Veteran. Agitator. Provocateur. Bully. Conspiracy nut. Patriot. These are just some of the labels used over the years to describe Oliver Stone. (Subtle isn’t one of them.) He has spent his filmmaking career charting the currents that propelled America in the post-war era: war, greed, sensationalism, sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Like Jean-Luc Godard, Stone embraces myth then cuts it up to reveal a truth at its heart. Whether it’s the dark side of the counterculture (The Doors), the moment America entered the media age of paranoia and punditry (JFK), the ambition—and folly—that comes with being the leader of the most powerful country in the world (Nixon), or the corporatization of America (Wall Street, Any Given Sunday), Stone has used film to chronicle the dreams, fears, and disillusionments that marked the last half of the 20th century as the most creative—and destructive—in U.S. history. (Is it really a surprise that Stone’s latest movie is about the defining moment of the 21st century?)
So, what’s all the fuss? Why does the phrase “An Oliver Stone Film” make people tense up and prepare to dismiss Stone’s latest as the work of an irresponsible attention-seeker? It’s not just Stone’s provocateur identity that rankles. It’s his unwillingness to adhere to Hollywood conventions. When he tackles true-life subjects like Nixon or the JFK assassination he is respectful but not reverential. For Stone, to be reverential toward history is to simplify it, put it into its place. Stone understands that the Richard Attenborrough approach to biopics (Young Winston, Gandhi) turns the past into a Sunday school lesson, orderly and good for the soul. Stone prefers to mainline history and entertainment into your system. Fact and speculation crash into each other until they create a truth that illuminates what you thought you knew into something new, cleansed of myth, profound.
Stone didn’t make his first “Oliver Stone” movie until 1986; in the first phase of his career, he was one of Hollywood’s most successful—and notorious—screenwriters. His scripts for Scarface (1983), and Year of the Dragon (1985) showed he had a gift for punchy, populist story structure. His Oscar-winning script for Midnight Express (1978) was attacked for taking liberties with real events to jack up the film’s already unbearable tension. Even then Stone knew that in successful films, emotional truth trumps fact.
His first two directorial efforts, Seizure (1974) and The Hand (1981), are the works of a man who is torn between avant-garde experimentation and exploitation gusto. It would take Stone’s third film, Salvador, for him to announce himself as a filmmaker to be reckoned with. He’s become the point man for the Baby Boom’s collective memory—
and the poet laureate for the portion of that generation that didn’t get deferments. To consider his body of work is to see how we’ve processed the past 50 years of American history and culture. His movies aren’t about what happened as what we believe happened, and how we feel about it. He knows you have to grab viewers by the throat to get their attention. Like D.W Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, Stone understands that film, more than any other art form, is best at conveying the emotional spectrum of the human experience, whether its a rock concert, the movement on the floor of the stock exchange, or the gladiatorial battle of football. Stone sees life as spectacle and spectacle as entertainment.
Salvador (1986). Released in April of ’86, Stone’s agit-prop docudrama about Reagan’s disastrous military policies in Central America should’ve been a hand grenade rolled into multiplexes. It barely made a sound. But those who saw it knew it was the start of something special; it ushered in a resurgence in topical filmmaking that had helped define the New Hollywood 15 years earlier, at a time when earnest and efficient political movies (1983’s Under Fire, 1984’s The Killing Fields) were overshadowed by powder-wigged period pieces and mass-appeal blockbusters. Stone knew that audiences needed to be shaken out of their Reagan-era complacency. Salvador did that. By telling the misadventures of Richard Boyle (James Woods), an amoral journalist looking to hustle his way into respectability, and Dr. Rock (James Belushi), Boyle’s piggish “friend” who’s looking for a good time, Stone creates his own version of Gonzo journalism disguised as a grungy road movie. It’s Hunter S. Thompson by way of Costa-Gavras or John Frankenheimer: Fear and Loathing in El Salvador.
The film’s heart is a career-defining performance by Woods. Manic, impassioned, sleazy, the actor may be portraying the real life Richard Boyle, but the characterization is really a takeoff on Oliver Stone, the crusading young filmmaker determined to say what no one else wants to hear. In Boyle, Stone sees a man driven to capture the Truth at the cost of everything else, even his own safety. In contrast to the “hero’s journey” structure of many Stone films, where the protagonist starts out an idealistic youth and loses his innocence, only to have it restored with a wised-up sense of how the world operates, Salvador begins in amorality, with the world’s sleaziest “good guy” at the center.
In a way Stone is right to dispense with any pretense Boyle has lost his “innocence.” Stone knows that in order to function as a journalist in the shadow of authoritarian regimes like El Salvador’s you must keep your moral compass to yourself. Stone sees a world where leftist guerillas are branded “terrorists” by a U.S.-sanctioned right-wing militaristic government in the name of fighting “communists.” He sees politics are a series of compromises; therefore, taking an amoral stance is a means of keeping one’s sanity. It isn’t until Boyle starts hustling for a good cause that he discovers his idealism. By the end of the movie Boyle’s experiences in the hell of El Salvador, like Stone’s tours in Vietnam, have allowed him to achieve a small form of salvation.
All of this would be a drag if Stone didn’t possess the instincts of a sensational filmmaker. Salvador’s dialogue is coarse and funny. (“Where else can you get a virgin to sit on your face for seven bucks, two virgins for twelve.”) While Boyle and Dr. Rock are vulgar scoundrels, they have human frailties and needs, and as the title suggests, they are not beyond redemption. In the film’s most celebrated scene, Boyle, a lapsed Catholic, goes to confession after a 32-year absence. His reason? To ask God’s forgiveness for leading a wicked life so he can marry the peasant woman (Elpidia Carillo) who’s inspired him to reform, sort of. (Boyle can’t just promise to give up booze and pot; he has to carve out exemptions.) This outwardly simple, dialogue-and-performance driven moment—just two men in a booth, one of them hidden behind a screen—marks the start of Boyle’s tilt away from self-interest. We are literally seeing a man discover what it means to know right from wrong.
Stone’s visual style is just as bluntly elegant. The first film in Stone’s 12-year, 11-movie relationship with ace cinematographer Robert Richardson, Salvador displays a grit and immediacy that must’ve been a shock to audiences grown accustomed to the Laszlo Kovacses and Dean Cundeys of the ’80s. Richardson’s camera is everywhere at once. It sees but it doesn’t linger. The scenes of street life in El Salvador have a jagged yet fluid sense of motion. Richardson doesn’t objectify the locations, but he sees the beauty amidst the ruins.
Stone knows that his story is charged with pulp sensationalism; he uses it to give the story momentum. But although the threat of violence hangs over nearly every scene, the violence itself never feels like a showman’s trick. In dramatizing the internationally notorious incident in which four nuns on a humanitarian mission were raped and murdered by government thugs, Stone displays extraordinary sensitivity to suffering. The camera keeps its distance but somehow makes you feel the horror from the victims’ points of view. The lack of stylization is what makes the scene so devastating. It’s not just a mass killing; it’s a crime against humanity.
Platoon (1986). From its opening epigraph by Ecclesiastes (“Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth!”), to the arrival of new recruits in a world not covered in basic training, to the loading of fresh body bags (a scene that Scorsese would echo in Gangs of New York as new immigrants sign up to fight in the Civil War), all accompanied by Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Stings” (remember when that piece of music still had the power to haunt?), Platoon wasn’t just about what it meant to fight in Vietnam. It was about what it meant to live in Vietnam, and to live with Vietnam.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket showed the geographical and cultural factors that separated the first rock ’n’ roll war from all other wars. They showed that the Vietnam grunt’s existential dread was all of a piece with the era’s drugs and psychedelic rock. But Platoon was something new. To watch Platoon is to understand for the first time in a war movie the disorienting nature of jungle warfare. Stone saw things from a grunt’s-eye view. The result was a series of firsthand dispatches from a man who knew that war is more than a rite of passage, and that to survive it is both a miracle and a curse. (It would take Steven Spielberg creating Saving Private Ryan for us to understand that optimism in the wake of The Good War was also a miracle.)
Stone remembers everything. He gets the details just right. He has very little patience with the way movies sentimentalize camaraderie among the men during wartime. He knows it comes and goes. (This doesn’t mean Stone isn’t guilty of sentimentality in his movies. We’ll see that he’s also guilty of nostalgia in his later movies, too.) Stone understands that friendship amongst men during a pressure-cooker situation like Vietnam is fragile. He knows your newest friend might not make it. He also understands the divisions that occur within a platoon—how loyalties form and fracture along ideological, racial and cultural lines.
Stone illustrates this in a terrific sequence where the soldiers hang out during downtime. Most of the white soldiers hole up in the barracks, drinking beer and playing cards, listening to country music (“Okie From Muskogee”) and venting their resentment of the “gooks.” The majority of the black soldiers hang out in a hooch, trying to unwind by smoking dope and listening to the soothing sounds of Motown. There’s a wonderful moment when Chris (Charlie Sheen) is accepted by the black soldiers; as they dance and sing along to The Miracles’ “Tracks Of My Tears,” the moment achieves the clarity of an idealized memory. This, Stone tells us was how it was—and how it should be.
That idyllic moment doesn’t last. It’s followed by a brutal firefight that leads to the movie’s most indelible sequence: a My Lai-like massacre of a peaceful peasant village that is being used by the NVA as a storage facility. The villagers really don’t have a choice in allowing their homes to be used to store weapons, but the platoon treats their explanation as an excuse. Fueled by adrenaline and grief, they see the villagers as ungrateful and impossible to understand; the civilians’ constant pleading sounds like they’re speaking in tongues. Even the usually level-headed Chris vents his frustrations by shooting at the feet of a grinning, mentally retarded man because he “won’t fucking listen.” Bunny (Kevin Dillon), fueled by memories of John Wayne and Audie Murphy, acts out his own hero fantasies by bashing the grinning man’s head in. By the end of the sequence the soldiers have torched the village. This is not just a large-scale version of burning the evidence at a crime scene; it’s the culmination of a series of catastrophic personal choices. What Stone makes clear is that wartime atrocities like these are usually not committed by inherently evil people; they are the result of a series of moral compromises, each one bigger than the last.
Platoon is the first Stone film to feature characters that aren’t merely antagonists, but opposites. Chris’ two mentors–Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe), a sensitive, worn-down leader who uses drugs to keep his demons at bay (and his humanity intact), and Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), a battle-scarred leader who has been in so many skirmishes that he’s almost immortal–come to represent Good vs. Evil, Peace vs. War, Love vs. Hate. They become apparitions of what war does to men. Critics would accuse Stone of dealing in absolutes by reducing his subjects to iconography. Maybe, but Stone is a filmmaker before he’s anything else, and he uses this characters-as-representatives-of-contrasting-ideals technique to powerful effect throughout his movies, whether it’s John F. Kennedy and Anthony Hopkins’ Richard Nixon representing the bright and dark sides of political leadership, or Colin Farrell’s Alexander and Hopkins’ Ptolemy representing the recklessness and hesitation that separates a born leader from a good soldier. Stone may dance with the devil, but there’s always a moral center to his movies, and morality plays require a degree of abstraction. In Platoon Stone creates his first indelible movie image as Sgt. Elias, running for his life from enemy soldiers, reaches out, arms raised up to Heaven, for a rescue helicopter that’s already taken off. It’s an image that’s almost otherworldly. It’s poetry. And its power originates in Stone’s decision to conceive his story and characters in mythic terms.
Wall Street (1987). Unlike most directors who, after becoming an “overnight” success, take time off to contemplate their next career move, Stone immediately jumped into his next film. It was a smart decision. Stone moved away (temporarily) from the theater of war to the battleground of the go-go materialism of the 1980s. Released in December of 1987, just weeks after the stock market crash, Wall Street is a sensationally entertaining morality play. And in the character of Gordon Gekko, Stone creates the first in a long line of characters that would become a part of pop culture. As played by Michael Douglas, Gekko is seductive, ruthless, Machiavellian in his ability to manipulate, a corporate raider whose amorality is not so much a necessity but a badge of honor. Gekko’s famous “Greed is good” line is more than a catchphrase or a punchline. It defines the new work ethic in America. It pinpoints a sect of society where class and race distinctions are secondary to who has the most money. (This is not to make light of the fact that the cast of Wall Street is all white, but the predominant color of the movie is green.) Gekko says, “I make nothing. I own.” Yes, but for how long? What’s the point of accumulating assets if they’re going to depreciate?
Narratively, the movie is like one of those Executive Suite confections of the 1950s. Stone, a graduate of NYU’s film school, doesn’t challenge Hollywood conventions; he reproduces them in his own voice. In Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a hungry stockbroker angling to enter the upper ranks of corporate raiders, Stone creates a classic innocent who is ripe for corruption. Sheen, with his fabled real life hedonistic exploits, at first seemed a perfect casting choice, but he comes off as aloof and seems a little out of his depth. Stone’s script compounds Sheen’s misfortune by making Bud too generic—too emblematic of a certain type of 1980s American male. (He’s like Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton writ large.) His “loss of innocence” is schematic rather than organic; he’s not a person, he’s a movie hero hitting the beats you expect movie heroes to hit.
Stone doesn’t idealize his protagonist; the montage of Bud acquiring his dream apartment, scored to Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody),” reveals the director’s barbed sense of humor. But he does insulate him against our scorn; Bud hustles the world to avoid facing his own inadequacies, and when he finally attains The Good Life, he doesn’t really seem to enjoy his perks. But he’s such a cipher that his moral crisis remains abstract. When he stands alone in his bachelor pad, stares at Manhattan’s nighttime skyline, and asks himself, “Who am I?” we’re supposed to recognize it as a man’s first inkling that he might be selling his soul. But it’s a hollow moment because we never believed there was a soul to sell.
Sheen fares better in the working-class scenes where Bud interacts with his union leader father, Carl, played by Martin Sheen in a nifty bit of meta-casting. Martin Sheen in an Oliver Stone movie has a double-edged connotation since Sheen’s Apocalypse Now character, assassin and narrator Capt. Willard, hovers over the Charlie Sheen-narrated Platoon. (The slapstick parody Hot Shots! Part Deux turns the Sheens’ war film lineage into a sight gag: as Sheen’s Rambo-esque hero travels up a Conradian jungle river, he passes his dad’s Apocalypse Now patrol boat headed the other way, and as father and son cross paths, they salute each other and declare, in unison, “I loved you in Wall Street.”) The scenes revealing Bud’s blue-collar roots have the snap of early Elia Kazan films like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. But that’s also their problem. Stone makes everything black-and-white—working class nobility vs. yuppie corporate management. There’s no suggestion that one extreme shades into the other—that in real life, these opposing social strata are united by a willingness to compromise their values for money.
That said, Stone’s iconic approach is still unsettling because of its evangelical fervor. Wall Street is a condemnation and a warning, a morality play about a society in decay. The film’s legacy is that it captured the moment when America learned that the key to success—bouncing back—is being able to spin bad experiences into part of your character, part of what makes you stronger.
Talk Radio (1988). The “little” movie that Stone squeezed in during the pre-production of Born on the Fourth of July is often omitted from discussion of his filmography. An adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s one-man play, Talk Radio may look like a throwaway, but it’s a major achievement. Stone uses Bogosian’s corrosive insights into the hypocrisies of American culture as a jumping off point to wonder if it is really possible, in a free society, to say whatever is on your mind, no matter whom you might offend. The answer is yes, but at a price.
In the wake of Phil Donahue and Howard Stern, Bogosian’s Barry Champlain, the combative voice of the Dallas airwaves (“The Man You Love To Love!”), engages in verbal warfare as he confronts the shut-ins, conspiracy nuts, neo-Nazis, and sexual deviants who are always on the lookout for that one person who embodies their own view of what’s wrong with the world. That person is Champlain, a wound-up agitator who engages the people on the fringe of society to feed his own demons. Night after night, prowling the studio like a caged animal, Barry says exactly what he wants to say, the sponsors or program manager (or himself) be damned. He turns confrontation into a performance. Barry, like Stone, believes that debating—engaging his audience—is the truest form of communication. Verbal conflict sustains him when he’s not on the air. It’s also what’s driving him mad.
The majority of the movie takes place in the radio studio. Attempts to “open up” the play are confined to an extended flashback sequence that’s interesting but unnecessary. We don’t need Barry’s back story to understand his actions or feelings because Stone has already defined them through composition, camera movement, sound design and music. As Barry stalks around his studio, eyes darting back and forth while some network guys watch to see if they really want to syndicate his show nationally, the claustrophobic setting becomes even more intimate, as if we were watching—and listening—to “The Barry Champlain Show.” Depending on Barry’s caller—for instance, a serial rapist who wants help—Barry is framed to look small, vulnerable even. When he’s discussing the finer points of The Turner Diaries with a neo-Nazi he looms large, as if he’s in control. Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson visualize Barry’s growing isolation and paranoia through the use of reflections. When Barry’s supportive ex-wife Ellen (Ellen Greene) calls into Barry’s show at a crucial moment late in the movie, pretending to be a Ms. Lonelyheart because he seems to be losing it on the air, the scene is almost unbearable in its intimacy. A series of beautifully timed close-ups and reflections on the studio glass window lets us see them relive their marriage in one brief, devastating conversation. Ellen throws Barry a life preserver by admitting she still has feelings for him, but he refuses to take it. He’d rather drown.
The movie climaxes with one of the greatest monologues in movie history. Seated at his console alone, Barry rails against the world—and himself. He says:
“I mean who the hell are you anyways, you audience? Yes, the world is a terrible place. Yes, cancer and garbage disposals are going to get you. Yes, a war is coming. You’re fascinated by the gory details. You’re happiest when others are in pain. I’m providing a public service. Your fears in your own lives have become your entertainment. Next month, millions of people are going to be listening to this show and you have nothing to talk about. Marvelous technology is at our disposal, and instead of reaching new heights we’re going to see how far down we can go. The only thing you believe in is me. Who are you if you don’t have me? I come in here every night. I make my case. I make my point. I say what I believe in. I tell you what you are. I have to. I have no choice. I come in here every night. I tear into you. I abuse you. I insult you. You just keep coming back for me. I don’t need your fear and stupidity. If one person out there has any idea what I’m talking about I…”
It’s an amazing moment given a powerful visual punch by having the radio-studio set start to slowly, almost unknowingly, rotate as Barry remains stationary. Barry lashes out at the world while he’s in the middle of it, unable to distinguish his fears from his callers’ loneliness. Stone and Bogosian see a society where talk hasn’t become cheap but beside the point. Why bother talking—listening—if no one can ever understand you?
Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Before World Trade Center, Born on the Fourth of July was Oliver Stone’s most aggressively patriotic movie—a fact that confounded detractors who’d pegged him as a muckraker whose interest favored flaws over virtues. But Stone’s iconography-laden compositions didn’t work at cross-purposes with his critical impulse, they granted it fuller expression; they looked through national myth and saw harsh reality, just like the film’s hero, Ron Kovic. By dramatizing the story of Kovic—an all-American kid who enlisted in the Marines in order to go to Vietnam to fight communism, only to return a broken man, physically and emotionally, spending years dulling his pain with booze, drugs, and rage before finding meaning in his military service by becoming an anti-war protester—Stone pinpoints the moment when a generation’s blind faith in the rightness of America’s military actions turned into doubt and skepticism.
Stone, co-writing with Kovic, uses American iconography to cover a key 20-year period—1956 to 1976, from the optimism of Eisenhower to the fallout of Nixon—that saw a seismic change in the way people felt about the purpose of going to war. After Vietnam, a portion of Americans would forever question the necessity of sending soldiers into harm’s way simply because their government assured them it was a “just cause.” (Or, would they?) The opening credits sequence is like a series of Norman Rockwell paintings made flesh. Baseball, 4th of July parades and fireworks, kids playing war, are given a slo-mo grandeur that allows them to become a collective memory of America at its best.
With Born on the Fourth of July, Stone fashions a biographical movie that’s interested in evoking a mood. It is the beginning of Stone moving away from intimate, one-person-against-the-system moviemaking to more conceptual forms of story structure. Starting with Born on the Fourth of July, continuing with The Doors and culminating with JFK, Stone freed himself from accepted standards of editing and pacing, and he became more inclined to locate the intimate story at the center of culture-changing events. This isn’t just a narrative that aims to cover a man’s life from birth to death. It’s biopic as absolution.
Stone and Richardson aim to create a sense of simultaneous objectivity and subjectivity. They filter the film’s visuals through the American flag, using red, white and blue as a constant color scheme. The Vietnam sequences, shot through dustbowl-red filters, are choreographed differently from the jungle combat of Platoon. You still can’t see the enemy, but the difference this time is that you can’t even see the men on your side. After Kovic becomes paralyzed, the camera is almost always at wheelchair level, yet it distances itself from him so that we can observe the world around Kovic. In a mid-movie student protest that erupts into violence, the camera swirls around the action, taking in the brutality from the margins. Scenes like this, or a dinner table confrontation, force us to wonder: Were families really this divided by war? Did war, assassinations, and social unrest occur during such a short period of time? Can it happen again?
The Vietnam sequences are mirrored late in the movie during an extended Mexico sequence where Kovic loses himself in booze, prostitutes and despair. The sequence reaches a moment of absurd comedy when Kovic and a fellow wheelchair-bound veteran named Charlie (Willem Dafoe), who’ve alienated everyone in the local villa, are left by the side of the road to find their way home. The scene shows that Kovic isn’t just paralyzed physically, but emotionally. The movie’s most draining chapter chronicles Kovic’s stay in the VA Hospital. Employing clinically cold white lighting, the sequence taps into the universal feeling of impotence that occurs when you are forced to trust overworked and underfunded caregivers. (There’s a great moment where Kovic is working out in the hospital and Don McLean’s “American Pie” creeps onto the soundtrack, McLean’s sunny voice serving as ironic counterpoint to Kovic’s suffering.)
At the center of the movie is a rigorous and moving performance by Tom Cruise. Cruise’s fabled work ethic is evident in the homecoming scenes as he navigates his wheelchair through the hallways and doorways of the childhood house where he was once a sterling example of athletic grace. In the early all-American scenes, he embodies the naïveté and drive of youth. His face becomes a monument to the innocence of the early ’60s. Stone takes Cruise’s ability to project American pride—the source of his gung-ho performance in Top Gun—and turns it over to reveal the anger that goes with that pride. Cruise’s opposite is Jerry Levine’s Steve Boyer, a slightly smug college kid who was hip enough to know that Vietnam wasn’t for him. He stayed on Long Island to operate a thriving business. Ron sees in Steve an alternative life he could’ve had. Steve sees it too. When Steve finds Ron drunk and combative at a local bar, there’s a fleeting moment where Steve realizes his luck and Ron realizes his loss. Cruise’s work in the Vietnam scenes is less effective. He lacks authority and seems a little overwhelmed. He doesn’t seem to be a natural born leader (though the film suggests that he would learn to be a leader through his anti-war protests).
The film’s most badly judged scene is a late night argument between Ron and his mother (Caroline Kava). She’s already been set up as a strict Catholic who instilled in her son a sense of guilt that was a key component of him wanting to go to Vietnam. When Ron confronts her about the ugliness he’s seen and done, she doesn’t want to hear it. She doesn’t “get it.” The scene becomes an overheated shouting match. It’s intense and real, but it doesn’t know when to quit.
Stone mirrors this scene to better effect when Ron goes to Georgia to visit the family of a fellow Marine he accidentally shot and killed in an ambush. (The film suggests that this emotionally traumatic incident led to Ron getting wounded.) Critics who are surprised by Stone’s nonjudgmental approach to middle America in World Trade Center have a poor memory. They need only look at this scene to see Stone’s empathy for middle and rural America. He knows that it’s young men from these forgotten communities who are sent to war. Ron confesses his sin to the family because he hopes they will understand him. The coldness of Ron’s mother is offset by the warmth and forgiveness of the fallen soldier’s mother, played by Jayne Haynes in a remarkable one-scene performance. (Ron is not completely absolved. The dead Marine’s wife can’t forgive him, but she tells him, “Maybe the Lord can”—and Ron accepts this.)
The film’s emotional epiphany comes when Stone vividly recreates the 1972 Republican National Convention where Ron and his fellow anti-war protesters storm the floor to vent their anger at the American government. Stone and Richardson let the colors go wild as red, white and blue flood the screen. There’s a sense of fulfillment as Kovic discovers that the most patriotic thing you can do for America is question it.
The Doors (1991). Although the prospect of Stone taking on one of the most decadent bands in rock history seemed like a no-brainer, his follow-up to Born on the Fourth of July was greeted with bafflement and derision. Maybe it’s because The Doors isn’t a straightforward rock biopic; it’s an actual rock ’n’ roll movie, steeped in drugs, rebellion and self-destruction. Stone uses the music of The Doors and the life of lead singer Jim Morrison as a pretext to explore the moment when music, politics, and a new rebel-youth culture were ever-so-briefly interconnected.
Stone understands that the mythologizing of the Sixties has blotted out the darkness that was all of a piece of the counterculture. For John F. Kennedy to exist there had to be Richard Nixon. Woodstock had to have Altamont. The yippie pranksterism of Abbie Hoffman was twinned with the nihilism of Charles Manson. And The Beach Boys needed The Doors. Dreamy, sensual, improvisational, The Doors’ music could not have existed during any other time. Songs like “Light My Fire,” “L.A. Woman,” and “People Are Strange” are memorable because they combine pop sensibilities with trance-out moodiness. The band’s albums don’t hold up from start to finish; they’re too delicate; with the exception of their self-titled debut, Doors albums consist of moments of sustained brilliance amidst the filler. Stone’s impression of the band’s career excises the filler. The Doors is like a greatest-hits collection of the band’s—and Jim’s—most memorable moments. Like rock ’n’ roll, the film is excessive. It’s a trip.
Like Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors is not interested in covering a man’s life from beginning to end. It’s only interested in the end. The movie begins at the end, with Morrison (Val Kilmer) spending three nights in the studio recording An American Prayer, then flashes back to his time at UCLA Film School, where he spent his free time writing and composing poetry and songs. As played by Kilmer, Morrison always seems to be in a daze, as if not fully conscious of his surroundings. But he also has feelers, picking up the slightest bit of criticism then discarding it. It’s a remarkable performance—strange, funny, and a little dangerous. Kilmer’s decision to sing Morrison’s vocals instead of lip-synching is crucial to the movie’s effectiveness, because it’s in the musical performances that Morrison is most alive and attuned to his inner wild child.
Stone rushes through the typical rock movie bio scenes of the band forming, rehearsing and achieving success because he’s not really interested. (There’s only one rehearsal session before they start playing packed nightclubs on the Sunset Strip.) He wants to get at what drove the band to make such decadent music, and how that music was a part of its time. The movie doesn’t really come to life until The Doors perform “The End” at the Whiskey a Go-Go. With its snake-rattle rhythms and Oedipal imagery, “The End” is shocking enough to get the band thrown off stage. The song’s death-trip grandeur syncs up with a generation that’s striving for change, but also oblivion. The performance of the song is given extra meaning because of its connection to the end-of-the-world opening of Apocalypse Now. “The End” is not only a song associated with Vietnam, it is Vietnam.
The production design favors Native American red and leather-pants black. Robert Richardson’s camerawork is fluid, free-associative, as if the viewer was an angel looking down from Heaven. An extended party sequence at Andy Warhol’s Factory is a marvel of timing and staging as one Pop Art gag follows another, creating a dizzying fun house atmosphere. (The scene is goosed along by the use of The Velvet Underground’s love letter to oblivion, “Heroin.”) Morrison’s love affair with death is made flesh by the creation of a Bergman-esque Death figure (played by Stone’s old friend and sometime writing partner Richard Rutowski). Death follows Morrison everywhere; the closer he gets to The End, the more prominent he becomes. The movie’s highlight is the recreation of the infamous 1969 Miami concert that got Morrison brought up on obscenity charges. Stone pulls out all the stops as he turns a rock concert into the death knell for a generation exhausted from its own freedom. (Altamont is just months away.) Lewdness, profanity, fear, Indians taking leave of Morrison’s body: the Miami concert is really the best (and worst) performance of Morrison’s life. The sequence climaxes with Morrison leading a conga line, with Death on his ass, in a back-and-forth performance of “Dead Cats, Dead Rats.” It’s the end of the world and it looks like the greatest party ever.
What the film lacks is any sense of consideration or detachment. Stone sees Morrison as a misunderstood man of his time; he’s claimed he wanted to show that Morrison’s behavior was separate from the music. This is true in the abstract—as the band was falling apart, they created some of their best recordings—but the movie never really dramatizes it. (Some more scenes of The Doors rehearsing would’ve helped.) There’s no sense that Morrison brought about his own annihilation. Stone seems to buy into Morrison’s belief that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, so it’s no surprise that he’s not interested in the lives traumatized by Morrison’s self-destructive behavior. The Doors didn’t need to be judgmental, but it should have considered Morrison’s massive ego and how it correlated with the supposed “no rules, no limits” ethos of that era.
Stone’s near-total embrace of subjectivity has an upside, though: it allows us to be immersed in the era’s transgressive attitudes, the sense of total freedom that makes a scene like Morrison’s night of wild sex with a journalist (Kathleen Quinlan), fueled by wine and ritualistic mutilation, appropriate in its excessiveness. There’s a hilarious scene where we see Morrison and his girlfriend Pam (Meg Ryan) try to have a “normal” Thanksgiving dinner. The evening degenerates into slapstick violence as the duck burns and Pam pulls a knife on Jim. It’s like an early sketch of the sitcom-hell sequence from Stone’s Natural Born Killers. (The scene is given a comic-ironic counterpoint by the song “Love Me Two Times” playing in the background.) Scenes like these show Stone’s gift for screw-loose filmmaking.
But Stone’s hero worship eventually paints him into a corner. His blind faith in Morrison as an artist doesn’t allow him to fully acknowledge Morrison’s flaws. Stone’s inability to see that a visionary’s personal failings can also be a part of what fuels his creativity is what separates The Doors, a good biopic, from Nixon, a great one. (It’s also what led to some of the more problematic story points in Alexander.) Stone’s romantic attachment to Morrison and his music is justified, but at a price. The Doors is a cautionary tale about excess with too much excess and not enough caution.
Aaron Aradillas is a San Antonio-based critic and journalist and a contributor to Rockcritics.com. This is his first article for The House Next Door. Look for Part 2 on Tuesday, Sept. 12.