The Making of Oliver Stone, the Unmaking of Hollywood

Still from Platoon.

When I think about Oliver Stone, I imagine a gambler at a craps table who bets every chip he’s got, every time, and usually comes out a winner. And, his gain is ours as well, for he has gambled everything on making some of the best films of our generation.

Check out Stone’s oeuvre, and you will be shocked at how many movies he has made; how many of his you have seen but didn’t know were his. The first Oliver Stone movie ever I saw (but I didn’t know until recently that it was his film) was The Hand with Michael Caine. I saw the film on TV when I was 6 or 7. It is about a cartoonist whose hand is cut off in a car accident, and the hand returns to haunt him and others. I couldn’t sleep for a week. I was constantly looking under my bed to see if a severed hand was there waiting to attack me.

Stone’s just-released memoir, Chasing The Light, reads like a movie script, for Stone’s life and career have indeed been worthy of the big screen. As we learn through riveting prose, the story of the boy Oliver Stone could have been written by Charles Dickens, but Stone is more David Copperfield than his namesake, Oliver Twist. Stone is placed in a boarding school during high school, removed from the parents he adores. His loneliness only increases when he is told over the phone at age 15 that his parents are divorcing and that his mother has moved back to France without even so much as a goodbye. He then learns shortly thereafter that his father has lost his fortune, and with it, Oliver’s inheritance. By his own admission, Stone has yet to fully get over this trauma.

Oliver then had to begin life anew, and to forge his own path, ultimately to the silver screen. It is that lonely journey we learn about in Chasing The Light.

The book opens with Stone’s recounting of his making the movie Salvador (one of my favorites) in Mexico on a shoe-string budget with a cast of characters, including James
Woods with whom Stone has remained friends. But it is the excitement of creating a film with so little backing, and with such a great risk of failure, that excites Stone, and also the reader of his memoir. The results are stunning, with Stone succeeding at making what I believe to be the defining Hollywood movie about Reagan’s vicious war in Central America.

It is in this section of the book that Stone writes some of my favorite lines of the book:

The truth is, no matter how great my satisfactions in the later part of my life, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as much excitement or adrenaline as when I had no money. A friend who came from the underclass of England once told me, ‘The only thing money can’t buy is poverty.’ Maybe he really meant ‘happiness,’ but the point is, money gives you an edge, and without it, you become, like it or not, more human. It is, in its way, like being back in the infantry with a worm’s-eye view of a world where everything, whether a hot shower or a hot meal, is hugely appreciated.

I have to imagine that, somewhere, there is a sled or other such object for which Oliver pines, reminding him of simpler days, when he was the object of his parents’ love and affection, and when life seemed more certain.

But, as things turned out, Oliver would come to eschew certainty and comfort at every turn. For example, when he was a freshman at Yale, he quit school to volunteer for the US war in Vietnam. To me, it is this which makes Oliver the stand-out individual he is. While cowards like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton would hide behind the ivy walls to avoid service, Oliver went out of his way to sign up to fight. He would become a highly decorated soldier, earning a number of awards, including the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.

In the end, as we learn in his semi-autobiographical film, Platoon, which would win the Academy Award for Best Picture, the war in Vietnam would be a disillusioning experience for Stone. He would learn, as so many others did, that the US was not really fighting for democracy in that far-flung country, and that it was instead brutalizing a poor peasant society trying to shed the yoke of French, and then US, empire.

Platoon was the first Oliver Stone movie I saw on the big screen. I was 17 at the time, and I saw it with my very right-wing father. That movie blew my mind. The scene in which the Charlie Sheen character stops his fellow comrades from raping a Vietnamese girl shook my world. I had no idea until that moment that that sort of thing happened in war, and certainly not by US servicemen. That film, along with Salvador, would help to radicalize me and to make me the person I am today. But what makes Platoon great, I think, is that it captured in a dramatic fashion the cruelty as well as the fog of war. After seeing it, I talked to my boss at the sporting goods store I was working at about it. He was a Vietnam veteran himself, and he readily stated that Platoon was the greatest Vietnam War movie ever made because it told the story of the war so truthfully. This is the highest praise one could receive for such a work.

There is much more to say about Oliver Stone and his memoir. The book is a gripping read, and it is made all the more compelling by Stone’s incredible honesty about himself as a person; about his feelings, including embarrassing feelings that most people would leave to the therapy couch; and about his triumphs and failures. Oliver Stone, first and foremost, is an amazing human being, and to learn about him in his own words, with all his humor and candor, is a delight.

Dan Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.  His latest book is No More War: How the West Violates International Law by Using ‘Humanitarian’ Intervention to Advance Economic and Strategic Interests.