Let me rephrase: the films of Oliver Stone are filled with ambitious, reckless, and idealistic men. (Sorry, ladies: like Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill, Mr. Stone don’t have much time for you.)
An ambitious, reckless, and idealistic young man himself, Oliver Stone was born into a wealthy family in Manhattan, attended prep school, and dropped out of Yale in 1967 to join the Army. He specifically requested combat duty in Vietnam. The answer to why he did this may lie in the autobiographical Platoon, with the lead character saying, “I figured why should just the poor kids go off to war and the rich kids always get away with it.”
It’s undeniable this experience shaped Stone’s use of young, ambitious, idealistic, and reckless male characters, from Scarface’s Tony Montana to W.’s George W. Bush.
It’s almost like a fill-in-blank puzzle with the career left blank. Reckless ________ becomes undone by his ambition and naiveté. Plug in cocaine dealer for Scarface (1983), journalist for Salvador (1986), soldier for Platoon/Born on the Fourth of July (1986/1989), stock trader for Wall Street (1987), talk show host for Talk Radio (1988), rock star for The Doors (1991), district attorney for JFK (1992), President for Nixon (1995), quarterback for Any Given Sunday (1999), King of Macedonia for Alexander (2004), and president (again) for W. (2008).
He rarely glorifies them; most of them end up dead or wounded, physically and/or emotionally. Stone blows up his characters’ idealized worlds, much like his own world was blown up in Vietnam.
In Platoon, Stone’s autobiographical character is pulled in two different directions of leadership: the hardass and the hippie. All the while, scene by scene, we see the light and optimism fade from Charlie Sheen’s face.
His follow-up, the celebrated Wall Street, is another tale of an ambitious idealist pulled in different directions. The jungle setting is replaced by Regan-era trading floors. Sheen stays the same.
The Doors and Talk Radio are minor riffs on the theme, but instead of the everymanplayed by Sheen in Platoon and Wall Street, we see artistic, troubled men facing the same battles. They’re undeniable reflections of Stone, who at the time had gone from an everyman to Oscar-winning director.
Born on the Fourth of July explores what happens when idealism and patriotism come home in a wheelchair. JFK features Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison as he idealistically fights, scratches, and claws to find the truth behind the Kennedy assassination. Like all of his earlier characters, Stone’s Garrison wanders into this jungle and comes out bleary-eyed and dejected. He doesn’t prove any conspiracy. Was it worth it?
Same question in Nixon as we see the ambitious, misguided president willing to do illegal deees to get more information on his enemies. Was it worth it?
Somewhere along the way, Stone got tired of being known as a lefty and began to explore this theme in ways that would make his supporters balk–a true sign of a sure-footed filmmaker. W., his somewhat-sympathetic portrayal of our 43rd president, had critics scratching their heads, but features an undoubtedly Stone-esque protagonist: a motivated, idealistic young man ready to take on the world (literally).
These films aren’t perfect, but they fit together thematically. And of course there are exceptions: Natural Born Killers and U-Turn, which are exercises in genre style.
Even though Stone’s contextual backdrops are often hot-button political topics, there isn’t a moral in his films, as hardly anything pays off for these characters. The audience gets the payoff; you can say, “I’m glad I didn’t get myself in a situation like that.”
Stone’s major misstep came with 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Jake Moore (Shia Lebouf) is certainly a reckless, ambitious character, but in the end he is bailed out (ha) by the previous generation’s reckless idealist, Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas). Gecko gets to atone for his mistakes by giving Jake and his daughter—a romantic couple—his million-dollar nest egg. That’s wimpy stuff considering the fate of Stone’s other characters–although, to be fair, Gecko spent 25 years in jail between the films.
So why am I so excited about Savages? Because I hope it reboots Stone’s most pervasive theme: reckless, ambitious, idealist men getting caught up in a world much bigger than they understand. No safety net, no going back.
Like Joe Strummer said: it’s “death or glory.”