Prior to the release of JFK in 1992, Oliver Stone was a filmmaker unique in Hollywood. He combined the indie-cred visual, political, and social sensibilities of Steven Soderbergh with the blockbuster bravado of James Cameron. Stone’s run throughout the eighties ranks among the greatest “periods” of any director in film history. From 1986-1992, Stone produced, wrote, or directed the following films: Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July, Reversal of Fortune, The Doors, and JFK. All of the films received high marks except The Doors (at 59% on RT), although the film’s topic (the polarizing, late-sixties experimental band The Doors) might have as much to do with that rating as anything.
Stone seemed to be at a high point creatively and professionally when he released JFK to mostly-positive reviews in December of 1991. The film, a hyperactive blend of conspiracy theories, conjecture, and facts, showed a suddenly more experimental filmmaker. Using various film stocks and processing techniques, Stone edited the film in such a way that the viewer felt very much like John F. Kennedy himself – trapped within a claustrophobic and confusing web of enemies and agendas.
JFK was instantly lauded as a landmark achievement in film editing and technique by impressed critics. It was also one of the most controversial films of its time. The film underlined the most paranoid and self-deluded aspects of Stone’s psyche, one damaged and molded through his experiences during and after the Vietnam War. Stone, like many of his generation, had an unshakable distrust of government. However, unlike most others, Stone had editorial tools at his disposal to sell these obscure viewpoints.
While playing fast and loose with many confirmed facts of history surrounding the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy, Stone concocted a persuasive cocktail with JFK that tossed in almost every available ingredient in order to make the central point that Kennedy was, indeed, murdered in a conspiratorial plot. It’s easy to forget that, in 1991, the official statement about the assassination – that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole shooter who killed the President while stationed high in the Texas School Book Depository – was still widely accepted by most Americans, even if they had their private suspicions. In fact, most people largely ignored the 1979 results of the United States House Committee on Assassinations investigation, which concluded that there was “probable evidence for a conspiracy.” The assassination and its aftermath went to sleep in the American psyche like a sickly, dying child.
Stone’s film blasted that conception apart, splattering a flurry of innuendo, facts, and imaginings into the air much like Kennedy’s head on that fateful afternoon. Using digital technology, Stone was able to present a steadied version of the famous Zapruder film of the murder, presenting for the first time the clear sequence of events in Dealey Plaza. The grisly footage shocked viewers all over again, and re-opened a huge wound in the nation’s soul.
However, the power of JFK lies, not in its editing or its controversy, but in its aftermath. Thanks to Stone’s pioneering and visionary film, new laws were enacted to open many previously-classified documents, and also opened the way for additional documents to see public light in the coming years.
But what did JFK do to Stone himself?
After JFK, Stone became synonymous with a type of overly-paranoid sort of conspiracy filmmaking that has tarnished his career ever since. Of his ten major films since JFK, all except Nixon have received largely-negative reviews. Hollywood has distanced itself from the filmmaker, as evidenced by these interesting facts:
Pre-JFK nominations: 27 Academy Award nominations, 14 Golden Globe nominations, 7 BAFTA nominations. Stone won 22 awards.
Post-JFK nominations: 4 Academy Award nominations, 3 Golden Globe nominations, 1 BAFTA nomination. Stone won NONE.
But it’s not just the fact that Stone has been mostly ignored by his peers after JFK. Stone himself has changed, seemingly frightened and less bold in the film’s aftermath.
Of his post-JFK films, the only one with any of Stone’s previous bravado was Natural Born Killers, which built on the footage and editing techniques of JFK. However, critics and the public ignored it. And the only important, critically-lauded film since JFK was Nixon, a fairly toothless attempt to understand America’s strangest and most-complicated President featuring a look-at-me performance from a hammy Anthony Hopkins.
Was the experience of JFK, one of Stone’s most personal and stirring films, just too much for the director? In an effort to survive in Hollywood, has he really given up his demons in order to churn out meaningless blockbuster pablum like Alexander or World Trade Center?
As we watch Stone’s latest film, Savages, bellyflop in theaters around the world to critical derision, it’s almost easy to forget the vital, experimental, and brutish filmmaker who refused to accept the official line on anything.
Like Orson Welles so long ago, Stone shook the establishment just hard enough to force it to reinforce itself – against him. And, in the process, it seems that one of the most important filmmakers of the last fifty years has creatively acquiesced to the pressure.
What a shame.
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