My Take On… #235: What Happened To Oliver Stone?

What happened to Oliver Stone? Really? What happened to him?

It really seemed like that after 2000, his reputation as one of the more political filmmakers tackling some of the most infamous moments in American history has since gone down by the wayside. Really think about it.

Stone won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay as writer of Midnight Express (1978). He also wrote the acclaimed gangster movie Scarface (1983). As a director, Stone achieved prominence as director/writer of the war drama Platoon (1986), for which Stone won the Academy Award for Best Director; the film was awarded Best Picture. Platoon was the first in a trilogy of films based on the Vietnam War, in which Stone served as an infantry soldier. He continued the series with Born on the Fourth of July (1989)—for which Stone won his second Best Director Oscar—and Heaven & Earth (1993). Stone’s other notable works include the Salvadoran Civil War-based drama Salvador (1986); the financial drama Wall Street (1987) and its 2010 sequel Money Never Sleeps; the Jim Morrison biopic The Doors (1991); and a trilogy of films based on the American Presidency—JFK (1991), Nixon (1995) and W. (2008). His latest film is Snowden (2016).

Many of Stone’s films focus on controversial American political issues during the late 20th century, and as such were considered contentious at the times of their releases. They often combine different camera and film formats within a single scene, as evidenced in JFK, Natural Born Killers, and Nixon.

When Stone was early into his career, he was responsible for these incredibly provocative and profound movies that were ahead of their times and have also stood up to the test of time on all fronts.

From the stuff he wrote like Midnight Express and Scarface to the films he would later become known for as a director that we’d look back at as classic movies from him, stuff like Platoon, Wall Street, Born On The Fourth Of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers, and Any Given Sunday to the more underappreciate and obscure stuff like Talk Radio, The Doors, Nixon, U-Turn, World Trade Center, and W., this was Oliver Stone at his absolute best.

And then in the 2000s especially later on in the decade, Stone’s movies started to get more and more generic than provocative. I think the first real movie that really felt very much not like what we’d expect from Oliver Stone was Alexander, a 2004 epic historical drama film based on the life of Alexander the Great. It was directed by Oliver Stone, with Colin Farrell in the title role. The film was an original screenplay based in part on the book Alexander the Great, written in the 1970s by the University of Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox. After release, while it performed well in Europe, the American critical reaction was negative. It grossed over $167 million worldwide against a $155 million budget.

Four versions of the film exist, the initial theatrical cut and three home video director’s cuts: the “Director’s Cut” in 2005, the “Final Cut” in 2007 and the “Ultimate Cut” in 2013. The two earlier DVD versions of Alexander (“director’s cut” version and the theatrical version) sold over 3.5 million copies in the United States. Oliver Stone’s third version, Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut (2007) has sold to one million copies and became one of the highest-selling catalog items from Warner Bros.

Alexander was Oliver Stone’s first real attempt to branch out to a more mainstream audience with a historical epic, something that has not been successful at the box office since the 1970s. And it was just a colossal failure from all perspectives, especially when looking at how very un Oliver Stone-ish it was. That movie just failed to find a right tone for Stone to branch out.

He rebounded quickly though with his next film, World Trade Center, easily the best Nicolas Cage movie to come from him since Leaving Las Vegas. The film revolves around two New York City cops, John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), on September 11th as they venture into the burning World Trade Center following the plane crashes. The building collapses as both cops are trapped under the rubble fighting to stay alive. Both of them make it out alive with injuries all around. Oliver Stone has been known for many years as a dark director as well as a very controversial one directing such films as JFK and Natural Born Killers. World Trade Center doesn’t quite reach controversial levels and maybe that’s for the best but you can still tell it’s an Oliver Stone film. Unlike United 93, World Trade Center has a more satisfying ending mostly because we have proof that people actually did survive this event. In fact, I never found out there were any survivors of the WTC attacks until I saw the film. I mean, who would believe that people could actually survive something this tragic? I’ve seen World Trade Center more times than United 93. While it’s kind of hard to watch, it’s not as incredibly hard to watch as United 93 is. Even though I watch World Trade Center more times, I still think United 93 is the better film. But that doesn’t mean World Trade Center is a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a great movie, it’s one of the best movies Stone’s ever done.

And then he did W. in 2008, the George W. Bush biopic starring Josh Brolin, and you think, “okay, this is a chance for Stone to get back to those movies like JFK or Natural Born Killers, he’s taking on a controversial figure in American history so surely, he can’t screw this up.” And he doesn’t….for the most part.

I think with W., the first half of it is much better than the second half. That movie definitely has a lot of Stone’s style of directing he brought to those movies in the 90s but at the same time, you’re starting to get that sense that he’s becoming too mainstream with these scripted films he keeps getting, more than likely because the studio is probably telling him to make it more mainstream. Overall, a decent movie but not one of Stone’s bests.

And then the shit literally began to hit the fan in the 2010s:

2010 gave us Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the first example of the many, many, many, many, maNY, MANY, MANY, MANY, MANY sequels in the 2010s we did not need at all. And what a shock, it was a pale imitation of its’ groundbreaking predecessor of 23 years prior. The story is okay but there are parts of the story that are unnecessary like Eli Wallach’s character, who constantly makes bird noises and it gets really annoying when he doesn’t stop doing that. Also, I hate whenever something bad happens to one of the characters, something good happens afterwards. Like, there are two separate scenes where Jacob has a conflict that ends with something good happening. First, when Lewis Zabel, Jacob’s mentor, dies, what happens afterwards, he asks Winnie to marry him. That didn’t bother me. Second time, all hell breaks loose on Wall Street and what happens, Winnie tells Jacob she’s pregnant. That got me annoyed. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t buy into that and I thought it was annoying as hell. It’s like saying that my father is dead but hey, I just got a huge promotion at work. It’s sounds weird. Bottom line, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a disappointment but it has really great performances.

And then in 2012, we got Savages….and oh sweet mother of god, what a trainwreck that was. This movie is just a retread of so many things that we’ve seen done in other movies of this type. The cast is wasted here, the action scenes are poorly done, and the main villain, Salma Hayek, is so miscast. I’m sorry, I love Salma Hayek, but she can’t play villain very well. I was more scared of the female drug dealer in End Of Watch that I was with Hayek’s character, she’s not menacing at all and she’s just a cold hearted bitch. Savages is the prime example of a predictable and poorly made action movie that you would hope that a top director like Oliver Stone can find a way to make work but doesn’t.

Just this past year, we got Snowden after being delayed on a shelf at Open Road Studios for a year, not a good sign, but come on, it’s Oliver Stone returning to spotlighting a political story with one of the defining actors working today, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, how can he possibly screw this up? By playing it safe….yes, the man who made some of the more controversial movies of the 1970s, 80s and 90s has now been reduced to playing it safe for fucking studios. I watched this movie with the hope that this would be a return to form for Oliver Stone and I will tell you folks this, it isn’t. This is Oliver Stone being bitchslapped by a Hollywood studio into making a safe and marketable movie because we’ve got the Divergent chick and Spock in it too. The movie is a friggin’ insult to Stone’s legacy as a filmmaker, it’s like he’s being boiled down to make something safe and marketable to get the teens that would rather play on their goddamn phones than watch the damn movie into the theater. Hell, there was even a promo before the movie came out of Stone making fun of this:

This is how bad it’s gotten.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but respect for Oliver Stone and what he’s done over the last five decades and to be fair, he has not completely sold out. He’s still making these political documentaries in between these films such as his Untold History Of The United States series for Showtime along with several documentaries such as Persona Non Grata about the Israel -Palestinian conflict, Comandante in which he interviewed Fidel Castro along with Looking For Fidel, and just recently did two years worth of interviews with Vladimir Putin, which is being put into a documentary miniseries entitled The Putin Interviews for Showtime so I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he is still trying to keep to that style of filmmaking that made him a household name.

But when it comes to the recent set of scripted films he’s given, Oliver Stone, the once controversial director who had movies coming out that were provocative, spellbinding, and made you question aspects of our American History has unfortunately now been reduced to the same level that Ridley Scott is at right now, trying to recapture what made him successful in the first place but being told how to make it safe and marketable so families can come into the movie.

Hopefully someday Stone will be able to do the movies that Stone wants to do without somebody getting on him to make it a safe and marketable film. We want to see the tough Oliver Stone again, we want to see the Oliver Stone that wasn’t afraid to tackle the topical issues of the day and made great films regardless of how controversial they would become. If that day can come sooner rather than later, we would all be eternally grateful for it.

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