x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

A hitman who lost his aim

The fight seems to have gone out of Oliver Stone, whose biopic of President Bush opens the Dubai film festival this week.

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Midway through the 1996 genre-blending schlocker From Dusk Till Dawn, one of the characters moves centre-stage and, apropos of nothing, delivers his motivation speech: "I was in Nam." It's a knowing dig in Hollywood's ribs. For a moment, the cast indulges the familiar monologue with a respectful if weary forbearance. Briefly, all is forgiven. Then one of the vampires bites him. Oliver Stone was in Nam and the experience has shaped much of his work, from Last year in Viet Nam, the dialogue-free short he shot as a student under the tutelage of Martin Scorsese at New York University film school in 1971, to Platoon, his 1986 Oscar-winning magnum opus. Over the years, however, Stone's war service has earned him precious little indulgence.

Much has been made of his childhood as a formative influence on his filmmaking, but if it was out of the ordinary it was only to the extent of the privilege he enjoyed; his father was a stockbroker and the family had homes in Manhattan and Stamford. When he went to Yale to study the liberal arts, Stone's life seemed bound for unremarkable normality - but then he jumped the tracks. Neglecting his classes, he put his creative energy into a novel - A Child's Night Dream was damned by The New York Times as "adolescent thrashings-about" when it was finally published on the back of Stone's fame in 1998 - and dropped out after a year.

Unbeknown at the time to both men, one George W Bush, a few months older than Stone, was his contemporary at Yale. He did not drop out. Yale was not the key to Stone's future; Vietnam was. In 1965, armed with ideals, he made his first trip to the country for a six-month stint as an English teacher. He returned in 1967, this time armed with a gun. Unlike Bush, who gave Vietnam a miss, Stone joined the US Army, requested combat and got it, serving with the 25th Infantry and the helicopter-borne 1st Cavalry Division.

Years later, he explained why: "When I enlisted, I was ready to die ... I wanted to get to the bottom of the barrel. I felt I couldn't be an honest human being until I knew what war and killing were." He survived, but he did suffer for his art - intentionally, by his account. "Someone next to me tripped a satchel charge," Stone once recalled. "I could have hit the deck and been safe but something was telling me to just try to get hit. And I did."

Wounded twice during his 14 months in Vietnam, he returned to the US in 1968 with a Purple Heart and cluster, a Bronze Star with an additional "V" for valour, and the rich stock of experience that would flavour the rest of his life and work. Like many Vietnam-era GIs, Stone came home overly fond of The Doors and drugs, but under the GI Bill studied film in New York. Graduating in 1971, he said later the experience had saved him. He spent five years churning out screenplays in vain, including Platoon, the autobiographical project he called his "hair shirt". Discouraged he may have been, but he never broke stride; when he married Elizabeth, his second wife, in 1981, he took his typewriter with him on their honeymoon - and used it.

The hard work paid off. For many writers, Stone's string of screenplay credits through the late Seventies and early Eighties would have amounted to a successful career, but it wasn't what he was meant for and sometimes it showed. There were triumphs - among them the screenplay for Brian De Palma's 1983 classic Scarface and his Oscar-winning script for Midnight Express (1978) - but they were countered by the disasters, including Conan the Barbarian (1982) and, the previous year, the dire The Hand: "It lives. It crawls. And suddenly, it kills." And it stank. Michael Caine admitted he was in it solely to pay for a new garage.

In 1986, Stone finally found his true métier - writing and directing - and never looked back, embarking on what was to become one of the most productive and controversial decades in film history. First out of the box, in April 1986, and right out of left field, was the political thriller Salvador, scathing of America's part in that country's civil war. But that critical triumph was quickly eclipsed by the film that followed a few months later.

Written a decade earlier and turned down by every major studio, Platoon, the definitive grunt's take on America's defining war, finally made it big, earning Stone a Best Director accolade and netting three other Oscars. "Thank you for this Cinderella ending," he said, reaching the Academy dais to the accompaniment of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. Hinting at the agony of the long fight, he thanked his wife, Elizabeth, "whose deep and abiding love got me through the despair".

After that, there was no stopping him. For a decade Stone was a belt-fed heavy machine gun, rattling out huge films at a rate to shame his peers. Some, such as Wall Street (1987) and The Doors (1991) were era-defining cultural snapshots, but his mind never strayed far from Vietnam. Born on the Fourth of July (1989), the story of the paralysed veteran-turned-anti-war-protester Ron Kovic, earned Stone his third Oscar as Best Director; Heaven and Earth (1993), the third in his Nam trilogy, was less well received.

Somehow, Stone also found the time to become notorious, outraging Republicans with the frankly fictional and conspiracy-bound JFK (1991), shocking the moral majority with Natural Born Killers (1994) ? a film accused of glorifying wanton violence, despite Stone's protest that it was a satire on the media's glorification of violence ? and returning in 1995 to give Republicans a kicking with Nixon. According to one critic, JFK, which suggests Kennedy was the victim of a CIA plot, was "a vast tissue of falsehood, deception and distortion". For another, it was "just a movie, but if ever there was an argument against freedom of speech, JFK is it".

Stone fought back gleefully. "Artists," he said, "certainly have the right - and possibly the obligation - to step in and reinterpret the history of our times." He was equally unrepentant at the furore that greeted his savage portrayal of Richard Nixon, dismissed by the former president's supporters as "totally false ... a figment of Oliver Stone's imagination". There was a telling exchange on CNN in December 1995, which seemed to suggest that America had forgotten that Stone "was in Nam" - and pointed towards the personal nature of his motivation. What credentials, asked a former Nixon speechwriter, did Stone have to judge Nixon? Easy, said Robert Scheer, a consultant on the film. "He's one of the people that Richard Nixon sent to war."

And then Stone's belt-feed jammed. At first, the ceasefire seemed to have done him good, cooling his barrel. Four years later, 1999's Any Given Sunday, a bland slice of American pie starring Al Pacino, was one of Stone's most successful films, but it presaged another hiatus - and what followed, in 2004, was his biggest turkey. In January 2005, a British journalist was startled to find the once pugnacious director on the ropes, staggering under the weight of the critical blows landed on Alexander, his ill-conceived biopic. Eyes closed, Stone reeled off the reviews by heart: "Puerile writing ... confused plotting ... weak script ... shockingly off-note performances ... disjointed narrative ... it has wonderful highlights, but most of them are in Colin Farrell's hair ..."

Gone was the brand of contempt expressed for the "complete morons" who had failed to "get" Natural Born Killers, the "literalists" who had nitpicked the facts in JFK. The criticism, he confessed, had left him "devastated ... The audiences ... were confused by it. I did that wrong. That was my fault." Two years later, World Trade Center was also his fault, although only as director. A limp, harmless, post-9/11 flag-waving disaster movie that did rather well at the box office, for the man who had virtually accused Lyndon B Johnson of sniping from the grassy knoll it was remarkable only for the absence of even a whiff of a conspiracy theory.

Now, W, Stone's latest film, which opens the Dubai International Film Festival on Thursday - "a soufflé" compared with Nixon, wrote one US critic - has left many of his fans bewildered. With Bush still in office, perhaps Stone should have known better. "I guess," he once said, "I am into history, because the present, the right here and the right now, is too much." But for many, W is too little. It could have - should have - been a return to form, a look back in anger to the controversial but always entertaining left-wing political invective that lit up cinema screens for a decade. Instead, as the New York Times put it, "The megamillion-dollar question that hovers over Oliver Stone's queasily enjoyable ... Oedipal story about the rise and fall, fall, fall of George W Bush is: why? Neither a pure (nor impure) send-up of the president nor a wholesale takedown, the film looks like a traditional biopic."

Bush's adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost tens of thousands of lives; what evaporated the rage of the man who in 1986 seized his Oscar for Platoon and said "it should never, ever in our lifetimes happen again ... and if it does, then those American boys died over there for nothing"? Stone turned 62 in September and, if anyone deserves a break, it is surely the man who has given cinema some of the most controversial, entertaining and thought-provoking films of the past quarter-century. But it cannot end here; what is required is a Hollywood ending.

Aficionados are pinning their hopes on the near-mythical Pinkville - a film about the My Lai massacre which would have been Stone's fourth return to Vietnam and which he should have been promoting this year instead of W. Not without irony for a left-wing filmmaker, the project fell victim to last year's screenwriter's strike. On the other hand, Platoon exposed the human cost of an earlier American war and a good film about the experience of today's grunts in Iraq has yet to be made. Who better to make it than Stone?

After all, he was in Nam. jgornall@thenational.ae