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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Frenzy on the Wall: Surprise! Oliver Stone is Chasing Controversy

When I was a young film fan, Oliver Stone was one of my favorite filmmakers. I watched films like Platoon, JFK, Wall Street, and Natural Born Killers during my days in junior high. Later on, films like Salvador, Born on the Fourth of July, Talk Radio, and The Doors were often in my rotation of films to re-watch.

From the writing of Midnight Express all the way up to the release of Nixon in 1995, Oliver Stone was quite possibly the best working filmmaker. He consistently made films that not only entertained, but went to strange and interesting places, probing the darkness of the human spirit in ways that no other filmmaker dared. His films were political, often bordering on propaganda, but they never lost sight of the characters.

Then something changed. U-Turn was an interesting mess and Any Given Sunday is so sloppy and over-acted, it’s hard to enjoy the things it actually gets right. Then Alexander was just a massive failure, from its conception to its casting and then the execution. The writing was weak, the editing even worse and it seemed like Stone had no idea how to direct his actors. I wonder if the failure of Alexander, coupled with his documentary about Fidel Castro (and subsequent friendship with the dictator) inspired an even bigger change in the man.

tone is still a good filmmaker in the sense that he has an understanding of cinema and its possibilities better than most directors. But while Stone never shied away from controversy in the past, now it seems like he’s intent on chasing it. It’s one thing to be a filmmaker who dabbles in films that deal with controversial issues, but it’s quite another to purposefully take on the hot button issues of the time and churn out films with broad, sweeping messages without thinking about context.

A film like W. is really nothing more than the ambulance-chasing act of a desperate lawyer who has nothing new to add. But more than that, it is a remarkably short-sighted film; one doesn’t have to be a fan of President Bush to believe that it might be best to save the biopics for a future date – like sometime after his term had ended. I’m not saying the future will show that George W. was a good president, but the effect of his presidency have not been fully felt yet. Even Stone’s Nixon film, made two decades after the man resigned, seems somewhat dated now that we have a better idea of Nixon’s accomplishments (as well as a better idea of his failures).

Now Stone’s follow-up is Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. I’ve yet to see the film, but I find it to be an almost ironic move for Stone. The point of the first Wall Street film (and I’m assuming this will be true of the sequel) was that Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” speech was silly. Except, it’s kind of hard to take it seriously when Stone seems to be making a blatantly greedy move by revisiting characters that did not need to be revisited. When the first Wall Street film ended, I felt comfortable with where those characters were left; I didn’t have unanswered questions.

But then, of course, the economy became a hot-button issue. And that’s when filmmakers like Michael Moore and Oliver Stone race to release movies about the topic on everyone’s mind. The interesting thing to me about the first Wall Street film is that I never felt like it was sermonizing, but judging from the tone of the last decade of Stone films, I won’t be surprised if this new film is polemical. I’ll reserve judgment until I see it, though.

But what I can’t reserve my judgment on is Stone’s shift as a filmmaker. Aside from injecting a political message in all of his films in a very heavy-handed way, the saddest truth is that he’s just not making interesting cinema any longer. My biggest fear is not that Stone is courting controversy because that’s what interests him, but that he’s courting controversy in a last-ditch attempt to be a relevant filmmaker in an age when he doesn’t really have anything new or different to say.

W. showed that Stone had very little grasp on modern pop culture because his film said nothing that hadn’t already been covered in newspapers, television shows, and the internet many times over. He decided to spend years on a project about the most studied president in our country’s history, assuring that by the time the film came out, it would no longer be useful. What took Stone years (and two hours) to say about Bush had been said more eloquently on most blogs.

But that is the issue with making films in this day and age of the 24-hour news cycle. Films like Dr. Strangelove were made at a time when there were very few media outlets (comparatively) and all of them were reporting just the facts (or so we thought). Outside of political cartoons, it wasn’t easy to find people who were willing satirize our government. Now, we can find that every single night on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, rendering film an obsolete medium when it comes to satirizing current events. What film can do better than almost any other medium, however, is to tell the story right and to provide context and perspective. And it’s hard to find perspective when the story is still happening as you are making the film.

And that, my friends, is the issue I have with Oliver Stone making a film about the economy right now. The economy is forever changing and shifting; things are not very good right now, but it could get better in a month or a year and by then Stone’s film will not be as useful. The first film was an indictment on yuppie consumerism and it worked because there weren’t many other similar indictments. Stone’s new film is positioning itself as an indictment on scumbag stock brokers at a time when every newspaper and news channel is discussing this very issue on a daily basis.

I suppose the biggest problem I have in general is that if Stone wants to make a film that is overtly political, he should just go for it. It almost seems disingenuous to, say, try to make a “sincere” bio-pic about George W. Bush when that’s not really what you’re trying to do. People applauded him for not inserting his politics into World Trade Center; well, I mean, that whole day (and that title) was a political day whether you want to admit it or not. You could say, “oh, but it’s about two people who are trapped.” But, it’s where they are trapped. It’s not like these are just two guys stuck in a coal mine. That film was political because 9/11 has become a political issue.

I was just re-watching The Doors recently and while it’s not Stone’s greatest achievement, I find it to be compelling. Val Kilmer gives such a wonderful performance and Stone seems to enjoy his subject and have respect for him, despite his inadequacies and idiosyncrasies. I no longer believe that Stone has an interest in making films about people he respects, unless it’s a documentary about Hugo Chavez.

I still have hopes for Wall Street 2, just as I have hopes for Oliver Stone. The trailer was well-cut, Michael Douglas kills in that role and the supporting cast is all strong. But, based on the last fifteen years of Oliver Stone films, I can’t help but feel worried.

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3 Responses to “Frenzy on the Wall: Surprise! Oliver Stone is Chasing Controversy”

  1. Be worried. Stone indulges himself in obvious arguments and truly silly metaphors (he actually shows falling domino bricks and soap bubbles). Oh and he also claims it all started with the Dutch.
    Frank Langella is the best thing in it.

  2. jay guffey says:

    What happened during u-turn was Robert Richardson left and has never worked with stone again. It’s that simple. Bob. Richardson elevates the films and filmmakers he works with.

  3. Noah Forrest says:

    Jay, that’s an excellent point. I never really put those things together, but Bob Richardson certainly elevates any filmmaker.

Frenzy On Column

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon