Top 10 Oliver Stone Films
September 15, 2022
As one of the most controversial figures in American filmmaking, Oliver Stone has never been shy about wearing his politics on his sleeve, which were shaped by his experiences in the Vietnam War, and the American cultural turmoil of the 1960s. Films such as Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, and JFK gave way to his meteoric rise as an outspoken voice against a country he loves so much. But even with all that success early on, Stone hasn’t been able to find a footing in the 21st Century, turning in subpar work that doesn’t contain the epic anger he once had.
In honor of his 76th birthday today, here’s a look at Stone’s ten best films as a director, many of which remain American classics.
This biographical war drama went largely unnoticed in 1986 due to the fact it was released the same year as Platoon. In fact, Stone competed against himself at the 1987 Oscars as both Salvador and Platoon were nominated for Best Original Screenplay (both would lose to Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters).
Salvador falls right in line with Stone’s career ambitions as he critiques America’s involvement in Central American politics during the Reagan administration, which had been embroiled in controversy over the Iran-Contra Affairs. James Woods, who was Oscar-nominated for his leading role, doggedly carries the film as a burnt-out journalist who slowly begins to see the horrible truth the further he goes down the rabbit hole.
9. Talk Radio
With Talk Radio, Stone had finally met his match with a protagonist that was as angry as he was. Eric Bogosian reprises his stage role from the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play he created, delivering a grotesquely unlikeable character that you dare not look away from. In a similar vein to Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, Stone’s film is a scathing critique of our mass media culture, a subject he would tackle again with Natural Born Killers.
With Robert Richardson’s dizzying circular camerawork and Bogosian’s never-ending tirade of insults towards his listeners, Talk Radio is in-your-face entertainment from beginning to end and has only gotten more and more relevant in our age of clickbait media.
8. The Doors
Similar to the fate of Salvador, The Doors has often been pushed under the rug due to it being released a mere nine months before JFK. Following the larger-than-icon of Jim Morrison and the formation of the titular band, Stone’s film was the perfect combination of the psychedelic style of the creators and the period.
Critiqued for its historical inaccuracies (which Stone is no stranger to), the film is best remembered for Val Kilmer’s stunning performance as the central figure. Kilmer was reportedly mistaken several times for the real Jim Morrison and did his own singing in each of the film’s concert sequences (take that Rami Malek).
7. Wall Street
Only a year removed from Platoon, Stone switched his sights from American foreign policy to the domestic financial industry with Wall Street. Most famous for coining the multi-meaning quote “Greed is good,” and giving finance bros a figure they (wrongly) looked up to, Wall Street is overly naïve and mostly just two hours of Stone yelling about how capitalism is broken. But that doesn’t mean his simple statements aren’t correct, nor does it make the film any less entertaining with its flashes of excess that would later become popular in films such as Boiler Room and The Wolf of Wall Street.
It’s a shame the 2011 sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps wasn’t able to match the heights of its predecessor, especially considering the ripe material Stone was given with coming out of the Great Recession in 2008.
6. Any Given Sunday
With enough light and noise to give even the audience a concussion, Stone makes Any Given Sunday into a war picture. He never lets you forget that football is not played on just a simple field, but a battlefield. The score is everywhere, the blood is spilling, and everybody is playing for their survival. Stone's direction is ambitious and loud, which is the sort of thing that works perfectly for this type of sports movie. Everything is heightened to the highest degree, both emotions and physicality. It's no wonder the NFL didn't approve of this movie as no viewer can come out of this and be motivated to watch football, let alone play it.
5. Born on the Fourth of July
With a great Tom Cruise performance at its center, Born on the Fourth of July is an endearing, yet conventional, biopic. Centering on the loss of innocence and the façade of the American dream for the Vietnam-era youth, Stone returned to his Platoon roots.
He crafts several ingenious individual scenes with his might behind the camera, which earned him his second Oscar for Best Director. The scenes at the prom, Vietnam, and the Syracuse protest are just some of the great moments. John Williams’ score perfectly supplements the sweeping nature of the story, as it contains trumpet swells that recall youthful patriotism and a string orchestra that signals the haunting moment reality has crushed those once bright dreams.
A few years after making JFK, Stone gave Kennedy’s 1960 election opponent the full cradle-to-grave epic biopic with Nixon. Surprisingly not as damning as one would think and turning out to be a box office bomb by grossing only $13 million against its $44 million budget, Stone’s film plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy as our “hero” rises to the highest mountain, only to be eventually brought down to the lowest valley.
The Welsh Anthony Hopkins, who, unlike Val Kilmer, doesn’t share many resemblances to his counterpart, gives a great performance, complete with a foul mouth and overwhelming thirst for alcohol. Hopkins was Oscar-nominated for his portrayal, as was Joan Allen as First Lady Pat Nixon.
As the film that quickly raised Stone’s status as an American auteur, Platoon is a dizzying autobiographical masterpiece. There's no order to anything that happens, from the battle scenes to the doldrums of downtime. Along with your confusion, you feel despair and a loss of purpose. What's the point of any of this? Soldiers are sent to die, or they survive and wish they were dead.
The film was an enormous box office hit, grossing nearly $150 million on only a $6 million budget. It would conquer the 1987 Academy Awards with a haul of four awards, including Best Director for Stone and Best Picture. It would also launch the careers of several of its stars, many of which would work with Stone again (Charlie Sheen in Wall Street and Willem Dafoe in Born on the Fourth of July).
2. Natural Born Killers
Making each of his previous films look tame in comparison, Natural Born Killers creates a hellscape within the mind of the viewer as Stone savagely takes down the true-crime obsession of the American public. Matching the bewildering chaos on-camera was a bevy of troubled stars behind-the-scenes, such as the drug-addicted Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Sizemore, and Juliette Lewis beginning to practice Scientology. You also had Quentin Tarantino - who had just won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Pulp Fiction - lambasting the film for its reworking of his original script.
All that drama fueled public anticipation for the film as it became a box office success while being banned in several countries and demonized by politicians for its unflinching violence and gonzo style. With the 2010s seeing a boom in true-crime podcasts, scripted television, and reality shows, the film has only gotten more relevant as time went on, with several critics praising the film for its messaging during its 25th anniversary in 2019.
Accurately described as a “mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma,” Stone’s magnum opus is his quest for truth and justice against the military-industrial complex that stole his innocence. It’s a masterwork of cinematography by Robert Richardson and editing by Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia, both of which won Academy Awards in their respective categories. Richardson employed 7 cameras and 14 film stocks during the production, ranging from 16mm to 35mm, as well as color and black and white.
Despite some of the film’s claims being later debunked, the “counter-myth” Stone proposes is nonetheless enticing at the moment and makes you wonder what else could be lurking in the shadows. The meeting between Jim Garrison (wonderfully played by Kevin Costner) and Mr. X remains one of the most effective conspiracy scenes in cinematic history. While it was trounced by The Silence of the Lambs in each of the above-the-line categories it was nominated for at the 1992 Academy Awards, JFK remains one of the quintessential films of its time and genre.