I was a teenager when I first became aware of Oliver Stone’s movies but I remember taking very little notice of either Platoon or Wall Street at the time. I appreciated that they were well-crafted films that won awards for writing and direction, featuring actors that I respected, Charlie and Martin Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Michael Douglas and the sublime John C. McGinley.
However, for my taste, they were just too realistic to be of interest; instead, as a budding actor, I was obsessed by the highly stylised, absurdist theatre of Harold Pinter and Steven Berkoff. It wasn’t until I saw both The Doors and JFK whilst touring America in 1991 that Oliver Stone emerged as one of my most treasured filmmakers. In his extensive film commentaries he reveals a passion not just for cinema but classical history, politics and truth as an ideal; even if it’s a subjective truth.
There was a lot of hype surrounding The Doors on its opening weekend, I was lucky to see it in Santa Monica, California, where a massive turnout of the band’s local, loyal fan base attended the movie as if they were going to an actual rock concert, whenever Val Kilmer took to the stage imbued by the spirit of the ‘Lizard King’ himself, the audience would get up out of their seats; it was an astonishing spectacle to observe as a young Brit on his first visit to the United States!
Whilst Kilmer’s portrayal of Jim Morrison is uncanny it goes beyond mere imitation, there is genuine emotional turmoil in his ‘heavy’ scenes. The supporting cast of Kyle MacLachlan (keyboardist, Ray Manzarek), Frank Whalley (lead guitarist, Robby Krieger) and Kevin Dillon (drummer, John Densmore) are equally superb and bring to the band both the dynamism and camaraderie of good friends making music together, in contrast to Jim Morrison’s death-driven need for it to be something so much more profound than that. The only one who feels out of place amongst all this is Meg Ryan, who Stone admits in his commentary is just a bit too straight-laced and clean-living to be truly convincing as Jim’s common-law wife, Pamela Courson.
Aside from the acting and the music performances, the look of the film is also fantastic with Stone’s regular cinematographer, Robert Richardson on hand to provide an authentic psychedelic look and feel, the striking time-lapse sequences and hallucinogenic dissolves and jump cuts that punctuate the Californian desert vistas. It also features one of cinema history’s best drunken/stoned sequences as we follow Morrison through The Factory in search of Andy Warhol played with creepily, camp detachment by Crispin Glover; this must be steadicam operator, J. Michael Muro’s finest hour.
For his second feature film of 1991 Stone focuses on the only criminal trial brought about in the case of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Kevin Costner stars as Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney whose pursuit of local businessman, Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) involved subpoenaing the Zapruder film from Life magazine 6 years later, which had not been seen by the general public up to that point. Costner’s Garrison is a mixture of Gary Cooper’s Mr. Deeds and James Stewart’s Mr. Smith as Stone dollops a large portion of Capracorn on the film’s family oriented scenes, although this sentimentality doesn’t reduce the overall visceral impact of the movie.
Whilst many criticised Stone for misrepresenting key witness accounts in order to suggest a secret government backed Coup involving the CIA, Cuban exiles and the Mafia with the prime objective of extending the war in Vietnam, a focal theme in almost all of Stone’s movies, an objective audience cannot help but come to the conclusion that the official inquiry as documented in the Warren Commission Report was clearly an inadequate representation of the facts and as a direct result of the film’s popularity the Assassination Records Review Board was formed in 1992 to review previously classified documents pertaining to the case and making all evidence available to the general public by 2017. JFK’s prevailing theme is the quest for truth and as a modern morality play it endures as one of Stone’s most engaging movies.
If JFK could be compared to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar then 1995’s Nixon plays more like King Lear with Anthony Hopkins taking the title role and investing it with self-doubt, survivor’s guilt, petty jealousy, and, ultimately, pathos; here is a man who had the potential to be great, but who wasn’t. I love showing JFK to new audiences but privately I prefer to revisit Nixon as there is something more dramatically satisfying about the grand tragedy inherent in Hopkins central performance that isn’t matched by the humble heroism of Costner’s Jim Garrison, who always seems to be punching above his weight.
We are fortunate that most of Oliver Stone’s films are already available on Blu-ray and in the coming weeks I shall be providing thorough hidef reviews of The Doors, JFK, Nixon, World Trade Centre and W. in anticipation of his latest cinematic release Savages starring Aaron Kick-Ass Johnson.
I’m pleased to announce that @TheOliverStone is now on Twitter.