In many ways, Edward Snowden is the quintessential Oliver Stone figure — a man within the American military industrial complex who came to understand the vast overreach of his organization, opted to speak out against the system around him despite his small position, and was ostracized and punished for his decision to stand outside the structure. Stone’s military career was spent on the front lines of Vietnam before wars could be waged through computer screens, but like Snowden, he has made it his life’s work to expose what he believes to be the true nature of American government. After years of Wall Street sequels and meandering cocaine movies with Blake Lively in Mexico, Stone is now back to the kind of American mythology that made his career — so why does Snowden, out this weekend, feel like such an afterthought?
Oliver Stone began his career in the early 1980s as a screenwriter on films like Scarface and Conan the Barbarian, but his passion for storytelling quickly pushed him to the director’s chair. Like his contemporaries Brian De Palma or Steven Spielberg, Stone’s films draw from his intuitive understanding of how to create ideas for the camera. But where De Palma or Spielberg created images that spoke to the private dreams and lives of the American audiences that flocked to their movies through the 1980s, Stone’s films are concerned with public life, with the actions of nations as much as the actions of their citizens.
The old feminist maxim “the personal is political” has, today, become a dominant lens through which we view the way art impacts our world. Now we take for granted the understanding that all films are political in that they reflect a filmmaker’s idea of what the world could or should be, that even films as fanciful as Body Double or E.T. can be related to ideas about public life. But in the 1980s, Oliver Stone was unique in that his movies didn’t even need a political lens to be placed on top of the action — for Stone, politics were the action. Working within the Hollywood studio system for the majority of his career, he made films about post-traumatic stress, conspiracies to kill American presidents, mass murderers, and the chaos of war in Vietnam and El Salvador. Stone’s films weren’t always Platoon-level hits at the box office, but he was the industry’s conversation starter, focusing all the craft of the well-oiled machine around him on digging into the contradictions of the post-Vietnam boomer psyche.
Visually, aurally, and temporally, Stone is a robust filmmaker, willing to rely on overt abstraction and manipulation to convey ideas. His draw to iconography often manifests itself directly in the subjects of his films, as he places elemental figures of American culture at the center of his world — presidents in JFK and Nixon, soldiers in Platoon and Salvador, football players in Any Given Sunday, and the American flag just about everywhere. But what perhaps makes the peak era of Stone’s filmmaking feel so striking now is the unabashed and earnest emotionalism of his style. His characters speak without subterfuge — their feelings are expressed in every possible way Stone can find to express them, whether through dialogue, action, rapid edits, juxtapositions of image and sound, gestures, or color. Some filmmakers live by a “show, don’t tell” artistic code, but Oliver Stone shows and tells, and the images he crafts carry the weight of his largeness of spirit.
Stone wasn’t the first to start making films about Vietnam, but his image of Willem Dafoe in Platoon dying with his arms raised up to the heavens is an iconic symbol of the loss of innocence and hope that transpired due to America’s involvement in that war. In the climax of Born on the Fourth of July, Stone films disabled veteran Ron Kovic through a television screen as he explains with clarity and feeling why the war must be stopped‚ visually illustrating the end of Kovic’s feelings of invisibility following his experiences in the war. In Natural Born Killers, Stone came up with the idea to have scenes repeat in black and white, to explore the difference between the inner world of his anarchic protagonists and the way their actions are perceived by the outer world around them. Nixon is crowded into increasingly claustrophobic frames of the president’s time in office, the canted angles signaling Nixon’s precarious perception of reality. As Barry Champlain breaks down into his microphone, insulting his listeners and panicking about the nature of media in Talk Radio, the camera spins with him, making him the only point of stability in a swirling and disorienting world. These images aren’t anomalies for Stone — his filmmaking presents an almost biblical vision of righteousness and loss. At his best he is an oracle of images, but it’s been a while since Stone was at his best.
Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz published a new book on Stone this week, The Oliver Stone Experience, which is the most extensive account of Stone’s professional and personal lives, a kind of visual tour through his films, his mind, his passions, and his past. In the process of making the book, Stone came to describe Seitz as his personal biographer, and the interviews in the book very quickly burrow past the films at hand to Stone himself as he discusses his childhood, experiences in Vietnam, and relationship to the American media. True to its title, the book gives the reader The Oliver Stone Experience — and the result, even after 400 pages, is unresolved and thorny. Stone criticizes his friend Martin Scorsese for getting his 80-year-old rocks off making movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, describes lost days of researching movies about cocaine by doing cocaine, recounts stories of nearly being murdered by collaborators, and fondly remembers the days when he was the one blowing himself up on set before the insurance companies started setting safety standards. Oliver Stone lived large and made large films, without taking into account the kinds of risks to reputation and credibility a single-minded pursuit of hidden truth can incur.
The turning point for Stone came in 1991 with the release of his film JFK, about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the doubts over the Warren Commission, which claimed that the murder was accomplished by a single shooter. Looking at the movie now, it’s hard to understand the impact of Stone’s artistry, as the editing techniques that he used have been normalized and routinely repeated by documentary filmmakers in the years since the film was released — a fate more than a little ironic considering the uproar over historical accuracy in Stone’s film. If it’s hard to perceive Stone’s ingenuity in layering monologues over flashbacks, mixing fictional sound with archival images, and collapsing the boundaries between past and present, it’s easy to understand why the movie caused such an impact politically and culturally. Stone doesn’t resolve the mystery of John F. Kennedy’s death — instead, the film is a portrait of a rational man drawn into doubt, as a collection of housewives, sex workers, and anonymous tippers present a shadowy alternative to an increasingly implausible official narrative. What the government presents seems doubtful, but the conspiracies Stone offers as the untold narrative seem insane, and his propensity for exaggeration and overemphasis become less than appealing when the theory he’s backing is that a cabal of unrecognizably flamboyant gay men conspired with the government to kill President John F. Kennedy. Had Stone played coy with the press, hedging his bets at declaring his film an articulation of what really happened to Kennedy, maybe the film could have passed as an artistic statement and not a journalistic one. But Stone took a fundamentalist stand and refused to disavow the film as truth, and he continues to defend the theories in the film even now. JFK was a massive success at the box office, a massive artistic achievement, and a massive player at that year’s Academy Awards — but Oliver Stone would never be free from scrutiny again.
The scrutiny has followed Stone to Snowden, and from the start of the film’s production, the film has been plagued with doubts, both from participants and from the media. The New York Times followed Stone through a brief period of the film’s production, detailing the paranoia and anxiety that went along with the making of a film about America’s most wanted fugitive by America’s most suspicious auteur: Stone worked at a furious pace on no sleep, was sure he was being watched by government agents, and was hurt that the film wasn’t financed by a major studio, convinced that the decision was based on collusion between corporations that own the studios and the government. All of these scenarios are possible — even probable considering the international attention on Edward Snowden and his contacts in Russia — but the portrait of Stone that the article paints makes his fears seem dubious. In a meeting with journalist and documentarian Laura Poitras, Stone asks her to postpone the release of her groundbreaking film with Snowden, Citizenfour. Later on, after she refused, he (jokingly?) choked her. Where anxiety and excess were once part of Stone’s mythos, the Stone of 2016 has been stripped of heroism and reduced to his ego — in fairness, much as he always suspected he would be.
Though Snowden represents a return to the core of Stone’s filmmaking, the last film of his to deeply move me was World Trade Center, which followed a team of firefighters into the towers on 9/11. The events of September 11, 2001, were probably as inevitable a subject for Stone as Edward Snowden or Lee Harvey Oswald, since the day irrevocably changed the course of America’s policy, culture, and ambitions. In comparison, the way 9/11 changed the world for Oliver Stone is a matter of minor concern, but the consciousness of the American people has shifted, subtly but surely, in a way that he could hardly have anticipated. The attack on the World Trade Center was the result of more than two decades of military campaigns that were downplayed in the press at the time of their activity, and though the attack on the Pentagon that day was less deadly, it was an even more direct reminder that the catalyst for the attack was the overreach of American foreign policy. The anger and the panic that ensued over the attacks led to another military campaign into the Middle East that is still ongoing, seemingly with no end, and as a result an entire generation has grown up watching in real time as the effects of American military arrogance destabilized the region. If Stone rose to the top of the film industry by diving under the surface to uncover buried truths, the new millennium has shifted the sands. The tragedy of the prophet Oliver Stone is like a story out of one of his movies: What happens to the artist when what were once revelations are now last week’s news?