The Films Of Oliver Stone: Retrospective

Oliver Stone loves his country, but he is also its loudest critic. Whether tackling history head-on in films like “Platoon” or “Born On The Fourth Of July,” or profiling presidents in “JFK,” “W.” and “Nixon,” and even in seemingly genre-centered material like “Natural Born Killers” or “Any Given Sunday,” Stone views America in his own unique, if sometimes contradictory ways. His track record is certainly marked by tremendous highs, definite lows and curious middles (mostly with genre excursions like “U-Turn,” “Any Given Sunday” and “The Doors“) but he is never one to sit still. For evidence of Stone’s constantly changing priorities one can look to his last few films — “World Trade Center,” “W.,” “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” — and truly get a sense of a director driven both by passion and finance, and by a love for his country that is also pained by its failings.

As much to his detriment as it is to his advantage, Stone remains one of the most unique and vocal voices among working American filmmakers. While his output might be uneven, his films are hardly ever boring. Often experimenting with different lenses, film stock, techniques and camera angles, Stone continually finds new ways to shape and tell his stories. With that in mind, and with “Savages” hitting theaters this weekend, labeled by some (though not us) as a return to form, we’re taking a look back at Stone’s films (excluding documentaries like “South Of The Border,” and those he only wrote the screenplay for, like “Scarface“), determining which ones worked, which ones didn’t, and highlighting the ones we wouldn’t mind seeing again.

“Salvador” (1986)
Given Oliver Stone’s perpetual (and justified) indignation with American imperialism in the last century, and his general predilection for politically controversial subjects, it’s no surprise that his directorial debut was about the problems in Central America and, more specifically, the violent civil war in El Salvador that raged from 1980 through 1992, complete with the meddling of the U.S. government and military. Seen through the eyes of a downtrodden, irresponsible and unreliable American journalist and photographer (James Woods), the film tracks the hack as he travels to San Salvador with his equally dubious friend (Jim Belushi) in hopes of reviving his career and glory days by capturing footage of the war. Entangled with both leftist guerrillas and the right wing military, the journo soon finds the romanticism of Robert Capa-like war photography is gone and all that’s left are the ugly horrors of war. The picture also co-stars Michael Murphy, John Savage, Elpidia Carrillo, Tony Plana, Cynthia Gibb and Juan Fernandez, and while not as overt as, say, “JFK,” it’s not exactly subtle either. While Stone does try and paint the picture of both sides (sort of), it’s clear his sympathies lie with the lefty revolutionaries struggling to overthrow their corrupt and death-squad-happy government. That really wouldn’t be so bad if the dialogue wasn’t a thinly veiled attempt to deliver a ham-fisted and diatribe-y monologue about U.S. hegemony or creating a second Vietnam (while all valid concerns, it’s far too obvious and stilted). Still, while dated, “Salvador” remains a respectable piece of work, and is certainly entertaining enough to sit all the way through without feeling too restless. [B]

“Platoon” (1986)
The past is another country; they do things differently there — like give Oscars to Oliver Stone, and cast Charlie Sheen as a bookish innocent — which makes rewatching “Platoon” in 2012 an unintentionally poignant experience. It’s not a bad film — indeed, in terms of craft and performances, it is one of Stone’s best — but prevailing attitudes towards war have undergone such a philosophical revolution in the intervening years as to make its message, if not irrelevant, then anachronistic. Controversial at the time for its suggestion that at least some of the bad guys in Vietnam could be found in the ranks of U.S. soldiers, today it feels trite — did we really need to have the Vietnam war reduced to the fight for the soul of one privileged white boy before we could understand its horror? That Stone transposes the good vs. evil axis away from the U.S. vs. The Enemy, and onto the internal struggle of mentality and ethos between martyr Elias (Willem Dafoe) and his pot-smoking followers, and the treacherous Barnes (Tom Berenger) with his cadre of murderers and rapists, may seem like progress of sorts, but in so doing he ascribes every virtue of nobility to the former, and every cruelty to the latter, so all he has really done is switch one bogeyman for another. These simplistic dichotomies do the film no favors in our muddier moral times; to us now, the idea that the U.S. might be involved in a protracted foreign war for less-than-pure motives and for which the true cost is measured in human lives, and yes, souls, is not a revelation, it’s a daily debate. For better or worse, the world and its wars have moved on, and as much as “Platoon” is a well-made, intermittently affecting film, it has been left behind like a buried artifact, its interest now mostly archaeological. [B]

“Wall Street” (1987)
At this point, what can really be said about “Wall Street” that hasn’t already been said? The Gordon Gekko character is an American icon (for better or worse…), numerous pop-culture catchphrases have emerged and endured from the ridiculously quotable script, Michael Douglas spent the rest of his post-Wall Street career doing riffs on the same character (something he’s very good at), and Charlie Sheen became a legitimate box office presence as a result. Because Wall Street is so much a product of its time (in many of the same ways that a film like “Top Gun” was a product of its time), it’s tough to look back and criticize it for being one thing or not. It was a reflection of where we were at a particular point in time, and a foreshadowing of what was to come in the future. Stone and Stanley Weiser’s propulsive screenplay moves like a locomotive bound for the next stop with a sense of never-ceasing urgency. Sheen, as the naive newbie with his post-“Platoon” baby-face still intact, was a great match for Douglas’s icy villain; their Central Park show-down, as photographed by the incomparable Robert Richardson, reaches near epic/mythic proportions as the two of them trade verbal blows before Gekko pops his top. It’s father vs. son, mentor vs. student, man vs. man. And that’s what Stone has always excelled at — showcasing men of strong wills going up against one another until someone hits the floor. “Wall Street” shares a lot in common with De Palma’s “Scarface” (also scripted by Stone), and much like that film, has taken on a new life over the last decade in a way that Stone and his collaborators probably never thought it would. It’s one of Stone’s most influential films, and a defining work in his canon. [A-]

“Talk Radio” (1988)
Oliver Stone found a compatriot in Eric Bogosian, whose play and performance supplies much of the grunt work in this tightly wound drama. Essentially a one-man show, Bogosian is aces as Barry Champlain, a shock jock whose passion for spitting vitriol at anyone unfortunate enough to cross his airwaves is matched only by his own self-aggrandized caustic personality. Stone follows Champlain through a sweltering, nerve-wracking day, whirring his camera around the sound booth like a madman but maintaining a firm grip on Bogosian’s exacting performance (despite an over-reliance on sarcasm that typically goes hand in hand with the nervy Jewish film stereotype), while Leslie Hope, Alec Baldwin and Stone regular John C. McGinley all do solid work behind the scenes. “Talk Radio” must have been a passion project for Stone, and it shows — this is personal work for both author and filmmaker, but Stone renders it just conventional enough to stay on the rails, speeding to a surprising and saddening conclusion. Like Barry Champlain, Oliver Stone likes to go all out, but his direction here thankfully shows noticeable restraint. [B+]

“Born on the Fourth of July” (1989)
We cannot pretend to know Oliver Stone the man, but if his films are any indication, Vietnam is a festering wound constantly aching at the soul of the director. With “Born on the Fourth of July,” Stone finds an outlet altogether different from the ideological jungle hell of “Platoon” or the straight-laced drama of “Heaven & Earth.” The story of Ron Kovic, based on his memoir (an honest and heart-breaking read, seek it out), it stars Tom Cruise as the paralyzed Vietnam vet, struggling to come to terms with a life-changing condition and a country that labels him a hero almost out of desperation. Cruise goes for the (pardon the pun) gold, delving heart and soul into Kovic. Spending most of the film in a wheelchair, Cruise is believable and relatable as a young man unwilling to rehabilitate and assume the role everyone wants him to play. Kovic’s attempts to come to turns with his sacrifice and a costly mistake he made on the front are engrossing, and the supporting cast is as good as they come, with Willem Dafoe again making his mark as another wheelchair-bound veteran who whisks Kovic away to a temporary paradise. Stone’s stylistic choices are right on the money here, whether he’s using color temperature to separate flashbacks from the main story or a brief display of slow motion to capture the incident that permanently upends Kovic’s existence. “Born on the Fourth of July” is an outpouring of emotion, and a well-earned one at that. [A-]

“The Doors” (1991)
Oliver Stone’s semi-factual look at the life and times of Jim Morrison and his acid-rock band, The Doors, infuses the standard tripped-out and conspiracy-laden Stone rhetoric. Who was Jim Morrison, and why did he fall apart? These seem to be the basic questions posed by Stone, but in the end the viewer is left wondering why they cared in the first place. With mere glimpses of twisted, half-baked memories from Jim’s early years, it’s hard to understand the evolution of this man, whom Stone seems hellbent on approving of and having us fall in love with. Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll were key notes of the 1960s, but what Stone left out of this film is any of the soul or art that usually coincided with them. It’s shot and edited like a TV movie, or worse, a film school project, and there are too many throwaway characters to give the film any real biographical merit. On the positive side, Val Kilmer is sensational as Jim, psychotically engulfing himself in his role, and he made it difficult for many to think of Jim Morrison without conjuring up his portrayal. What could have been an interesting and in-depth look at a tortured musician battling America’s prudish and naive idealism, became two hours of whining rock star shaky footage. Stone adores deconstructing and critiquing social norms, and has had great success with it previously, but this picture completely missed the mark. The rise and fall of one of the most noted bands of the 1960s is not captured in “The Doors,” and Stone missed many opportunities to make this more than just a drug addled, sad sack story of indulgence and narcissism. It’s watchable, if only for the soundtrack, an underutilized Kyle MacLachlan as Ray Manzarek, and Kilmer. [C-]

“JFK” (1991)
Probably Stone’s most intricate picture, and possibly even his best, “JFK” takes up the cause of controversial Louisiana district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), who prosecuted local businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) for involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. Historically speaking, the evidence is thin, but as a piece of propaganda, Stone’s film is second to none; by the time you walk out, you’re convinced that Kennedy was the victim of a terrible conspiracy, and the director expertly lines up the inconsistencies of the official story (if there’s anything more powerful and persuasive in political cinema than the “back and to the left” scene, we’ve yet to see it). While your head knows that it’s less than convincing, your heart goes with Stone, and that’s a testament to the quality of filmmaking on display. The helmer makes a talky, three-hour-plus story fly by with bravura direction; the fill-in-the-blanks sequence with Donald Sutherland alone is a masterclass of editing. But it would be a mistake to undervalue the performances he draws from his cast: Costner has rarely been better, or more likable, while the mammoth supporting cast, from a near-unrecognizable Jack Lemmon to a scenery-chewing Tommy Lee Jones, is uniformly excellent. [A]

“Heaven & Earth” (1993)
17 years ago, Oliver Stone completed his Vietnam trilogy with “Heaven and Earth,” a searingly melodramatic look at the Vietnam war through the eyes of an innocent Vietnamese woman. Stone, not known for showcasing strong, central female characters in his movies, went for something different in “Heaven and Earth”; it’s a work that feels distinctly feminine while still retaining the Stone edginess that he’s become famous for. Overall, it may be the weakest of his three Vietnam films, but it’s not without its merits. Unfairly dismissed by most critics upon its initial release (Roger Ebert was one of its few notable champions) and ignored by audiences (the film grossed less than $10 million domestic on a $35 million budget), “Heaven and Earth” tells the true story of Le Ly (the excellent Hiep Thi Li), a Vietnamese woman whose life was destroyed by the Vietnam war. Separated from her family after numerous village raids and assaults, she meets a seemingly nice and caring U.S. soldier played by Tommy Lee Jones, in one of his customarily intense performances. Her marries her and takes her home only to be confronted by repressed battlefield demons, which help destroy his life with Ly. As mentioned earlier, Stone has never been a “woman’s director,” which may be why “Heaven and Earth” lacks the focus that his other works have. Far from a bad film, it’s simply uneven, but as always, it’s ambitious and great in many sequences and respects. Robert Richardson’s stunning cinematography joined forces with Victor Kempster’s outstanding production design to create a film that feels genuinely epic in scope, while Stone’s script is more intimate than his usual work. It’s a solid effort that seems to have been lost in the shuffle. [B-]

“Natural Born Killers” (1994)
The director’s 1994 serial-killer film was the filmmaker at his most kaleidoscopically strange; a savage, of-the-moment take-down of the media and its fascination with true-life killers (contextualizing it amidst O.J. Simpson, the Menendez Brothers, and those serial killer trading cards doesn’t make the movie any less bonkers), it should have been a revelatory experience, especially when you factor in its A-list cast (including Robert Downey Jr., who for some reason has an Australian accent) and its bold visual experimentation. But as it turned out, Stone was so hyped up on the movie (and the moment’s) over-sized much-ness, that he forgot to, you know, tell a story. The movie was very loosely based on a script by Quentin Tarantino, and starred Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as a pair of star-crossed spree killers, and that’s pretty much all you’ll get out of the plot. Instead, we’re forced to endure painful, sitcom-y flashbacks with Rodney Dangerfield as Lewis’ pedophile father, and such lush visual embellishments as rear projections in which a Pegasus flies by their vintage American convertible. What any of this means, exactly, seems beside the point: this was Stone going for a mood more than a movie, the fever-dream of the current American climate, which, in the end, lacks any real punch. The best thing that came out of the movie was the fascinating nonfiction book “Killer Instinct” by producer Jane Hamsher. [C-]

“Nixon” (1995)
Stone’s truly underrated masterpiece. It could easily have been a more sanctimonious take-down of the infamous president, but Stone, with a crack team of collaborators (many of them from “JFK” – composer John Williams, cinematographer Robert Richardson) created a richly dense and layered portrait of a weak-willed man with more than a few co-conspirators that were just as ruthless and cutthroat as he was, if not more so. Since the movie lost money and only received a smattering of critical acclaim, most will only remember Anthony Hopkins’ hypnotic performance as Nixon: sweaty, concerned, able to erupt into furious rages, and always listening to his wife Pat (Joan Allen), who comes off as more than a little Lady Macbeth. But what’s interesting to note is that, on such a huge film, Stone really pushed the envelope in terms of experimental editorial work; in what other major studio biopic would you see a scene, in which a floral bigwig meets with Nixon, while time lapse footage of a flower blossoming is super-imposed over the shots? “Nixon” combined the trippy go-for-broke-ness of “Natural Born Killers” with a much more coherent script, one of the most impressive all-star casts ever assembled and, mercifully, a dogged determination to actually tell the story; the story of Nixon. [A-]

“U Turn” (1997)
Standing out like a sore thumb in the director’s filmography, Stone set the politics aside and had a little fun with the desert noir “U Turn.” Billed, very deliberately, as “An Oliver Stone Movie” rather than as a “‘film,” it’s a lunatic, gonzo piece of pulp, with the same spirit as “Natural Born Killers,” but freed of the desire to be meaningful. Sean Penn is as close to an everyman as he’s ever played, and gives a solid performance, but he’s overshadowed by supporting players who seem to be in some kind of competition to out batshit-crazy each other. Every person that Penn meets in Superior, Arizona is more nuts than the last, from Jennifer Lopez‘s femme fatale (which surely got her the role in Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight”), to Joaquin Phoenix‘s combustible Toby N. Tucker. It’s a crude, unrestrained piece of work, but as time goes on it’s become a rather enjoyable one — not a film that’ll stick in the mind, by any means, but a blast while it lasts. Let’s face it, any film involving a hideously-made-up Billy Bob Thornton playing solo Twister has to be worth tracking down, right? [B-]

“Any Given Sunday” (1999)
Having never really understood the concept of understated or subtle, Oliver Stone’s work has always been over-the-top, but there’s a delineating line between his thematic overkill and his stylistic one. “JFK” marked the perfect confluence of multi-media formats climaxing to a sight and sound extravaganza, but then after that picture (“Natural Born Killers”), Stone went into a kind of schizophrenic overkill that only someone like Tony Scott could appreciate (and continues to do so). Stone then calmed down, slightly, a few years later when he got around to 1999’s football drama, “Any Given Sunday,” but the picture is still hilariously amplified and exaggerated with gusto. Just look at the synopsis for crying out loud. It’s a football movie called, a “look at the life and death struggles of modern day gladiators and those who lead them.” At his hammiest, loudest, and most over-the-top worst/best, Al Pacino plays the frustrated coach trying to bring his broken team back from the dead (cue: sports drama cliche) and somehow tame his arrogant, narcissistic and mercurial young quarterback (Jamie Foxx), who just won’t play by the rules — literally, he just does what he wants and changes plays mid-field. Co-starring Cameron Diaz (the team’s owner), Dennis Quaid (a fading quarterback losing his edge), James Woods, L.L. Cool J (all-around hilarious), Matthew Modine, Charlton Heston, Ann-Margret, Lauren Holly and more, “Any Given Sunday” is so melodramatically over-the-top, the film becomes like an unintentional parody of a sports film, but therein lies a lot of ironic value, and while excessive and over-sensationalized at every turn, it’s still pretty entertaining, even if that’s in an laughing-at-you, amused way. [C]

“Alexander” (2004)
Boy, where to begin with this one? Possibly the most ambitious film Stone has ever attempted to make, “Alexander” is a pronounced and overwrought failure on any number of levels, rendered watchable only for its camp qualities. It’s a shame too, since there is much skill on display behind the camera — the battle scenes are grandiose and gorgeously lensed, for the most part eschewing tight choreography instead relying on impressive mounted bouts of confusion that feel just a tad more authentic. Where Stone’s film sinks is unfortunately, the cast — the director has from time to time let actors play fast and loose, but never to the degree that most thespians indulge in here. Then again, their characters are barely sketched out and mounted with absurdly over-exaggerated habits — from Angelina Jolie’s snake-handling, potentially-incestuous Olympias to Val Kilmer’s groggy over-eater Philip and Jared Leto’s painfully misguided eye-shadow addict Hephaistion. Colin Farrell as the titular military genius demands a sentence of his own — you can see him straining, trying to draw us in, but the larger-than-life Alexander is too much for the actor, who was at the height of his alcohol and drug addiction — and it slips away early in the film. When “Alexander” isn’t engaging in bloody warfare (Stone literally uses a red filter during a major sequence late in the film), it’s front-loaded with giggle-inducing lover’s talk between Alexander and Hephaistion that almost always falls flat. A rare full-on misfire for the divisive director. [D-]

“World Trade Center” (2006)
Considering his reputation as a provocateur and political firebrand, many were dreading Stone’s take on the still-recent events of 9/11. But, following hot on the heels of Paul Greengrass‘ masterpiece “United 93,” the biggest surprise was how conventional a melodrama Stone’s film proved to be. He clearly needed to play nice after the tanking of “Alexander,” but no one was expecting anything close to the Lifetime movie-of-the-week that “World Trade Center” turned out to be. It’s not without its moments: Stone stages the attack itself strongly, albeit in a way reminiscent of 1970s disaster movies, and few directors are as adept at handling male bonding, which makes up much of the second half of the film. But, particularly when put up against Greengrass’ picture, it can’t help but come across as a somewhat cynical, dishonest piece of work, taking a tragic day and mining a happy ending from it. The political subtexts are a little disturbing (Michael Shannon‘s character, who later served in Iraq, declaring that “they’re going to need some good men out there, to avenge this”), the filmmaking unsubtle — witness the soft focus flashbacks from Nicolas Cage‘s character, or the religious motifs — and Stone’s total inability to depict women has rarely been so demonstrable as in the short shrift given to Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal as the stricken spouses. We’re sure that Stone’s heart was in the right place, but it comes across as “The Green Berets” of the 9/11 era, rather than the “Born On The Fourth Of July.” [D]

“W.” (2008)
The most striking thing about “W.” is what it isn’t. After wildly embellished movies like “Nixon” and “Natural Born Killers” (even “Any Given Sunday” is pretty weird), “W.,” the third film in his unofficial “president trilogy,” feels positively square. Straightforwardly told and edited, the story of one of history’s most reviled presidents, the war-startin’, election-stealin’, torture-endorsin’, grammar-ignorin’ George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) plays more like a mundane human drama than the toothsome take-down you might have expected. Part of this has to do with the almost limitless amount of humanity Brolin brings to the role, part of it is the sensation that the movie was really, really rushed (because it was). It’s the first movie in Stone’s oeuvre that seems to be crying out for another, definitive director’s cut, one with all the flourishes you’d expect, but alas, it isn’t meant to be. Instead, we’re stuck with this half-formed film, which isn’t without its pleasures (like seeing Richard Dreyfuss mumble his way through a Dick Cheney impression), but there’s not a whole lot to hang onto at the end of the day. It’s a minor effort, for sure, not as totally limp as “World Trade Center” but far from the firing-on-all-cylinders glory of “JFK” or “Nixon.” [B-]

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (2010)
Never look back; we covered, back in the day, why many-years-later sequels are rarely ever a good idea, and Stone’s sequel to one of his best-known pictures is further confirmation of that. It’s easy to see why the film came to pass: the 2008 economic crash made the original seem particularly prescient, and it seemed like the time was ripe for Stone to turn his lens back on the financial world. And his same feel for that environment does return, while Michael Douglas, reprising arguably his most iconic turn, doesn’t miss a beat, giving a lovely ambiguity to Gekko’s quote-unquote rehabilitation. It’s one of his slickest looking films, too, thanks to some sleek cinematography by the great Rodrigo Prieto. But the whole thing just feels rather unnecessary: Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff‘s script never really scratches the surface, failing to add much insight to what was in the original. And it suffers from a lead — Shia LaBoeuf’s Jacob Moore — much less interesting than Charlie Sheen in the original, with a half-baked revenge motivation and an insipid romance with Gekko’s daughter (an entirely wasted Carey Mulligan). It’s not so much that “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is bad; it’s perfectly watchable, and you’re unlikely to feel particularly cheated, especially if you’re a fan of the first film. But it never really makes a compelling case for its existence, either. [C]

— Mark Zhuravsky, Drew Taylor, Nick Clement, Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Danielle Johnsen, Kevin Jagernauth, RP

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.