not a big success but it wasn’t until four years later, when Stone achieved wide recognition as a Hollywood screenwriter with his screenplay for Alan Parker’s film “Midnight Express”(1978) based on the book by Billy Hayes. Stone won an Academy Award for best Adapted Screenplay. In Midnight Express, we can begin to notice Stone’s strong critique for American foreign policies and the politicians involved.

 

The blockbuster era of the 1980s

The next decade began with what is known to be the biggest financial disaster ever to hit the American film industry. In 1980, Michael Cimino, who was widely acclaimed for directing “The Deer Hunter”(1978), released a forty-million-dollar epic Western named “Heaven’s Gate”(1980). It was withdrawn from distribution almost immediately after the film’s opening night.  This box office “bomb” affected the way films were produced and distributed during this decade. Studios were scared to finance something other than survival horrors, sci-fi or the so-called “teenpix” films. During the 1980s the “Heaven’s Gate” disaster as well as the rise of the videocassette and cable television market convinced studios to finance films with a more secured audience and a high-gross promise, in other words, films which have less of a chance in failing in the box office. Teenagers and their younger siblings drove this new American box office face to an all-time high of 4.3 billion dollars by 1987. This phenomenon caused the rise of a very specific type of film which Stone remained distanced from. Instead, Stone’s idea at the time was to make films that completely disrupted the flow of the 80’s blockbuster trend and make a political statement against the current American conservative thinking of the Reagan Administration.  Stone’s second experience with Hollywood success as a screenwriter was with his script for Brian De Palma’s epic crime drama “Scarface” (1983). A contemporary remake of the 1932 film with the same name, the film opened with mostly negative reviews, people walking out of the theater and criticized for its graphic violence and hard language. However the film became a huge success as the weeks passed and gathered an enormous cult following. Stone became a widely known director with his next film, “Salvador”(1986), a war drama about an American photojournalist in El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War got two Oscar nominations; one for Best Actor in a Leading Role (James Woods) and another for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Oliver Stone and Richard Boyle). This film was a big turning point for films during the 80s. It was undoubtedly controversial. Its portrayal of the American alliance with the violent right-wing totalitarian governments across Latin America was shocking for audiences. The controversy wasn’t the ignorance among the American public about these alliances, the American public knew very well about the American presence in Salvador during that time. The real controversy was that the Salvadoran war was never portrayed before in a Hollywood film. It was something to grim and to close to reality to be shown in a movie house along with “Top Gun” (1986) or “First Blood” (1982). We must remember that during this decade, films were made to be big blockbusters. The top grossing films were “E.T the Extra Terrestrial”(1982), “The Empire Strikes Back”(1980), The Return of the Jedi”(1983), “Batman” (1989) and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”(1981) all grossing more than $245 million. All made to please a very wide audience. Such a harsh, crude, pessimistic war drama like “Salvador” was defiantly not common in this teenage-dominated market.

Of course, Oliver Stone didn’t stop there. In that very same year Stone went off to direct what might be one of the most important war films in history next to “Apocalypse Now”(1979) and “Full Metal Jacket”(1987). Stone wrote “Platoon”(1986) based on his experiences as a U.S Infantryman in Vietnam. He won the Academy Award for Best Picture that same year. “Platoon” was an anti-war film denouncing the savage killings and raping that went on in the American army against Vietnamese civilians and the chaotic struggle the US Army had to face against itself due to the harsh environmental and mental health circumstances under which American soldiers had been submitted to. In an interview with Playboy magazine in 1988, Stone had said that “Platoon” was an antidote to idealist military themed films like “Top Gun” or “First Blood”. The entire film takes place in Vietnam. In the interview he says: “I think there are a lot of people who learned nothing from Vietnam. Because of them, all the men who died in Vietnam have died for nothing”.

His success with “Platoon” drove him to direct “Wall Street”(1987), a film that takes place during the stock market boom of the 1980s. This film caused a lot of mixed feelings. Although Stone’s experience with his father Lou Stone, who worked as a stock broker in Wall Street during the great depression, where a crucial factor in the making of this film. The film stood strong against the corporate greed and the conservative economic system know at that time as “voodoo economics” or  “Reaganomics” which involved a lot of deregulation in the stock market. Ironically, the film’s political content was praised by “yuppies” and liberals and envisioned Michael Douglass’s character, Gordon Gekko as an idol. In the same year, Stanley Kubrick released “Full Metal Jacket”, another Vietnam War film with an even more controversial approach. As opposed to Stone’s film, Kubrick’s film explores the transformation of an American soldier into a natural killing-machine instead of conveying a more moralistic anti-war message like “Platoon”.  Both films are the most important war films of the 80s. But it was “Platoon” that sparked the return of the Vietnam War as a popular debate subject while during the 1970s it was still considered a taboo.

The 1980s was also a decade famous or perhaps even notorious for its trend for ongoing sequels. For John Carpenter’s low-budget, highly acclaimed slasher “Halloween” it had four sequels in the 80s and six more in the 90s and 2000s. The other big slasher hit was “Friday the 13th” it had seven sequels and four more in later decades. The next franchise is Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street”(1984) with five sequels in the 80s and four more films later on, three “Rambo” films and so on and so on… Stone had, what he called his own “Vietnam war trilogy” consisting on three films: “Platoon”(1986), “Born on the Fourth of July”(1989) and “Heaven and Earth”(1993). “Born on the Fourth of July” won 8 Academy Award nominations, including Best Directing and Best Editing. The story follows a young man’s journey from being a small town, middle-American patriot to becoming a crippled Vietnam veteran and national anti-war activist. This film was Stone’s big hit, earning almost all positive reviews, earning 161 million dollars and a very wide reception. From this point, Stone was recognized worldwide as a big Hollywood director.

The cultural hangover of the 1990s

The 1990s began with what I like to call the “hangover” of the big, wild, crazy and expensive decade of 1980s. The rise of independent cinema as well as independent studios such as Miramax and New Line served as a counter reaction towards the big budget Hollywood studio films that inundated the past decade.  In the big studio world, the 90s were known also for it’s Disney renaissance, starting with: “The Little Mermaid” (1989), “Beauty and the Beast” (1991),“The Lion King” (1994) and ending with “Tarzan” (1999). But Disney wasn’t just re-making their old-style animated children’s stories they were also developing new ways to make animation. As we all know, this decade is also known for launching probably the biggest technological advancements in film history. With the advancements in 3-Dimension animation and CGI, in 1995 Disney partnered with Pixar to make the “Toy Story” (1995) franchise. Videocassettes also ruled the movie market throughout this decade; many films were made for TV screens and just had VHS distribution while with other films, the home-video market was an important factor in their revenue sometimes even doubling the total income. In the independent world, low-budget and independent films were popular not only in the festival circuit but also in the box office. The new “indie film” movement starts with the big box office success of films like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (1990) grossing 200 million dollars making it the highest grossing independent flick in history, followed of course, by more serious and critically acclaimed ones like Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” (1991) and “Good Will Hunting” (1997), Tarantino’s debut films “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) and “Pulp Fiction” (1994), Jane Campion’s “The Piano” (1993) from New Zeeland, Kevin Smith’s low-budget debut film “Clerks” (1994), Larry Clark’s controversial  “Kids” (1995), Cameron Crow’s  “Jerry Maguire” (1996), Roberto Benigni’s “Life is beautiful” (1998) from Italy…and many more. Almost all of these films mentioned were made by what used to be the small independent studio Miramax founded by the Weinstein brothers that grew into a million dollar industry.

Stone faced the new decade with “The Doors” (1991), a biopic on legendary rock icon Jim Morrison. The film starred Val Kilmer as the controversial singer. With a modest budget of 32 million, the film explored in-depth the man behind the legend, experimenting with a psychedelic style very similar to one of his later films, “Natural Born Killers” (1994) and “Nixon” (1995). The film had mixed reviews, on one hand it was criticized for it’s historical accuracy and its clichéd look of the 1960s but on the other hand, it was praised for its unusual style and for re-introducing The Doors to new generations. It’s not until the premiere of his next film that will once again, rise big controversy like never before in Stone’s carrier. Stone’s next film “JFK” (1991) is based on the investigation led by former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner) of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy which lead to one of the biggest conspiracy theories of American History claiming that the C.I.A, F.B.I, angry Cuban exiles and even members of The White House plotted in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  The film is based on two books: “On the Trail of the Assassins” by Jim Garrison and “Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy” by Jim Marrs. The film won two Academy Awards, one for Best Cinematography and Best Editing. The film’s controversy came even before the film was released. The Washington Post national security correspondent George Lardner visited the set of the film and wrote an article attacking the film. When the film opened, it was bombarded with accusations of anti-Americanism and manipulation of historical facts. Despite the accusations, the Academy honored the film nominating it in eight categories including Best Picture. The popularity of the film among the public led to Congress’s passage of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. This is the first time a film influenced Congress to pass a public act. It became one of the highest grossing films of 1991.

Stone’s filmmaking career evolved around American political culture and American history. His next films were, in a way, continuations of these themes exploring almost all aspects of society’s political class. He was perhaps the first American “film leftist” to really shout out his ideals and openly stand against the right-wing in American government, much earlier than other political filmmakers such as Michael Moore or even Spike Lee. “Heaven & Earth” (1993) was his last film about Vietnam, the third of his Vietnam Trilogy. The film was not well received although Stone considers “Heaven & Earth” one of his greatest films. However, his following film “Natural Born Killers” (1994) sparked new controversy and became a cult classic. With the story by Quentin Tarantino, Stone co-wrote and directed “Natural Born Killers” casting Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as a more violent, bloody and contemporary version of Bonnie and Clyde. The film holds a strong critique of the mainstream media in America as well as the Television boom in the 1990s, a decade where criminals and serial killers became entertainers in the explosion of the reality show business in Television. Shows such as “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted” were big hits in Television as well as the sitcom face with shows like “Seinfeld”, “Frasier”, “Friends” and “Cheers”. Stone used the Television style of fast cut editing, color shifts in contrasts and exaggerated camera angles to produce a very stylized film about the violent human nature of society. Stone saw the hypocrisy in the media, which tried very hard to censor violence and at the same time exploiting it for money. Ironically, the film was given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA, which told Stone to re-edit the entire film as an R rating.  The film was a bit unusual for an Oliver Stone film, because up until “Natural Born Killers”, Stone was just making films about historical or political dramas. But Stone returned to this genre without abandoning the non-linear style with a mixture between the Hollywood structure and the stylized filmmaking that he experimented with in “The Doors” and “Natural Born Killers”. Eventually this mixture of “pshycopolitico” drama became “Nixon” (1995) which, in my opinion is one of his greatest films. According to Frank E. Beaver’s essay that appears in Don Kunz’s book “The Films of Oliver Stone”, Beaver claims Stone had a “Wellesian” view on Nixon as a failed public figure and draws the parallel structure of “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “Nixon”. For example, Beaver compares how taking away the Rosebud sled in “Citizen Kane” represented a moment of ensuing opportunity and later melancholia and the loss of Nixon’s brothers Arthur and Harold was, according to Stone’s representation, a recognized by Richard Nixon as something significant in a political career fixated on a drive to succeed at all cost. The film stars Anthony Hopkins who, like Orson Wells, is recognized as a Shakespearean actor. He gives an outstanding performance as President Nixon. This was Stone’s second film about an American president, made four years after “JFK” and thirteen years before “W.” (2008), a biopic of George W. Bush Jr, that like “Nixon”, it portrays a more humanistic character study of the man behind the monster.

The XXI century: from tragedy to romantic comedy.

The 1990s ended with the biggest box office hit in film history, with James Cameron’s “Titanic” (1997), breaking the record for highest grossing film in history only to break it again by the same director twelve years later with “Avatar” (2009) at the end of the following decade. It’s strange and perhaps a little early to fit the first decade of the 21st century within film history but for Oliver Stone it’s a very important decade. From the September 11th attacks through the presidency of George W. Bush to the wars in the Middle East, to Fidel Castro’s retrospective look on communist Cuba, to the emerging of new socialist governments in South America finally ending with the financial meltdown of ‘07. Stone covers every single one of these topics in his films.

There is no denying that the September 11th attacks had a major impact on not only American culture but on the world, and not just in politics but in music, art, film, sociology…etc.  During these unsettling times, countless anti-war screenplays where written but not a single one was financed. The FCC, investors and producers knew very well that anything that had to do with Iraq, Afghanistan or September 11th could not be a subject in any of the entertaining arts. The American people were still too sensitive, a big distrust in the government re-appeared and anger among the public made no room for political controversy. A big line was drawn between liberals and conservatives dividing them politically like never before. Very few films were made about the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war but didn’t do very well at the box office. In a very simple way, I could probably say that people who became politically aware were more interested in documentaries and people who just wanted to forget about reality were more interested in super-hero films or romantic comedies that were exploited during the last decade. Of course, this did not stop Oliver Stone. He made a film about a Port Authority fireman during the September 11 attacks staring Nicholas Cage, he made a biography of President Bush as a failed public figure, unmasking the man behind the monster, he made two documentaries on Centro and South American Socialism: one called “South of the Border” (2009) and another one called “Comandante” (2003). He also directed a sequel to his Wall St film covering the financial crisis of 2007 and updating it to the current financial status and an epic drama about Alexander the Great that became a critical as well as commercial failure, nonetheless, Stone remains confident that “Alexander” (2004) is his most ambitious project he has ever made. All of these films mentioned, not surprisingly, caused great controversy among the American public. Stone has always been subject of criticism and praise by many historians. In an interview with Gar Crowdus for Cineaste magazine, Stone claims: “The large historical truths that I think good dramatists go after involves dealing with a the absence of a pattern in the historical record. If you look at Nixon, all the decisions are awash in forty-six meetings and four hundred phone calls (…) So every decision was the result of a lot of hesitation, doubt, of back-and-fourth discussions, and in a movie we don’t have time to show all those meetings and phone calls, so you go for a pattern, for a larger truth. A decision was made, so you show the motive (…) Historical accuracy generally involves the absence of a pattern.”

 

Oliver Stone, a brief retrospective

In conclusion, I believe Oliver Stone’s films have not only caused discussion about technical excellence or artistic originality in his films but has also sparked political discussion and debate about American history that has never before belonged in the film world. After three decades working in the motion picture industry, Oliver Stone has not yet made a film that remains un-debatable. Like Kubrick, he has not made a film that wasn’t controversial. He revived the Vietnam war as an issue when it was just a taboo, he has explored in incredible depth some of our most important figures of recent and ancient history, he has made a film that influenced Congress to pass a public Act, his films have been hated, loved, praised and awarded by film and history experts. He has explored the thin line that divides fact and fiction, drama and reality, lie and truth, good and evil…He has always stood on the edge and after thirty years of filmmaking, he still stands.

References:

1-“The Films of Oliver Stone” (1997, The Scarecrow press, Inc) edited by Don Kunz

2-“Oliver Stone Interviews” (2001, University Press of Mississippi) edited by Charles L. P. Silet

“History, Dramatic License, and Larger Historical Truths: An Interview with Oliver Stone” by Gary Crowdus

“Playboy Interview: Oliver Stone” by Marc Cooper

3-“A History of Narrative Film” (1996, W. W. Norton) by David A. Cook

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2 thoughts on “Oliver Stone: a historical view on cinema and American politics

    • No, I haven’t but it’s defiantly on my list! It’s directed by Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, who we’ve talked about in film school but I haven’t seen any of his films except Spartacus. I am curious to see it.

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