Film & TV

My Love-Hate Relationship with Oliver Stone

Director Oliver Stone attends the premiere of Snowden in New York City in 2016. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
Surveying the career of a gonzo filmmaker, the fierce commitment stands out as much as the craziness.

I love Oliver Stone. He’s gonzo, gung-ho, and gangsta. He breaks the rules. He spits fire. He writes from his viscera. The movies he wrote for other directors — Midnight Express, Conan the Barbarian, Scarface — go over the top and just keep going. I forgive the silly posturing about capitalism in Wall Street because it’s entertaining. Stone and Val Kilmer nailed Sixties mysticism-turned-self-destructive-excess in The Doors, he and Woody Harrelson created a chilling study of murderous American minds in Natural Born Killers, and he and Tom Cruise got close to the heart of how the moral compromises and lies of Vietnam crushed our spirit in Born on the Fourth of July. And JFK may be the most insane picture ever released by a major studio.

I loathe Oliver Stone. His movies barely make sense. His cinema is like his personal life — a senseless, ugly scramble to get to the next drug rush. His cinematic coke binge packaged as neo-noir U Turn is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. His snarky George W. Bush picture W. is a feeble, brainless caricature. His hagiographic Snowden is an embarrassing paean to anti-patriotism. Even his acclaimed Platoon is war porn, an overwrought melodrama. Stone turns the movie screen into billboards onto which he pours all his crazed contempt for America as angrily and artlessly as Jackson Pollock spattering a canvas, or maybe a horse emptying his bladder on the road. And JFK may be the most insane picture ever released by a major studio.

I feel something of a bond with Stone: We’re both sons of World War II veterans, both went to Yale, both joined the Army without being forced to, and both went to war. Our tastes and paths diverged a bit: Stone was completely indifferent to Yale and dropped out of it twice to go to Southeast Asia — the first time to teach English, the second to be an infantry grunt. I dearly loved Yale and signed up for the Army to pay for it, which resulted in my being sent, not enthusiastically, to a war in Southwest Asia.

Stone was as deeply scarred by his war as I was completely untouched by mine, and he emerged from it hating our country. I love it. Curiously enough, though, of the two of us, I’m not the one who voted for Ronald Reagan. Stone cast his lot for Reagan in 1980 out of disappointment with Jimmy Carter and an affinity for Reagan’s sunny personality, then regretted the choice out of a belief that Reagan was militaristic. I abstained in 1984, the year I turned 18, but if forced to choose, I probably would have ticked the box for Walter Mondale out of a belief that Reagan might well reinstate the draft, which had been halted only eleven years earlier, and send me to die fighting Communists in Central America.

Still, the shivery shamanism of Stone’s memoir, Chasing The Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game, has me loving Stone all over again. Reading his fantastically bonkers book, I came to a critical realization about Stone: He has no sense of humor whatsoever. This is not the same as being serious; he’s deeply unserious a lot of the time. But he is committed. There is no ironic distance or detachment from anything, ever, and here he and I differ rather dramatically again. Still, I am awed by this raw self-portrait in hypercharged fervor.

A frenzied neo-Romantic, Stone feels everything, ever since he fell apart emotionally when his parents broke up while he was at boarding school, and later, in a sort of soul coma, volunteered for the nerve-exploding chaos of infantry life in Vietnam. He survived a dizzying firefight (on January 1, 1968) that he describes in a woozily detailed account of absolute confusion. He never fired a shot nor saw an enemy combatant in that battle, yet there were bodies everywhere when the sun came up, and he helped bury and burn enemy corpses. When he got home, he immediately wound up in a San Diego jail, facing five to 20 years on drug-smuggling charges after bringing back two ounces of weed from Mexico. (A lawyer got the charges dismissed.) Back on the sidewalks of Manhattan, “I was coiled and tight, a jungle creature, ready for anything, living 24/7 on the edge of my nerves.” Except that he would dive for cover whenever a car backfired. He started writing screenplays as a therapeutic way to face his demons.

In his cinema, he takes a rusty hunting knife and flays our national nerves, trying to get us to feel something like what he feels. How can you not admire a mad pagan Hollywood barbarian who deals with career setback like this:

One shining, bright cold winter day I bought a cooked lamb and, in a bizarre homage to Odysseus . . . laid out its severed parts on my lawn, offering it with fire, incense, and prayer to the gods to wipe clean whatever I had done to offend them. I begged forgiveness, especially of Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom. It was a strange and solitary ceremony, witnessed only by my two ravenous dogs. I meant every word I chose judiciously, my heart so earnest to end this self-inflicted pain I was feeling as a frustrated writer, dramatist, whatever I was. When I finished, I allowed the dogs to devour the offering. After all, what did the Greeks go with all those fine oxen and sheep that were sacrificed on Homer’s pyres?

Immediately after this ceremony, which happened during a period when Stone was “heartbroken by Scarface and its Hollywood reception” (things certainly turned around for that picture, which grew to be acclaimed as a signature movie of the era), the Greco-Hollywood gods answered by hiring Stone to write another movie: Year of the Dragon. This launched a series of events that made Stone an Oscar-winning director. Tastes caught up to Oliver Stone; America was ready to be kicked in the crotch and punched in the neck. The Eighties and Oliver Stone were made for each other. But I’ll come to that in my next essay.

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