Oliver Stone and the persistence of false memories, part 3.

16 Oct

3. From Vietnam to Wallstreet.

Stone hit his stride in the mid-1980s with two very fine films and one interesting movie. He seemed perched on the ledge of greatness.

The unreliability of our own memories puts our view of life, and everything in it, at risk. Stone’s best film, Platoon, plays with this very notion of the subjectivity of war. It follows Charlie Sheen, a stand-in for Stone who did indeed fight in Vietnam, as a grunt who grows to hate his superior officer—and fear him—more than the Viet Cong. It’s superb, personal, taut, a touch overcooked but excellent, and entertaining as hell. Sheen is very fine as a demoralized soldier who only wants to survive. He isn’t a hero, nor is he courageous or brave. People who haven’t seen it will hardly recognize him. It’s excellent, arguably the best of the Vietnam war movies. (Apocalypse Now isn’t really a movie about Vietnam, or not just about Vietnam; The Deer Hunter is hobbled by a variety of problems, and you should read Studs Terkel’s review of it, which I would link to but I couldn’t find a copy of it online; and Full Metal Jacket falls apart in the second half. M.A.S.H. is superb in places but hasn’t dated well. The Green Berets was never very good, the only Hollywood movie fully endorsing the war. Casualties of War is pretty silly; Once Were Soldiers is sentimental and treacly. And Forrest Gump isn’t a Vietnam war movie at all.)

Charlie Sheen gives his best performance in Oliver Stone’s best movie.

Wallstreet is also superb, despite some nagging plot points and little pieces that haven’t dated well. It’s superbly entertaining. Douglass is excellent as Gordon Gecko, and Stone makes the manipulation of numbers and insider trading sexy, dangerous and thrilling, no easy task. Great movie? I don’t know, but it’s a very good movie, fun to watch over and over again.

The hungry youngster learns the ropes from the unscrupulous master.

Talk Radio, Stone’s fourth film, is pretty good, too, starring Eric Bogasian as a shock jock type radio host named Barry who begins to receive disturbing phone calls on the air. Barry is angry, full of bile and self-loathing, a bully, self-righteous and a real jerk. It’s a pretty tight little movie, lean, funny, energetic and robust. (With a dreadfully inadequate ending that makes you hate yourself for sitting through it.)

I liked it as a teenager. The issues of the movie are still the same ones we’re going over today. And the entire film takes place in the studio, a sort of one-act play.

Only, it doesn’t.

The false memories hit again. I re-watched. The movie has large segments in the studio, but the bulk of the movie takes place outside. There are even flashbacks—unnecessary and not very good—that move backwards to the day when Barry gets into radio. The earlier Barry is happier, nicer, less embittered (which Bogasian doesn’t pull of at all). Stone handles the cynicism of burned out professionals well, but the peppy enthusiasm of youth he doesn’t get at all.

Bogasian as a young shock jock lost in America’s hinterlands.

Stone identifies with Barry. He sees his audience as ignorant, superstitious, inferior. The movie plays like a self-righteous screed. Stone was already too far into the Hollywood machine to remember the joy of his art. A marquis director with four movies to his name shouldn’t blast his audience with self-involved pity. (Woody Allen didn’t do this until Stardust Memories, some 25 years into his career; and it’s a great movie.) I don’t feel bad for Oliver Stone, and no one felt bad for him, then, either.

But. Talk Radio is alive. It does have crackle. It has something.


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