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Oliver Stone does it his way...

Oliver Stone’s career and ‘JFK’ share a common thread: The truth is whatever you want it to be, depending on your point of view. By Michael Ventre

Oliver Stone’s career and “JFK” share a common thread: The truth is whatever you want it to be, depending on your point of view.

If you study Stone, you are best advised to use various film stocks, camera lenses and filters, flashbacks, re-enactments, jump cuts, wild tracking shots and a soundtrack that will pummel your ear drums. All of this can succeed in crystallizing Stone and provide a deeper understanding of Hollywood’s favorite iconoclast. All of this can also distract, confuse and keep the public at arm’s length.

That’s the way Stone wants it.

His new film, “Alexander,” seems to be a continuation of a disregard, even a contempt, for the routine. He gives the audience a cinematic hotfoot even though the subject matter calls for Cecil DeMille epic reverence. That will infuriate some and delight others. He claims not to be a filmmaker motivated by politics, but rather by the lure of good drama. Yet in this current-day climate, he could do a “SpongeBob SquarePants” movie and wind up polarizing a previously unified audience.

Not for the faint of heartStone’s métier is anything that provokes debate. He made his bones as a screenwriter with such controversial material as “Midnight Express” and “Scarface.” The former won him an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. But both stories reflected a preoccupation with the dark side of capitalism, a theme embedded in his DNA from the days when his father, Lou, was a stockbroker who hit upon hard times and later endured a difficult divorce.

Just like Francis Ford Coppola used a corrupt vision of the American dream as fuel in making “The Godfather,” Stone did the same in telling of drug entrepreneur Billy Hayes and his unfortunate stretch in a Turkish prison in “Midnight Express,” and of Cuban kingpin Tony Montana in “Scarface.” Stone approached both with a passion for good storytelling, but he was attracted to the subject matter like a coke fiend is drawn to the VIP room of a trendy nightclub.

His hunger for incendiary fare continued with “Salvador” in 1986, which served as his breakthrough as a director. It followed the true-life exploits of journalist Rick Boyle against the backdrop of a conflict in El Salvador between rebel forces and a military dictatorship. As director and co-writer, Stone’s hot-button voice became clearer and fiercer, and his reputation in Hollywood as a rabble-rouser both intrigued studio suits with his passion and frightened them with his daring.

The pinnacle
That same year, Stone’s next film, “Platoon,” was released. Both “Platoon” and “Salvador” would receive screenplay nominations. But it was Stone’s treatise on good and evil in wartime from a Vietnam grunt’s point of view that garnered Academy Awards for best director and best picture and sent Stone into rarified air with a provocative film that was both a critical and commercial success. A Time Magazine cover proclaimed, “Platoon the picture is now Platoon the phenomenon.”

“Platoon” fortified the country’s left as it rankled the right. Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart declared it a must-see for every American teenager.  Pundit John Podhoretz said in the conservative magazine “Insight”: “Stone’s effort to use his sleazy little story as a metaphor for the American experience in Southeast Asia blackens the sacrifice of every man and woman who served the United States in the Vietnam war [including Stone].”

Said Stone to an interviewer: “I used the war rather than letting the war use me, and that’s the best revenge I could get.” Then he added a dig at America’s fascination with phony patriotism: “I love John Wayne but ‘Sands of Iwo Jima’ sent me to Vietnam believing that it was exciting and I could make a man out of myself. I don’t believe John Wayne ever went to war.”

Not resting on his laurelsRather than allow the success of “Platoon” to ease him into the comfort the studios offer whenever a director becomes a bankable sensation, rather than enter the open doors toward safer projects, an emboldened Stone used his newfound filmmaking capital to tackle larger, riskier projects. He indicted “Wall Street” the following year, contributing the term “greed is good” to the national lexicon. He did biopics of “JFK” and “The Doors” in 1991, and “Nixon” in 1995. And he re-visited Vietnam with “Born on the Fourth of July” in 1989 and “Heaven & Earth” in 1993.

Perhaps his greatest miscalculation was the cinematic cesspool that is “Natural Born Killers.” What was supposed to be a diatribe against the media’s irresponsible fixation on violence instead became a glorification of gore in and of itself. The sadistic overwhelmed the satirical.

Arguably, Stone has had a series of noble efforts after “Platoon,” but has not made a certifiably great film since. “Any Given Sunday” is a Hollywood trifle. “U Turn” is an indie misfire. And his two documentaries on Fidel Castro, “Comandante” and “Looking for Fidel” may never be taken seriously because of the filmmaker’s obvious infatuation with the Cuban dictator.

Despite some shaky early buzz, “Alexander” seems to have all the elements for a Stone revival: A true-life story with a complex hero in difficult circumstances.

If you look closely, you can see Stone’s life in every frame, open to various interpretations. He can’t help himself.

Contributor Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles