In a recent interview, director Oliver Stone complained about Hollywood: “The Academy changes its mind every five, 10, two months about what it’s trying to keep up with. It’s politically correct [expletive], and it’s not a world I’m anxious to run out into. I’ve never seen it quite mad like this. It’s like an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ tea party.”
“Everything has become too fragile, too sensitive,” he continued. “Hollywood now—you can't make a film without a Covid adviser. You can't make a film without a sensitivity counselor. It's ridiculous.”
So the revolution has come for one of its own. Oliver Stone is one of America’s best directors. He’s also a conspiracy theorist who praises communist dictators. Yet Hollywood has gone too far even for him.
Stone is perhaps best known for Platoon (1986), which he made at age forty. A ferocious chronicle of the Vietnam War, Platoon was released in a year when conventional wisdom argued that the country was not comfortable talking about that divisive conflict. The most popular film of 1986 up to the point had been Top Gun, a pro-military movie.
Platoon was a smash, marking the mainstream arrival of Stone, himself a Vietnam veteran. The film “struck the American mood at precisely the right time,” Stone writes in Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game. This captivating new memoir is equal parts family story, celebration of the grueling art of moviemaking, and American baby boomer history. It took guts, risks, and all-American derring-do for Stone to make it as a filmmaker. Few modern American directors have his ambition to tell big, important stories.
Unfortunately, Stone’s dogmatic leftism has marred many of his films, some of which haven’t aged well. Stone claimed in JFK that President Lyndon Baynes Johnson green-lit the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He mocked Richard Nixon and George W. Bush with broad, farcical strokes in Nixon and W and made sympathetic documentaries about Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. “Spend any time with Stone,” the New York Times once observed, “and you’ll soon discover that he lacks what you might call the deliberation gene, whatever prevents us from saying things that will get us in trouble, lose us friendships, even jobs.” At a 1992 debate about JFK upon the film’s release, Stone said, “I've come to have severe doubts about Columbus, about Washington, about the Civil War being fought over slavery, about World War I, about World War II and the supposed fight against Nazism and Japanese control of resources. I don't even know if I was born or who my parents were.”
One can admire Stone’s vision and skill while also wishing that the director were less, well, crazy. Still, his life story is fascinating. Stone was born in New York City, the son of a Frenchwoman named Jacqueline Goddet and a stockbroker named Louis Stone (born Louis Silverstein). His parents met during World War II, when his father was fighting for the Allies in France. Stone’s father served as a financial officer under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force. He and new wife Jacqueline came to New York after the war, where son Oliver was born in 1946.
Much has been made of Stone’s conflicts with his father over Vietnam and communism, but his summation here is largely positive: “I had a blessed life. I . . . trusted and respected, sometimes feared my hardworking and loving father.” He adds: “I never could have surmounted the obstacles I faced later without that fundamental sense of optimism instilled by my father. It became a basis to face life.”
Jacqueline and Louis Stone divorced in 1962, an earth-shattering event for Stone. A literate student of American history, Stone sprinkles his prose with historical references. When describing how his father was caught cheating on his mother, Stone deploys a geopolitical metaphor: “By 1949, around the time the Soviets blew up the American bubble of being the sole possessor of the atomic bomb, the balance of power also suddenly and dramatically shifted in our home when my father was found out.” Stone got into Yale in 1964, but dropped out to teach high school students English for six months at a Catholic school in Saigon. He then went to Mexico, where he wrote a novel that failed to get published. Distraught, Stone became suicidal. Reluctant to end his own life but willing to give God the opportunity, Stone enlisted in the Army and requested combat duty in Vietnam: “I wanted to be like everybody else, an anonymous infantryman, canon fodder, down there in the muck that I had read about in John Dos Passos.” From September 1967 to April 1968 Stone served in Vietnam. The battle descriptions in Chasing the Light are, like Stone’s films, alternately beautiful and harrowing. His love of his fellow veterans is deep and powerful.
Stone returned home bitter and angry about the war. Rejecting his father’s anti-communism, he went to film school, where his talent was noted by a young professor named Martin Scorsese. Then came the films that would make Stone famous: Salvador (1986), Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Wall Street (1987), and JFK (1991). These are entertaining films of passion and technical skill, but they are also frequently marred by Stone’s punitive liberalism—the desire to portray America not as a flawed but generous country, but as evil at the core. Running through Stone’s work is the theme of the loner set against the large, violent, and inscrutable forces that supposedly drive America. Innocent grunts are caught up in the war machine in Vietnam, young Bud Fox is dazzled by evil trader Gordon Gekko on Wall Street, and District Attorney Jim Garrison navigates the labyrinth of theories surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. His protagonists find themselves bewildered and disillusioned at the end, crushed by the war machine, corporate America, or political evil perpetrated by conservatives. Like many members of his generation, Stone finds it hard to accept that Kennedy was murdered by a communist.
Chasing the Light only covers Stone’s life up to and including the making of Platoon, a film whose criticism of American foreign policy is balanced by the obvious love Stone has for his fellow veterans. This is an advantage—readers don’t have to slog through the disasters that came later, like Natural Born Killers (1994), Alexander (2004), and the anti-George Bush turkey W (2008). Stone has also made largely sympathetic documentaries about leftist world leaders: Three documentaries about Cuban President Fidel Castro, and South of the Border (2009), about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Maybe Stone’s recent apoplexy about political correctness in Hollywood will drive him to make an honest film about America and the real threat communism poses to freedom. Whittaker Chambers might be a good place to start.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n' Roll.
Photo by www.kremlin.ru via Creative Commons. Image cropped.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.