No matter the many criticisms levied at Snowden, Oliver Stone’s recent hagiography of CIA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, you can’t say it’s not the work of an auteur. For better or worse, Snowden is an Oliver Stone joint through-and-through.
The Easter eggs are numerous and unmistakable — the one-word titular title, the ripped-from-the-headlines premise, the idealistic protagonist whose principles are put to the test by an evil father figure, the shallow engagement with historical complexity, the casual sexism. Stone’s calculus for what artistic license does and doesn’t allow for in a biopic remains as curious as ever. Snowden is a movie in which the particulars of XKEYSCORE are only glancingly explained, and yet there’s time for a scene that depicts Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), teaching a pole-dancing class. Like I said, total Oliver Stone joint.
The only thing missing from Snowden when I caught a press screening last week was that intangible feeling that we were seeing something important. The excitement for a new Oliver Stone film, that sense of witnessing a cultural event, simply was not there. It seemed strange, though at this point, it probably shouldn’t be.
While Stone remains an A-list director who works with top talent, the period of Stone’s career when his films rocked the culture has long passed. As a cinephile who started caring about movies when Stone was at his peak in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I’m not sure if I’ve fully wrapped my head around the fact that Oliver Stone doesn’t matter anymore. Now, you actually have to explain to filmgoers in their teens and twenties that there was a brief window of time when Stone’s reach and influence seemed to overshadow even Scorsese and Spielberg. To anyone younger than I am, it might be equally hard to fathom that Stone did matter once.
I swear it’s true – from 1986’s Platoon to 1994’s Natural Born Killers, Stone was arguably the most revered, argued-about, and famous director in the world. Platoon winning Best Picture in 1987 signaled the beginning of his glory years, during which 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July and 1991’s JFK also garnered Best Picture noms. Stone himself won two Best Director awards, for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, adding to an Oscar tally that began in 1978 when he won Best Adapted Screenplay for Midnight Express. Stone’s films prompted national debates and inspired classic Seinfeld parodies. Not everyone liked him, but if you cared about movies, you had to reckon with Stone’s work sooner or later.
And then … Oliver Stone didn’t go away, exactly, but he was marginalized. Critically, it became unfashionable to champion his work. He kept making movies, but they didn’t dominate pop culture the way his old films did. Oliver Stone faded.
Here’s the part (cue “Adagio for Strings”) where I confess that I was a serious Oliver Stone acolyte in my teens. Like all teenagers, I wanted to be treated as an adult, and at that time, in my head at least, Oliver Stone was the epitome of adult cinema. He made movies about war, greed, the collapse of idealism, political corruption, and the pernicious pervasiveness of media. This was the stuff that existed on the other side of the bedroom door when kids went to sleep at night, and I wanted to learn about it. That Stone liked to open his films with epigraphs from the Bible only deepened their relevance as gospels from the grown-up world. Seeing an Oliver Stone movie was like learning about the Birds and the Bees, or smoking a clove cigarette. It meant you weren’t a kid anymore.
Back then, Oliver Stone movies weren’t just events, they were benchmarks in my life. I bought the Platoon soundtrack on cassette, even though I was too young to see the movie. (I was 9 when Platoon won Best Picture.) I did a book report in the seventh grade on a tome about Denver shock jock Alan Berg, one of the inspirations for Stone’s 1988 film, Talk Radio. My inevitable junior high Doors phase was directly inspired by Stone’s ecstatic 1991 biopic, The Doors, which I watched endlessly on videotape. Finally, I insisted that my brother drive me to the mall so I could see JFK, my first Oliver Stone movie on the big-screen, which sent me through the looking-glass of government conspiracy and hyperactive film editing.
My gateway drug was 1987’s Wall Street — a confounding video-store selection for a kid still on the cusp of puberty, but it blew my mind regardless. Wall Street is about an idealistic protagonist (Charlie Sheen) with a sexy girlfriend (Daryl Hannah) whose principles are put to the test by an evil father figure (Michael Douglas). The mechanics of insider trading are glossed over, but we do see Sheen receive oral sex in the back of a limousine. At the time, I thought Wall Street was one of the greatest movies ever made.
In this scene, the exquisitely named Gordon Gekko explains how capitalism works to our hero Bud Fox. Gekko is named after a reptile, of course, but Stone further underlines the dastardly nature of the character by slicking back his hair, Pat Riley-style, and amping up the sound of his clinking ice cubes until they roar like foreboding thunder. (In another scene, Stone literally overdubs thunder to emphasize Gekko’s badness.)
A common complaint about Oliver Stone movies is that rather than hint at themes so that the audience can draw its own conclusions, Stone always takes the shortcut of having a character explicitly express the central point of the movie. For instance, in Snowden, there’s a scene in which one of Snowden’s co-workers explains away the criminality of spying on private citizens. We’re justified because we work for the government, the guy argues.
“Ever heard of the Nuremberg trials?” replies Snowden.
When I was a teenage Oliver Stone fan, this didn’t bother me. Because I was a dumb kid, and I needed moral arguments to be simple and reductive so I could understand them. This was Oliver Stone’s function: He purposely pursued subject matter that was difficult and ambiguous, and he sought to clarify it. In retrospect, Stone’s lack of grace can be thunderously obvious. But as a starting point, his films were accessible and necessary to me. Turns out I wasn’t enjoying movies designed for adults — I was the exact right age for Oliver Stone after all.
The tide turned with Natural Born Killers, though given the insane run of success, acclaim, and controversy that Stone was on for nearly a decade before that, it’s possible that any film would’ve brought him back to Earth. But Natural Born Killers was a departure point for me primarily because of the film’s screenwriter, Quentin Tarantino.
As he was to countless other 16-year-old film dorks in 1994, Tarantino was my new hero, and I obsessed not only over his films but also his interviews. Tarantino famously disowned Natural Born Killers before it was released, decrying Stone’s decidedly not-cool treatment of his cooler-than-cool script.
“To me the best thing about him is his energy,” Tarantino said of Stone. “But his biggest problem is that his obviousness cancels out his energy and his energy pumps up his obviousness.”
It had never occurred to me before then that Oliver Stone movies were “obvious,” but now I couldn’t unsee it. I didn’t stop caring about his movies overnight — I saw 1995’s Nixon and 1997’s U-Turn on their respective opening weekends, and I later bought 1999’s Any Given Sunday on DVD. But I came to see Stone’s movies as dated relics of 1980s excess, the over-the-top Guns N’ Roses to Tarantino’s insurgent Nirvana.
For a long time, I stayed away. I didn’t bother seeing 2004’s Alexander, widely derided as a disaster. After living through the real-life 9/11, I couldn’t fathom sitting through Stone’s 9/11 movie, 2006’s World Trade Center. I relapsed with 2008’s shockingly even-handed W., the rare Oliver Stone film that’s nowhere near excessive enough. By then, Oliver Stone seemed like something best left back in my childhood.
Then, around the time of 2012’s adequately excessive Savages, I pivoted back to Stone, just as I eventually pivoted back to the Use Your Illusion albums. Maybe it was nostalgia, but I’m not ashamed to say that I missed Stone’s movies. Plus, I was excited about the B-movie premise of Savages, in which Riggins from Friday Night Lights must rescue Blake Lively from the curvy clutches of drug lord Selma Hayek. Savages put Stone back in Scarface territory — the milieu is drugs, shootouts, and ample cleavage, an ideal arena for Stone’s skills as a master showman of violence and vulgarity. This is what Stone’s critics, and perhaps even Stone himself, don’t understand about his gifts: He’s better appreciated as an amoral cinematic hedonist than an arbiter of moral conscience.
Around the time of Natural Born Killers, Stone dismissed Tarantino as a maker of “movies,” whereas he was an artist who made “films.” But Stone has always been more adept at red-meat bombast than cerebral nuance. Embrace the bombast, and Stone’s best movies still have a lot to offer. 1986’s Salvador is a wild, Peckinpah-esque romp that highlights Stone’s flair for highly quotable and thoroughly disreputable sleaze. (“Where else can you get a virgin to sit on your face for seven bucks?”) Ditto that for Wall Street and Talk Radio, Stone’s most entertaining media satire. Even Natural Born Killers, a film I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed but always feel excited to re-watch, exhibits Stone’s undeniable knack for spectacle. (Snowden by comparison is a relatively staid film about a computer nerd, no matter Stone’s extra-attention to his subject’s sex life.)
For years I was loathe to admit it for fear of being mocked by my film-snob friends, but Stone played a pivotal role in shaping my love and understanding of movies. He’s my personal Gordon Gekko, a man of questionable taste who preached the glories of greed for no-holds-barred cinema when I was at an impressionable age. Even if Oliver Stone is no longer considered important, he’ll always be important to me.