Oliver Stone: Autuer of Historical Dramas

With 3 academy awards and another 8 nominations, Oliver Stone is a highly accomplished filmmaker. Writer, producer, director, and cameo actor, Stone makes films that center around a single character’s perspective and deal with themes of lost innocence and disillusionment. The consistency of his style and the notoriety of his work have elevated him to the status of a true auteur. His subjects tend to involve significant and controversial political and social figures or events, such as Jim Morrison in The Doors, Richard Nixon in Nixon, the assassination of John F. Kennedy in JFK, Wall Street scandals in Wall Street, and most prominently the Vietnam War in his films Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth. While many of his historical films, politically driven or not, have incited severe criticism for their views or accuracy, Stone relates “I consider my films first and foremost to be dramas about individuals in personal struggles, and I consider myself to be a dramatist before I am a political filmmaker (Crowdus).” This explains why many of Stone’s films are biographical, and tend to focus on the point of view of a single character. Because of his preoccupation with character, the formal elements he employs tend to focus on portraying the subjective world of his characters in addition to incorporating a broader social context into his films. The struggles his characters face are struggles he himself knows all too well: the struggle for destiny and morality in a chaotic world.

Many Details of Stone’s life inform the recurring thematic views of his films. Born to a wealthy socialite family in New York, Stone attended elite private schools as a child. He grew up with dreams of becoming a writer. Privileged as he was, his world began to fall apart when at fifteen he learned his father was in debt and his parents were divorced because of his father’s infidelity. Stone’s father paid for him to attend Yale, but he dropped out after a year to teach in Saigon. Stone returned a year later and attended Yale once again only to drop out a second time. He instead invested his time in a novel he was writing. When the novel failed to get published, Stone found himself dejected and disillusioned and decided to enlist in the U.S. army. He was shipped off to Vietnam, where he specifically requested combat duty. His idealistic zeal to fight for the rights of the Vietnamese was immediately reduced to a fight for survival. After being wounded multiple times, committing morally questionable acts and being exposed to drugs Stone was discharged and he returned to the U.S. only to go to Mexico. Upon his return to the U.S. Stone was arrested for possession of two ounces of Marijuana. After his father bailed him out, Stone decided to turn his life around and enroll in the New York University Film School (Filmakers.com).

With his idealistic youth having fallen to pieces, Stone is no stranger to disillusionment. Having gone from a hopeful, privileged teen to a college drop-out, a failed writer, and a confused soldier, Stone’s eventual destiny was not the one he set out to fulfill. This explains why disillusionment is a recurring motif in his films. In Platoon, Chris dropped out of college to fight in a senseless war in which his ideals and morals were rendered irrelevant. In the aftermath of the final battle scene, his hopelessness is revealed when we see him about to frag himself with a grenade. In Born on the Fourth of July Kovic gave up the dream of going to college to fight in a war that wounded his body and conscience. In The Doors Morrison’s quest to “test the bounds of reality” ended up hurting the people who cared about him and left him exiled. Stone’s character’s struggles to reconcile their hopes, dreams, and ideals with the decisions they have made and the acts they have committed in many ways reflect his own struggle. His experience in the war provided him with a radical shift in perspective from his home life: “…one of the most significant things I learned over there [in Vietnam] was that there’s sort of a perceived life that you get when you’re raised. College students get it, you read it in books; your thinking is perceptions that have been taught to you. Very Pavlovian in a way. And when I got to the infantry, I really saw life smack up in front of my face. As a result, you never can get quite back. It’s a question of what is authentic in your life, finally. What are your real feelings? How do you really feel about the way you are? How you are alive, what you are here for — once you ask yourself these questions (they’re all Socratic ones, I guess), once you get into that arena, how do you go back into believing what “they” tell you?” (Krieseler)

Having participated in the horrors of war, Stone can strongly identify with themes that run through his work of lost innocence: “And I’m looking back on my life and I realize that the toll that I had to pay, or that my generation had to pay, to get through that period was unnecessary. And it changed the course of our lives and time forever. And it’s hard to get back, because once you’ve lost that spot of innocence, perhaps, that you had when Kennedy got killed and then Nixon performed his acts, all that shaped us to the way we are now. You too. I’m — we’re all shaped by it. Life became what it did in America as a result of that, and that’s what’s fascinating” (globetrotter). Here we see not just his personal identification with the theme of lost innocence, but also his fascination by how political events can affect the collective conscience of America. The same theme runs throughout his films and constitutes much of the character dilemmas he portrays. In Platoon, we witness the symbolic loss of innocence when Barnes, the antagonist of the platoon who consistently crosses the boundaries of human decency, murders Elias, who represents the hope for a sense of morality in the chaotic, senseless world of war (Emanuel Levy). Chris loses his own innocence when he murders Barnes, a final act of retribution and an attempt to reconcile the triumph of abandoned morality within the platoon. We expect this theme from the beginning of the film, as the tagline on the DVD cover reads: “the first casualty of war is innocence.” After his platoon murders a group of women and children and Kovic shoots Wilson, Kovic’s conscience is dominated by regret throughout Born on the Fourth of July: we hear the cries of a baby who perished haunting Kovic upon his return home. Stone also returns repeatedly to a shot of Wilson’s face as he dies. In The Doors, Morrison’s loss of innocence occurs when the spirit of a dead Indian leaps into his soul and drives him to adopt the shamanic identity that leads to his excessive drug use. In Natural Born Killers, sequences from Micky’s tormented childhood are shown repeatedly as the root of his murderous persona. Mallory’s twisted childhood too serves as the cause of her dejection and hatred which cause her to kill. As Stone’s main objective is to portray these themes in his characters, we see the consistent use of formal film techniques to place the viewer in the subjective universe of the characters.

Stone’s use of lighting is effective in enhancing the subjective point of view of his characters and reveals insights about their psyches. In The Doors we see artificial colors, heightened in intensity, and patterned spirals of light and shadow in the scene at Andy Warhol’s party to reinforce Morrison’s psycadelic state of mind. In the scene in which Morrison discovers that he’s having a nervous breakdown after being arrested for obscenity and losing a number of the Doors’ tour dates, we see pervasive red lighting throughout the room and especially across his face. This signifies that he is in deep psychological distress, and induces a general feeling of danger in the viewer. We see similar red lighting with a similar functionality in the sequence in which Morrison contemplates suicide while walking high up on the outside face of a hotel building. In Born on the Fourth of July we see a battle scene in which the light red and deep orange tones of dusk pervade the beach. Each character is red with the reflected sunset, foreshadowing the danger of the upcoming battle. After his unit accidentally kills a number of children and he shoots down an American soldier in the confusion of the battle, we see Kovic’s figure rendered a black silhouette and the landscape washed out in a deep red by the setting sun . The darkness of Kovic’s figure represents the death of innocence, and the overwhelming red signifies the blood on his hands for the senseless murders he has committed. In Platoon we see an allegory of Chris’s internal struggle reflected in the lighting design of the film. Throughout the jungle sequences we see shots of sunlight obscured by the tree cover, reminiscent of Rashomon, representing the consciences of the soldiers being twisted and their sense of morality being clouded by the violent conditions of the jungle. In the final scene in which Chris is being flown out by helicopter, wounded but finally free of the war, we see his face washed out by sunlight. This represents the reconciliation of his inner struggle between his sense of right and wrong and the acts he has committed, between his innocence and naiveté and the brutal reality of war. We also see the enemy soldiers only as black silhouettes during battle scenes, reflecting the anonymity of the enemy and reinforcing the theme that the soldiers themselves are confused about who the enemy truly is (O’Brian). In Natural Born Killers, when Micky and Mallory are seeking antivenom in the Drug Zone after being bitten by rattlesnakes, the color design becomes dominated by a sickly green. This reinforces not only that they have been poisoned, but that the sickest aspect of their psyches, or the diseased part of their minds, has been revealed by their murder of the innocent Indian in the previous scene. Throughout the film we see bright red lighting dominating the color design, corresponding to the pervasive motifs of sex and bloodshed.

Stone’s cinematography and editing also function effectively in revealing the emotional and psychological states of the characters. In Born on the Fourth of July we see quick, blurred whips and shaky framing which reflect the soldier’s confusion, fear, and excitement during battle. In the sequences in which Kovic kills Wilson and in which he gets wounded we see the quick pace of the battle slowed with drawn out slow motion shots. This functions to increase the dramatic intensity of those moments, as they are life-changing points in Kovic’s story. In The Doors, during the scene after Warhol’s party in which Morrison does more drugs and Pam finds him with another woman, the canted framing reflects how off-balance and messed up Morrison is not only physically because of the alcohol and drugs but also psychologically because he’s cheating on his girlfriend. In his nervous breakdown scene the quick lateral whips and quickened editing build to a crescendo and end with a longer shot of the teary-eyed Morrison. The pace of the sequence implies that Morrison’s life moves far too fast for him to have any control over it, and the final shot shows the devastating emotional consequences Morrison is facing. In the dark battle scenes of Platoon we see the 180 degree rule consistently broken to avoid clearly drawn battle lines. This portrays the confusion of the soldiers during battle, as there is fighting with the Vietcong as well as within the platoon. Throughout Natural Born Killers we see extreme, pervasive canted framing, revealing how twisted and crazed the characters are and making the viewer uncomfortable as they view constant acts of senseless violence.

Another aesthetic trademark is the way Stone switches up the film stock and format of his movies to add a broader social context and incorporate broader themes into his films. In Natural Born Killers, during Micky and Mallory’s marriage scene, we see a combination of normal film stock, home movie format, black and white film stock, and cartoon animation. Often in Killers we see black and white television, newsreels, and newspaper headlines cropped into the background of the scenes, such as when Micky and Mallory are holding the woman hostage in the motel room and during their car ride in the opening credits. This functions to incorporate commentary on the glorification of violence in the media, as most of the scenes portrayed are of disturbing violent imagery (Allen). It also adds to the delirious tone of the film (Montreal film journal). In the nervous breakdown scene in The Doors, we see images of tumultuous sixties political and cultural events on the television, such as the Vietnam war, Charles Manson, spaceflight, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy speaking followed by gunshots ringing out, and Richard Nixon throwing up peace signs. This functions to add a broader social context to Jim Morrison’s breakdown, implying that the socio-political events depicted contributed to his mental collapse and that his nervous breakdown is an allegory for what happened to the collective consciousness of the country during the sixties. In Born on the Fourth of July we see footage on the television of John F. Kennedy imploring the American people “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” This quote is Kovic’s inspiration to join the Marines, and helps relate his story to the broader social context of the sixties.

Stone’s historical dramas are more than visually stunning portraits of characters: they are imbued with commentary on and criticism of the crimes and hypocrisies our nation has committed. While simultaneously portraying powerful personal dramas and broad social issues, Stone incorporates an uncommon depth of meaning into his films. While using a variety of formal elements to portray the subjective universes of his characters, he consistently depicts themes of disillusionment and loss of innocence on a personal as well as social scale. Stone is one of the nation’s most valuable filmmakers not only because of the entertainment value of his films but because he makes the viewer think deeply about what they have seen and causes them to feel strongly about the issues he portrays.

Works Cited:
Crowdus, Gary. Personal Struggles and Political Issues: an Interview with Oliver Stone. Cineaste. Retrieved December 2, 2008 from http://www.cineaste.com/articles/stone-interview.pdf

Filmakers.com. Filmmaker Oliver Stone Biography. Retrieved December 2, 2008 from http://www.filmmakers.com/artists/oliverstone/biography/index.htm

Levy, Emanuel. Platoon. Retrieved December 2, 2008 from http://emanuellevy.com/search/details.cfm?id=2289

O’Brian, Jason. (11/27/2008). Platoon (1986). Retrieved December 2, 2008 from http://www.oscarworld.net/ostone/default.asp?PageId=10

Montreal Film Journal. Natural Born Killers. Retrieved December 2, 2008 from http://montrealfilmjournal.com/review.asp?R=R0000384

Allen, Keith. (2005). Natural Born Killers (1984). Retrieved December 2, 2008 from http://www.movierapture.com/naturalbornkillers.htm

Krielseler, Harry. (1997). History and the Movies: an Interview with Oliver Stone. Retrieved December 2, 2008 from http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/Stone/stone-con1.html