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Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone, photo by Robin Holland
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December 4, 2009

Director Oliver Stone is known for casting an eye on the major events of his lifetime — from Vietnam and JFK's assassination through Nixon's fall from grace and the financial excesses of the 1980s and the administration of George W. Bush. He's with a sequel to WALL STREET, in the wake of another excess of greed and financial misconduct.

Stone's cinematic takes on history are not without their critics. Both historians and participants in the events portrayed often take issue with Stone's point of view. NEW YORK TIMES reporter Bernard Weinraub suggests that "his gifts as a film maker are often obscured, perhaps even diminished, by his polemics." Stone's 1995 NIXON was greeted with a vigorous negative press campaign from the Nixon Library and Mr. Nixon's two daughters. Historian Stephen Ambrose went as far as to accuse Stone of "sophomoric Marxism." Former Special Counsel for President Richard Nixon Charles Colson labeled the film Stone's "latest foray into historical manipulation."

But it was 1991's JFK that garnered the most vociferous criticism. Stone was taken to task by many historians for his mixture of fact, speculation and conspiracy theories. It was that film, Stone acknowledges to NEW YORK TIMES reporter Bernard Weinraub that JFK put him into a different category as a filmmaker. "It was a place I've never been before in my life. BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY was controversial; it was attacked quite a bit. But nothing like JFK. It took me to another level. It made me more of a weather vane, more of a political personality as opposed to a film maker."

But, says Stone, NIXON and JFK were also groundbreaking works for him as a filmmaker. In an extended conversation with historian Mark C. Carnes, Stone stated: "JFK was the beginning of a new era for me in terms of filmmaking because it's not just about a conspiracy to kill John Kennedy. It's also about the way we look at our recent history. I mean that literally. That movie, and NIXON especially, calls attention to itself as a means of looking. It shifts from black and white to color, and then back again, and views people from offbeat angles... Or we throw out five quick images. We make you aware that you are watching a movie. I don't pretend that it is reality. I don't dress people up like Tecumseh and William Harrison, have them read a script, and stick a camera in front of them and say that it was true. Rather, we call into question the very idea of reality. We play with your mind."

Responding to those who charge that it is this very mixture of styles — and especially Stone's use of a pseudo-documentary style for filming fictional scenes — that is akin to brainwashing the audience, Stone says the responsibility lies with the viewer: "I think that's the only answer to people who say that movies brainwash young minds. Movies are just the first draft. They raise questions and inspire students to find out more."

Stone has fought back against his critics in the historical profession, accusing some of believing in a "fairy-tale simplicity about America, that we are somehow free of conspiracy." And said Stone to Carnes, "I think many historians come at filmmakers with an attitude and with hostility. It's as though history is their territory, and we don't belong. We just pervert the paradigm with emotion, sentimentality, and so on." But both Stone and historians have some favorable things to say about each other's work. Notably, journalist David Halberstam favorably contrasted the realism of PLATOON with the naiveté of John Wayne's THE GREEN BERETS. In fact, there's now even a scholarly tome about Stone's movies and history, OLIVER STONE'S USA: FILM, HISTORY, AND CONTROVERSY.

Oliver Stone has sat down with historians to discuss his philosophy of making movies about history — with Mark Carnes for the book PAST IMPERFECT: HISTORY ACCORDING TO THE MOVIES, and with Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies for the "Conversations with History" series. Explore both interviews in their entirely and tell us what you think about history and the movie and movies about history.


Oliver Stone has directed: W. ('08), WORLD TRADE CENTER ('06), ALEXANDER ('04), ANY GIVEN SUNDAY ('99), U-TURN ('97), NIXON ('95), NATURAL BORN KILLERS ('94), HEAVEN AND EARTH ('93), JFK ('91), THE DOORS ('91), BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY ('89), TALK RADIO ('88), WALL STREET ('87), PLATOON ('86), SALVADOR ('86), THE HAND ('81) and SEIZURE ('73). He's written or co-written all of the above, with the exception of U-TURN, WORLD TRADE CENTER and W. Upcoming: WALL STREET 2.

He's also written or co-written: MIDNIGHT EXPRESS ('78), SCARFACE ('83), CONAN THE BARBARIAN ('82), YEAR OF THE DRAGON ('85), EVITA ('96), and 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE ('86). He's directed 4 documentaries -- LOOKING FOR FIDEL ('04), COMANDANTE ('03), PERSONA NON GRATA ('03), and SOUTH OF THE BORDER ('09).

He's produced or co-produced: THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT ('96), THE JOY LUCK CLUB ('93), REVERSAL OF FORTUNE ('90), SAVIOR ('98), FREEWAY ('96), SOUTH CENTRAL ('98), ZEBRAHEAD ('92), BLUE STEEL ('90), and the ABC mini-series WILD PALMS ('93). He and and his co-producer won an Emmy for the HBO film INDICTMENT: THE MCMARTIN TRIAL, and he was nominated for the documentary THE LAST DAYS OF KENNEDY AND KING.

Stone has won Oscars for directing BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY and PLATOON, and for writing MIDNIGHT EXPRESS. He was nominated for director (JFK) and co-writer (NIXON). He's also received three Golden Globes for directing (PLATOON, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, and JFK), and one for writing (MIDNIGHT EXPRESS).

Stone wrote a novel, published in 1997 by St. Martin's Press, entitled A CHILD'S NIGHT DREAM, based on his experiences as a young man. He is also a contributor of some 200 pages of essays on movies, culture, politics and history to the book OLIVER STONE'S USA, edited by Robert Brent Toplin and published by the University Press of Kansas (2000).

Stone was born September 15, 1946 in New York, New York. Prior to his film career, Stone worked as a schoolteacher in Vietnam, a Merchant Marine sailor, taxi driver, messenger, production assistant, and sales representative. He served in the U.S. Army Infantry in Vietnam in 1967-68. He was wounded twice and decorated with the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for Valor. After returning from Vietnam, he completed his undergraduate studies at New York University Film School in 1971.

Photo by Robin Holland.
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References and Reading:
"Oliver Stone Goes Back to War,"
TIME, Kay Johnson, September 7, 2007.

"Times Topics: Oliver Stone
THE NEW YORK TIMES' collection of articles about Oliver Stone, including the recent feature on WALL STREET 2, "Greed is Bad, Gekko. So is a Meltdown."

Read the first chapter of Oliver Stone's novel, originally written in 1966 and revised and published in 1997.

Oliver Stone
University of California, Berkeley's collection of materials relating to the director. Also archived online is a video conversation with Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies for the "Conversations with History" series.

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