Examining the Complex, Subjective Filmography of Oliver Stone: A Comparison and Critique of "JFK" to "Nixon" and…

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Oliver Stone's filmography has levied an unprecedented effect on the popular understanding of American history, especially of the turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. His style has been described as highly subjective, fantastical, impassioned, insensitive, and unabashedly masculine. It is rather undisputed, however, that his features are not without cultural, racial, or religious shortsightedness. Stone's narrative style is particularly strong when working within a certain set of circumstances with respect to story and historical substance. Western, male characters are his forte, as are stories focused on events with which he has a strong personal relationship, as shown particularly in Platoon,JFK, and Natural Born Killers. His work with more unfamiliar perspectives, on the other hand, highlight his filmmaking shortfalls regarding historical accuracy, cultural identity and sensitivity, and political insight. For example, in Nixon, Stone's personal set of inclinations about the nature of the U.S. government cloud a potentially substantive and devastating indictment of both Richard Nixon's character and his political tendencies. In Heaven & Earth, these weaknesses materialize in a more disenfranchising and personal sense, resulting in a voyeuristic, objectifying, and extraordinarily impersonal personal story about a displaced victim of the Vietnam War.

People go to movies for an accurate reading of history, even if a vast number of historians and filmmakers agree that movies dont documentthey glorify. In order to assess Stones relationship with the historical record, its important to consider him as a filmmaker first, and a historian second. Stone lives in his own reality, which is informed by a skepticism of history as its been taught, through a uniquely layered psychological approach. Living through decades of historical trauma, political dispersions, and environmental and aesthetic nostalgia, the written record shaped Stone into the visually innovative filmmaker that directed JFK, Nixon, Platoon, Heaven and Earth, and Natural Born Killers, among others. Although skepticism and criticism are prominent in his work, expertly woven throughout drama, theres a clear set of ideals to be found at its center, ideals that come from Stones own perspective of the American record, which is itself informed by an ideology drawn from his own experience with the tumultuous decades of the postwar era. What we see across Stones efforts at painting what he believes is the true story of America, is a desire to embody characters and cultural dynamics while keeping his own experience with U.S. history a key part of the films psychology.

Stones films are unabashedly melodramatic, and usually feature re-writings or dramatic compositions of history, lines like telling the truth is a scary thing sometimes, and the sort of passionate soliloquies that influenced writers like Aaron Sorkin. Much of Stones success rests on the extraordinary ways in which he is able to tell those stories, through sound and image and editing. Author and historian Robert A. Rosenstone writes that rather than going between subjective and objective reality, Stone introduces another dimension to history altogether, imposing a dramatic construct onto history the same way historians use revolution, evolution, or progress. Stone is a lover of history, and a reader. His films focus on the time periods of his upbringing and of recent history. But drama cannot produce the same kind of investigation of the past as scholarship. Movies are like a first draft on history, Toplin writes, something to be analyzed in both the quality of the retelling and the impact such films have on popular understanding of historical implications. Academics and journalists agree that Stones films always come too close to fiction. Many scenes in JFK are re-staged and intertwined with actual footage history. A critic wrote that it doesnt know which way to go. Moviemakers also grossly simplify the historical record. This framework for defining the nature of Stones work aligns with his ability to tell stories poignantly. As a historical filmmaker with a notable profile in both Hollywood and in Washington, D.C., Stone frequently receives scrutiny on his approach to re-writing parts of history in the interest of creating higher stakes for a story, stakes that point to real life ones. This is the most poignant element of his work in the popular sphere, and it is most emblemized by the performance of JFK with critics. Co-writer Zachary Sklar noted that despite a mass media frenzy against the films conspiratorial connotations, he and Stone made an effort to respond to each and every review that suggested the film is pure fiction.

There is another key aspect here: the ways in which viewers should regard Oliver Stones version of American history, and that is the real scope of his films political statements. Marcus Raskin writes in JFK and the Culture of Violence in the American Historical Review, It does no good to pick apart the rendering of an event by an artist. His or her purpose is not the particular but the general. It is to take an event see within it a series of truths, some felt, some unconsciously understood and hardly articulated, that make sense and meaning of an event, its cause, and its implications. Americas soul is at stake, and there are usually two forces whose conflict defines Stones subjective camera. In Platoon, Elias and Barnes arent just two very different commanders, but also represent two very different worldviews with respect to the real Vietnam War. They are, in essence, competing for the soul of Chris Taylor. In Wall Street, Gordon Gekko and Carl Fox fight for the soul of Bud Fox. As Professor Peter Kuznick defined, this duality of two authorities [represents] light and dark, black and white, good and evil. An individual put in a complicated moral dilemma and how the individual deals with that dilemma.

The orientation of Stones approach to direction is most clearly defined when analyzing how he takes on the same subject matter from distinct perspectives, or different points of reference. There are two key comparisons to be made in this vein. The first is between Platoon and Heaven and Earth, perhaps together one of the most societally salient double-perspectives of the Vietnam War. The second is between JFK and Nixon.

As a historical filmmaker with a notable profile in both Hollywood and in Washington, D.C., Stone frequently receives scrutiny on his approach to re-writing parts of history in the interest of creating higher stakes for a story, stakes that point to real life ones. This is the most poignant element of his work in the popular sphere, and it is most emblemized by the performance of JFK with critics.

The most powerful lasting effect of JFK is its redefinition of what historical cinema can be, in the context of a national wound that, following decades without clarity, had remained fresh. Oliver Stones brand of historical filmmaking, as Robert Toplin writes, constitutes a highly subjective version of actual persons and events and enlivening them with colorful imagery, concocted dialogue, and imaginary people. The purpose of this construction, therefore, is to boldly [explore] a variety of modern artistic techniques, using the medium to arouse viewers emotions and to stimulate their interests. The most compelling aspect of the film to be the broad exposure and condemnation of the so-called deep state, as Americans have come to regard their government as just as discrete, recluse, and nefarious as the dark organizations they claim to protect the public from. Drawing in the national frustrations from the Pentagon Papers leak, the Watergate scandal, the Iran-Contra affair, and President George H. W. Bushs granting of clemency to several convicted Iran-Contra figures, JFK took on establishment corruption at its core, to the reaction that everybody had expected up to that point for that very element. The film hit a wrong vein in the public perception, said Zachary Sklar in his talk. People thought this was [still] an unresolved wound. Through cinematic technique and storytelling genius, Stone and Sklar have managed to put one of the most traumatic events in the postwar period and present it to the American people as a thrilling piece of entertainment but, at the same time, a powerful work of intrigue that attacks a particularly sharp pain point in the national conscience. Marcus Raskin writes, For an entire generation, the scar over the healing process of forgetfulness about the Kennedy assassination hid a festering sore of doubt that became thoroughly embedded in the national conscience throughout the American scandals during the Cold War.

This was the implication of the trial of Clay Shaw. Immediately following both Garrisons very public legal proceeding against Shaw as well as the release of the JFK film, the news media launched attacks on his character. Critics charged Garrison with intimidating witnesses, being embedded with the mafia, living as a closet Communist, and suppressing evidence from a polygraph test. However, the truth is more of a mixed bag. Stone admitted to making Garrison seem somewhat more heroic and handsome to advance his movies case for a conspiracy, as Robert Toplin writes, but denies that any flaws in Garrison prevented him from acting correctly in the case. In reality, the federal government had done everything in its power to stall Garrisons investigation. They denied his subpoenas, his calling of important out-of-state witnesses, and his requests for autopsy reports and medical records. Furthermore, the U.S. government tapped Garrisons phones, had him followed, and turned over stolen copies of his files to Clay Shaws defense attorneys. It went a step further in its effort to discredit skeptics of the Warren Commissions report by launching a smear campaign against Garrison during the Shaw trial, an effort that declassified memos showed were organized by the CIA. Sklar mentioned a Rolling Stone Magazine article by Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein regarding the CIAs planting of assets in the popular media. In the article, Bernstein details a number of cases in which journalists had been approached by government agents looking to recruit soldiers for the great American propaganda machine and contextualizes these reports with some contextualization around Operation Mockingbird, exposing several major media figures as page boys of the CIA. This, in addition to the memos that specifically proved the government's engagement with the media in Garrisons case, shows the depth with which the countrys key information source was entangled with nefarious interests.

Therefore, not only did Stones perspective of Kennedys assassination gradually gain credibility, JFKs overarching effort was to unveil a nefarious force within the federal government, a body built to strike down progressive change through bureacracy, industry, and war. Robert S. Robins, a political scientist, and Jerrold M. Post, a psychiatrist, presented a paper at the 1997 meeting of the American Political Science Association, writing that Stones films embody political paranoia as cinematic motif as a paranoid theme to add narrative power and commercial value to the film. JFK was largely based on the singular perspective of the real Jim Garrison, who is written in the film like Mr. Smith going to Washington. President Kennedy, through the films own investigation, comes out just as bright as the Camelot image with which he entered the White House, a young, progressive symbol of hope pitted against a sprawling network of henchmen for the status quo, armed with surveillance technology and CIA-orchestrated media attacks. Like the description of the beast in Nixons emblematic scene at the Lincoln Memorial between the president and a group of student protestors, JFK largely implicates the greater American political machine, rather than some specific individual. This is the general that Raskin writes about when he wrote [the artist's] purpose is not the particular but the general. Stone, in making JFK the way he did as well as the way he responded to public critics, used uncondescending and creative technical and stylistic choices to produce a film that unabashedly confronts the darkness of reality. JFK is emblematic of Stones style for this reason, among others. The effort seems to be toward enmassing the American people to look at history through a new highly critical psychological dimension while from the shadows finding a fierce optimism to effect change and transparency.

However, as Stone drifts from the style of JFK, which is heavily informed by objective fact despite having a clear thesis, toward a more psychoanalytical style, we see a different result. Of course, JFK and Nixon are vastly different films, but the difference says something about how Stone approaches direction. Whereas JFK is relentless and makes no shortage of enemies, Nixon on its surface feels empathetic of its subject despite his legacy being one of rampant corruption, lies, paranoia, and authoritarianism. Daniel Ellsberg has stated he was not a fan of the film due to its soft depiction of Nixons role in expanding the war effort in South Asia. In response to a question from a student who asked Stone why despite President Nixons sour legacy of a destructive War on Drugs, the expansion of the Vietnam War, rampant corruption, and political paranoia, the movie decided to go the route of humanizing someone most people in America would remember as a monster. Stone replied, I actually think he was a disaster for this country. He brought a cynicism to politics I feel did not exist before [in this movie], I walk in his shoes. Nixon was a malevolent figure, the movie makes that clear his wife saw through him. At one point, she asks him, When are you going to be honest, Dick? his sentimental reaction to being hated is not an effort to make you feel bad for him. It is to make him human. He attributes the films empathy with the character to the desperate, paranoid, but sensitive portrayal of Dick Nixon by Anthony Hopkins.

Stones response brings up another key point that must be addressed about his identity as part-historian and part-filmmaker is the way his various minor historical inaccuracieswhile harmless as were focused on Toplins general standard of what an artist is trying to say about a piece of history rather than the particularare sometimes so extreme that he forsakes key parts of his subject matters historical implications in favor of generating heightened stakes for a character. In Nixon, that character is Nixons wife, Pat, who Stone cites as a key part of defining her husbands persona in the film. This can result in self-sabotage. Its one thing to simplify the historical record; its another to change it completely for the sake of character design.

In Nixon, Stone completely reinvents Pat Nixon, who is written as independent, unafraid to speak up to her husband, fatigued by but also well-equipped for the shark pit of political life, and somehow most unrealistically, respected by her husband. In the film, Pat serves as a major influence on her husband both on the nights of his loss to John F. Kennedy and his later loss in the California gubernatorial election two years laterafter which the real Richard Nixon told reporters he was done: You wont have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore. There were reports circulating that on both these dates, Nixon had badly brutalized his wife. The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon, a 2000 book by Irish non-fiction author Anthony Summers, details a number of notes from various campaign figures. Governor Pat Brown said years after the election, We got word at one stage of the campaign that he kicked the hell out of her, hit her. Frank Cullen, one of Browns top advisors, said that Dick had beat the hell out of Pat Nixon after Kennedys win. Following his loss in the California governors election, beat Pat badly so badly that she could not go out the next day. According to Summers, aides like Haldeman, Robert Finch, or Erlichman would on occasion have to go in and intervene. Stones historical reputability is strongest when he profusely assesses the information he is given and the boundaries governing how much he can stretch it. It doesnt work much when he arbitrarily takes away pieces of reality to humanize an American villain, because that in itself takes away from historical implication. This is why many felt like Nixon is sympathetic to the real Nixon, even if it was not the intention of Stone for that to happen.

The details of President Nixons actual relationship with his wife were uncommonly published, but were published nonetheless. Stone ignored them, in favor of developing a composite version of Pat Nixon that played a larger role in Dicks psychological identity that the real one never did. Her character in the film is necessary to bring some depth to Nixons insecurity and pathological lying, pointing to a more generic thesis about Nixons legacy. However, in reality, Pat Nixon was a victim, not a mother figure or a wife figure, for that matter. It appears Stones narrative strength is decided by a conflict between psychoanalysis and making a broader political statement. This is most clear when a film revolves around a single man, rather than a research-based investigation. While both stories point fingers at similar sources of evil, many aspects of the JFK assassination were proven to be true in the crossfire between Stone and his critics but the ultimate legacy of his Nixon film would be less than insightful. While JFK literally merges historical footage with re-staged scenes for heightened tension and was criticized for placing itself between subjective and objective history, it appears that Nixon was a greater sin in the context of this interaction between historical accuracy and affirming certain general worldviews of the U.S. government.

Platoon is the hallmark of Stone-ism. It is a projection of his own experience, grounded in a skepticism of the wars legitimacy that rose into national prominence as it carried on through the 1960s with little progress. It is passionate, it is fiery, and it has its distinct political identity against the mythic Apocalypse Now, the calculating Full Metal Jacket. Platoon opens and closes on body bags, is plagued with confusion, anger, and bittersweet sentimentality, and what little hope it begins with is soon shattered by the reality of jungle warfare. Warmth is found in recognizing the injustices of the draft, as Chris Taylor finds solace in dancing to Motown and smoking marijuana with the black soldiers, who collectively bring a nuanced racial aspect to the story. Much of the friction in the squad comes from the dissonance between two commanding officers, Sergeants Barnes and Elias. Born on the Fourth of July aptly explores the consequences of the romanticized culture of violence in the post-World War II hue, and seeks to portray its full effects on those sent overseas to fight. Heaven and Earth, however, is grounded differently; it takes on the perspective of a Vietnamese woman, Le Ly Hayslip, who is painted as both a metaphor for national upheaval, as well as a sexual martyr. However, in doing so, Stone applies an oversimplified level of abjection and passiveness to Hayslips character that loses her soul buried under a mountain of violence, sexual assault, and male distress. Janet Maslin of the New York Times writes in her review of Heaven & Earth that [Stones] best direction is volatile, angry and muscular in ways that Ms. Hayslip's story, that of a resilient, long-suffering victim, simply cannot accommodate [Stone] has the wrong cinematic vocabulary for his heroine's essentially passive experience. Whereas Platoon draws its energy from something very real that Stone himself feels, where the main character is an active participant in their own experience and makes determinations of his own soul based on what he goes through, Hayslip in Heaven & Earth rarely rises from one-dimensionality. Despite other characters describing Le Ly as headstrong and spoiled, Hiep Thi Le plays her as passive, a witness of historic events but not much of a participant in them, writes critic John Larson.

On December 22, 1993, Oliver Stone told Charlie Rose, Organized religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell. Spiritualism is for people whove been to hell. Stones Heaven and Earth takes us directly to hell and back through the singular experience of Hayslip, and is perhaps the most relevant film when talking about applying Stones style of filmmaking to an intimate, spiritual story that need not be drawn in any capacity from Stones own experience, but rather from Hayslips cultural and ethnic identity. Stones conception of Buddhism, drawn from Hayslips poetic tellings of her own tale, are somewhat shorthanded and oversimplified. His approach to being in hell and finding peace in chaos is notably dissonant. This idea is depicted prominently in the scene in which Hayslip has a snake beneath her shirt and sees a vision of the boy she liked, who is shaking his head while being pulled out of a helicopter, at peace before death. Hayslip closes her eyes, and Stone dials down the soundtrack and dissolves her image against a profile of the Buddha statue from her shrine, which also opens and wraps the film. Then, as she is brought to the Viet Cong when suspected of fraternizing with the enemy and held at gunpoint before a grave dug for her, she closes her eyes and finds peace. Stone cuts us through short flashbacks to her family and her home. Even as she is brutally raped in the mud and rain these flashbacks continue. Stone is attempting to portray the resilience of spiritual peace, which he believes is felt by those in the darkest depths of hell. Much later, as Butler is confessing his black ops duties to Hayslip after he points a shotgun at the back of her head, he tells a story about the execution of a woman he was shacking up with by his own men. I was in hell, baby, he cries. I was in pure hell. The screen goes red and he attempts to kill himself, before Hayslip stops him. These moments hold the core of the story, and align Stones own experience with the Vietnam War with Hayslips. I always felt like it was more of a philosophical film, Stone told Rose in 1993. Its about reality and who owns it and how we perceive it, as opposed to being a political statement. But in deliberately avoiding what he knows best and taking a hard-headed perspective on the passive experience of an individual whose struggle is uniquely emblematic of European imperialisms harshest realities, Stone fails to recognize the root of that reality and the ethnic connotations of his film in a significant way. As a result, Heaven and Earth feels like it is fetishizing the brutally chaotic experience and cultural traditions of its subject without giving much to the character herself. And as a result, because the entire film is centered on a philosophical, religious velcrum that breaks as soon as Stone tries to apply his own hell to Hayslips and apply himself through Hayslips spiritual framework, its trajectory falls flat.

The extreme reverence of the perfectly idyllic landscapes, the brave choice of ending a horror story with such a peaceful spirituality almost amounts to a fetishization of Buddhist philosophy and Vietnamese culture, despite the movies awareness of American soldiers views of Asian women. It is painfully clear that Stones camera and narrative in Heaven and Earth belongs to a white male American. It paints the mountain shoulders and rice paddies of Vietnam mythically majestic to the point of being cultural voyeurism. From Kotaros blazing soundtrack to the lush color profile to the meticulously consonant framing, the movies introduction to the setting evokes a glory that resembles a romantic discovery more so than a piece of the villagers everyday life. Despite this, however, Stone does doan excellent job destroying this initial image of the landscape by covering it with soldiers, fire, helicopters, and bombers in the tone of Platoon. The evacuation scenes striking images of crowds of straw hats, coupled with Hayslips narration, My whole country was falling apart, evoke the imagery of the Trail of Tears and the Bataang March. On the level of the subject Hayslip is sexualized the entire film, written as a hard-working woman but constantly portrayed in submissive ways. Thats the nature of the Vietnam Wars legacy: a long-standing sexual fetishization of Asian women as prostitutes and housekeepers whose value comes from the men they marry. Dangling a future in a country that contributed to her numerous tragedies in front of Hayslip, Steve Butler unabashedly says, I need a good oriental woman like you and has no problem articulating that his ex-wife turned him off from Western women. The film brushes this off, cutting through Hayslips cooperation with various men in the story as evolution, not a passive form of extortion.

Furthermore, its painfully clear who the target audience is, because English is used as a substitute for Hayslips native language. The most effective way Hayslip is disenfranchised in Heaven & Earth is that she is denied her native tongue, which Americanizes the film before it can even begin. Accents, especially broken Asian accents are cinematic fodder for easy humor, like in Coen Brothers films, but here the level of brokenness simply tells us when she is speaking Vietnamese and when she is speaking English. Later, we hear her speak in broken English to American soldiers, she says things like Me no hooker, and as a soldier barges into her home asking where Kim is, Hayslip replies, Kim work and You go bye. Later, when Hayslip is getting acquaintedagainst her will, reallywith Steve Butler, she exclaims in almost comical choppiness, You no undah-see-tand. I no want go dinner, and You nice man, but I no want boyfriend, and Me had boyfriend. But me no want new boyfriend. The result of this dissonance between the two forms of English in Heaven and Earth is that the movie can really only become compelling once white characters start to take up more runtime, because they are portrayed by white American actors who can produce more organic value through their familiarity with the language; when we hear Hayslips family speaking in accented English, it simply does not work and sabotages Stones effort. Stone is painting a two-sided picture with only one side of the paintbrush. He obviously understands the power that his script holds on Vietnamese visibility in Hollywood, which plays a crucial role in indicating the spirit of the Vietnam War in the United States. We know this because Stone went out of his way to cast Vietnamese actors and actresses in Heaven and Earth. Why, then, did he not have most of the film in the Vietnamese language? To borrow a metaphor from a completely different film, hearing English spoken in an accent on a film that purports to embody a different cultural orientation is like showering with a raincoat on, and works against Stones thesis by taking away a certain level of genuinity from the actors voices. Furthermore, it works against the films spiritual core by reducing the poetry of Le Ly Hayslips own conception of her experience into an accented English that eats through the films cultural verisimilitude, which Robert Richardsons camera and Kitaros original score are fantastic in producing.

At the center of Stones film career is passion, anger, and skepticism. His style wavers with intensity depending on the subject matter, ranging from a politically conscious first-timer in Vietnam to a soldier who has returned home with completely changed and disassociated to a Vietnamese woman with a brutal but extraordinary experience with the horrors of the war, but it is consistent in its political identity and effort to start a conversation about the dynamics driving Americas direction. His ability to vividly tell a story as both a memorable piece of cinema and a statement on society demands an open mind for change, without much giving the answers. Those who suggest he is some arrogant revisionist fear-monger are blind to the simplification for the sake of finding something greater in the context of the modern eras foreign affairs turmoil and socioeconomic upheaval. The larger dimension of this argument, that there is a clear distinction between Stones filmmaking side and his historian side, is a broader thesis on how Stone approaches filmmaking altogether, and what he conveys about his own political and cultural worldview through style and creative decisions. Furthermore, it must be established hat there are key components missing to this worldview and how he chooses to illustrate the stories he believes should be seen and heard, including a more organic and objectively irreverent approach to race, to gender issues, and an assessment of the cinematic vocabulary he uses to strike societys pain points, as is clear in Heaven & Earth and Nixon, films that are more myopic than his others in their search for Americas soul.

1.) Toplin, Robert. Oliver Stones USA. Lawrence, University of Kansas., 2000. pp. 7

2.) Ibid, pp. 5-6

3.) Raskin, Marcus. JFK and the Culture of Violence. American Historical Review, April 1992. Pp. 487

4.) Ibid, Toplin. pp. 166

5.) Ibid. pp. 9

6.) The country knew of the controversial nature of JFK in the months leading up to its premiere.

7.) Ibid, Raskin, pp. 488

8.) Toplin. Pp. 64.

9.) Kennedys autopsy is of particular importance in the case for a conspiracy, as Jim DiEugenio extensively discussed over Skype. DiEugenio spoke of the story of John Stringer, the medical photographer at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland where Kennedys autopsy had been conducted. Stringer was, years down the line, shown the official photographs of Kennedys brain but reported that the negatives were not Kodak film, which he used almost exclusively, bringing into question the legitimacy of the autopsy reports. Furthermore, Kennedys brain was weighed at 1,500 grams, which was far too heavy for a man of Kennedys size and stature. A more appropriate weight would have been 1,350 grams, but even that seemed too generous given that the Zapruder film showed parts of the presidents face and head being blown off, and bits of his brain flying out.

10.) Bernstein, Carl. The CIA and the Media: How Americas Most Powerful News Media Worked Hand in Glove with the Central Intelligence Agency and Why the Church Committee Covered It Up. Rolling Stone Magazine, October 20, 1977.

11.) Ibid, Raskin.

12.) Summers, Anthony & Robbyn Swan. The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon. Viking, 2000. Pp. unavailable (Google Books)

13.) Maslin, Janet. Review/Film: Heaven and Earth; A Woman's View Of Vietnam Horrors. The New York Times. The New York Times, December 24, 1993.

14.) Larson, Josh. Review: Heaven & Earth. LarsenOnFilm.Com.

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Examining the Complex, Subjective Filmography of Oliver Stone: A Comparison and Critique of "JFK" to "Nixon" and...

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