Stone, Oliver (1946—)

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Stone, Oliver (1946—)

Since the mid-1970s, Oliver Stone has been involved in writing, directing, and producing over 30 films in a wide range of styles and genres. Most of his work has been critically and commercially successful, but, since the 1980s, it has also been controversial. Films like Salvador and Platoon, both released in 1986, criticized United States government policy over El Salvador and Vietnam, sidestepping the prevailing confident patriotic mood to deal with the effects of war in a realistic and thoughtful way. In the 1990s, films like Natural Born Killers (1994), in which two young lovers travel around New Mexico, killing as they go, have led to further accusations of exploitation and gratuitous violence. Since Salvador, the subject matter of Stone's films has ranged from political conspiracy in JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995), to war and its cultural effects in Platoon (1986) and Born onthe Fourth of July (1989), to rock biopic in The Doors (1991). With their roots in the "New Cinema" of Hollywood at the end of the 1960s, Stone's films contain a blend of realism, social documentary, and political enquiry that has made him a difficult but important commentator on American culture in the late twentieth century.

After spells teaching English, and later fighting in Vietnam in the 1960s, Stone returned from the war in 1968 to study film at New York University. Like many other directors of his generation, Stone benefitted from the new graduate programs in film history, theory, and production that appeared in the 1960s. Film schools at the University of California Los Angeles and New York University, among others, produced directors and writers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Brian de Palma, and Martin Scorsese, many of whose films, like Stone's, have been among the most influential of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

Stone began his filmmaking career as the writer, director, and editor of a horror film, Seizure (1974), and won his first academy award, for Best Adapted Screenplay, in 1978, for Midnight Express. In the early 1980s, Stone had his most success as a screenwriter, taking writing credits for Conan the Barbarian (1981) and Scarface (1983). He has also been influential as a producer of many of his own films, as well as the television series, Wild Palms (1993), and films such as The Joy Luck Club (1993) and Reversal of Fortune (1990), among others. Additionally, he has acted, making appearances as a reporter in Born on the Fourth of July, as a professor in The Doors, and as a financial trader in his 1987 film, Wall Street.

Graduates of the film schools have often become known for their technical skill and mastery of visual effects, and Stone is no exception. His best known visual technique is the use of a variety of different types of film stock to present different viewpoints. In films like JFK and Natural Born Killers, Stone also used news and amateur film, mixed in with "made" footage, to reconstruct events and give them an "authentic" appearance. Since the late 1980s, the mixing of images using digital techniques has become much cheaper and easier, and other directors, such as Stone's contemporary, Steven Speilberg, also a film school graduate, have used the technique to good effect, for example in Schindler's List (1993). But while Spielberg tends to blend "real" and "made" footage to create a continuous visual quality, Stone plays on the different textures of formats like Super 8, 35mm, and video to disrupt the flow of the narrative, and make the viewer's position less secure.

Salvador (1986) was Stone's first major success as a film director. Based on the experiences of Richard Boyle, a journalist in El Salvador in 1980-1981, the film portrays the Salvadoran govern-ment's violent suppression of opposition, and is deeply critical of American support for the right-wing regime. In the same year, Platoon took a similarly realistic approach to representing the war in Vietnam. The film won four Academy awards, including for Best Picture and Best Director, and marks the beginning of Stone's rise as an influential director and producer. Following Platoon, several films dealing in a new way with the issue of Vietnam found success for other directors; these included Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987) and Good Morning, Vietnam (Barry Levinson, 1988). As David Cook points out, however, the fashion for films about Vietnam did not only include sensitive treatments of modern warfare; Platoon came along at around the same time as more exploitative films, like Born American (Renny Harlin, 1986) and Rambo: First Blood, Part II (George Pan Cosmatos, 1985).

Stone's second Vietnam film, Born on the Fourth of July (1989), contains some combat footage, but concentrates on the cultural issues of the treatment of war veterans, and in particular those, like Ron Kovac, whose injuries made them an embarrassment to the military authorities and the general public. Having dealt with Vietnam from the point of view of soldiers in combat in Platoon and of veterans in Born on the Fourth of July, in 1993 Stone considered the experience of war from the other side. Heaven and Earth describes the war from the point of view of a Vietnamese peasant woman who experiences the fighting as a child and later marries an American soldier. Besides his efforts to represent war in more realistic ways, and from the point of view of its victims, Stone is also known as a shrewd social and cultural commentator. In the late 1980s, for example, films like Wall Street (1987) and Talk Radio (1988) dealt with current concerns about the financial markets, greed, and the media's manipulation of celebrities and its audience. In 1991, The Doors appeared as a film portrait of the rock band and its charismatic singer, Jim Morrison. While the portrait of Morrison is a fan's account, the film is ruthless in its treatment of drug and rock culture.

Since the early 1990s, Stone's trademark technique of switching between film stocks, as well as using hand-held cameras and natural lighting, has made watching his films a more directly engaging experience. The disorienting effect of the unstable camera involves the viewer in the unfolding scene in ways that are not possible with more formal styles of filmmaking. Perhaps his most important film, JFK (1991), relies on such techniques to make telling comments on the creation of myths by the media and government. Dealing with the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, the film revives the 1967 theory of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison that Kennedy could not have been shot by Oswald as the Warren Commission had found. Following the release of the film, Stone was attacked for having rewritten the facts about the assassination. Critics pointed to the way in which the famous amateur film of the killing had been enhanced and manipulated to prove Garrison's theory, but Stone also came in for criticism for his speculation about plots against Kennedy in the security forces and government. Despite the opinions of critics, the film was a success with audiences, prompting a run on books about the Kennedy assassination, and eventually putting pressure on Congress to release records of the Warren Commission through a special act in 1992. Perhaps because of the controversy, JFK received no Oscars, but Stone did receive a Golden Globe Award for Best Director.

JFK was significant for its technical effects as well as the public response it triggered, and Natural Born Killers, perhaps Stone's most vilified film, takes the techniques learned in making JFK still further. The movie includes animation and other electronic imaging methods, as well as live action shots on several different film stocks, with the effect that the images themselves, as well as the subject matter, bombard the viewer in a quite relentless way. David Cook speculates that the film is Stone's response to the media's treatment of JFK. Natural Born Killers exposes the hypocrisy of a media that criticized him for twisting the truth, yet makes fortunes out of goading the public to ever greater voyeuristic excesses. Certainly the murderous couple in Stone's film are presented in such a way as to make their acts of violence fascinating rather than repellent. Manipulating the viewer, even though it admits to doing so, Natural Born Killers speculates about how much more manipulative the supposedly objective media might be.

Many of Stone's films look at the way individuals are controlled and used by bigger organizations. As a result, he has often found himself in opposition to current thinking, and has been described as a dissident by his supporters. Like those of many directors who came through the film schools in the 1960s, Stone's films have a reputation for provoking strong emotional responses in audiences. Perhaps for this reason, films like JFK and Natural Born Killers have sometimes received harsh treatment at the hands of their critics. Oliver Stone's main achievement as a film director, however, has been his contribution to the valuable tradition of socially challenging independent filmmaking that began in the 1960s with directors such as Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, and Stanley Kubrick.

—Chris Routledge

Further Reading:

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. New York, W.W.Norton, 1996.

Kagan, Norman. The Cinema of Oliver Stone. New York, Continuum, 1995.

Kunz, Don. The Films of Oliver Stone. Lanham, Maryland, Scarecrow Press, 1997.

Riordan, James. Stone: The Controversies, Excesses, and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker. New York, Hyperion, 1995.