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APRIL 20, 1998: 

1986 was something of a banner year for Oliver Stone, the eccentric director who, at the time, was best known for directing Michael Caine in the goofy horror flick The Hand (1981), now a standby of late night TV. Five years later, Stone was to direct Salvador (1986) and Platoon (1986), two films that launched him to an A-list status that persists today, despite his bad habit of alternating genius megahits with questionable experimental films.

Platoon remains one of the most controversial looks at Vietnam produced to date. Denounced by military types and esteemed by critics, the film shows what is undoubtedly the most realistic, and personal, study of the war, as Stone based the script on his own experiences as a GI. The film would ultimately earn eight Oscar nominations and win four, including Best Picture. There will always be second guessing over Stone's choice of Charlie Sheen to play his alter-ego, and his performance is nothing to write home about, but I think Sheen adds a comfortable, Everyman quality to the picture that is found in many of Stone's films. Because Sheen is so vapidly blank, he "maybe unintentionally" gets across the idea that the events could have happened to anyone. Oliver Stone, you ask... humble?

That kind of talk would be dashed only a year later when Stone landed with Wall Street (1987). A decade after the film's release, Michael Douglas' smarmy Gordon Gekko is still the paragon for avarice, with his infamous tagline of "greed is good." It was good enough to get Douglas a Best Actor Academy Award. If you want a primer on how money is really made in financial markets, there is no better source than this masterpiece. But once again, Stone picked Charlie Sheen to play the lead, and even more questionably, Daryl Hannah as the love interest. He even got Charlie's dad to play, well, Charlie's dad. Despite the casting issues, Wall Street is a movie I never tire of watching, and thanks to the USA network, you can see it almost every weekend.

Despite Hollywood pundits' best advice, unlikable, even hateful, characters keep popping up in Stone's leading roles. It was a trend he started in Salvador with James Woods and James Belushi as down-and-out Americans south of the border, continued in Wall Street, and took a step further in Talk Radio (1988). Like most of Stone's work, Talk Radio is semi-reality-based, and Eric Bogosian's portrayal of a bitter talk show radio host turned a lot of people off. The combination of Stone's cynicism and Bogosian's malevolence was just too much.

Perhaps as redemption, Stone returned to his roots, attempting to relive his past success with another Vietnam story, Born on the Fourth of July(1989). Another true story, July tells us about the war at home through the eyes of wheelchair-bound Ron Kovic, played by Tom Cruise, a casting choice that seems unthinkable today. Highly lauded at the time, the film seems to have now lost much of its punch. Anti-war sentiment seems to have dissipated, thanks to an entire generation (including myself) that hasn't known any "war" outside of Desert Storm. With July's success, Stone was not content to rest on his laurels, and he insisted on completing a vague trilogy of war films with Heaven And Earth(1993). In Heaven, Stone looked at a Vietnamese woman (Hiep Thi Le) during foreign occupation. Tommy Lee Jones shows up to save her from the horrors of war and bring her to America, I guess. I don't think I've ever made it through the whole movie awake. At the time, Le was heralded as the Next Big Thing, but she vanished from the map as soon as she appeared. Probably just as well.

Instead of Heaven and Earth, I prefer to think of JFK (1991; Kevin Costner, Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones) as the conclusion to Stone's trilogy on Vietnam. One of my favorite movies of all time, JFK is three hours of delicious, controversial conspiracy theory that feels new on every viewing. Whether or not you buy the Magic Bullet theory, JFK has so much to offer that it's must-see viewing for serious cinephiles and history buffs alike. Unfortunately, Stone misfired with his follow-up Nixon (1995), an overwrought movie that drags on forever and sheds little light on the beleaguered president, except for the fact that he sure did have a potty mouth.

Then there's Natural Born Killers (1994; Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis). This movie is still causing a ruckus, not because it was any good, but because it's allegedly still inspiring kids to go on copycat killing sprees. You'd think that if some kid wanted to kill people, he'd find a better role model than this. But NBK still bears mentioning, because it was Stone's grand experiment (and failure) at making a film that violated just about every rule of filmmaking, an idea you could see he was tinkering with in his Jim Morrison biopic The Doors (1991; Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan). Not content to let the experiment stand as an fabulous train wreck, Stone gave avant-garde filmmaking another go with U-Turn(1997; Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte), just released on home video. By once again combining bizarro cinematography with ultra-eccentric characters, Stone has given us another movie that will ultimately be forgotten as a way station between masterpieces.

I still have my hopes for another work of genius from Stone, and while I wait, I'm content with the reruns. In the meantime, Oliver: Don't worry, we still hear you... "Back and to the left. Back and to the left. Back and to the left...." --Christopher Null


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