Oliver Stone emerged as the foremost provocateur of the New Hollywood; although his first two films, Seizure (1974) and The Hand (1981), were seemingly conventional horror pictures, they dealt persuasively with issues of masculinity and loss of power. In particular, Michael Caine’s performance in The Hand, as a comic book artist who loses his drawing hand in an automobile accident and is subsequently reduced to teaching in a community college, is an affecting portrait of male desperation and impotent anger. But Stone soon moved on to more ambitious projects with the Vietnam War epic Platoon (1986), which draws on his own life experience as a ground soldier in the conflict. Salvador (1986), featuring James Woods as a battlefield photographer caught up in the intricacies of life in a perpetual war zone, critiques American involvement in foreign affairs when it serves only partisan political interests.
Stone’s Wall Street (1987) is the definitive “go-go eighties” film, in which corrupt financier and stock manipulator Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas, in one of his best performances) suckers young and naive Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) into a massive swindle that brings about the ruin of both men. Talk Radio (1988) features a corrosive performance by Eric Bogosian (the film is adapted from Bogosian and Tad Savinar’s play of the same name) as a “shock jock” who will do and say anything to stay on the air. Born on the Fourth of July (1989) is one of Stone’s most moving films, about real-life Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), who returns from the war paralyzed and gradually becomes an antiwar activist in a wrenching process of self-examination. The Doors (1991), with a cameo by Stone as a UCLA film professor, casts Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the 1960s rock group The Doors.
JFK (1991), perhaps Stone’s most notorious film, was criticized by many for its sensationalism and hyperkinetic editorial style. The movie is a lengthy and detailed examination of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, using real-life New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) as the central character and striving to build a convincing case that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have acted alone in JFK’s murder. Natural Born Killers (1994) raised more eyebrows with its explicit portrayal of a charismatic serial killer and his girlfriend who go on a bloodthirsty, senseless rampage, urged on by an unscrupulous tabloid reporter who milks the killers’ exploits for maximum shock value. Shot on a variety of film stocks, mixing color and black-and-white in a whirlpool of violent imagery, Natural Born Killers is frenzied filmmaking, a self-reflexive examination of instant celebrity and the American cult of violence. Nixon (1995) is a more visually sedate film, with a surprisingly convincing performance by Anthony Hopkins as the beleaguered president and an equally deft performance by Joan Allen as Nixon’s wife, Pat. Stone sees Nixon’s presidency as the tragedy of a man who overreached his limitations and who, insulated in the seat of power by a group of sycophantic cronies, gradually lost touch with the nation he was elected to serve.
Of late, Stone has turned to more traditional genre films: U Turn (1997) features Sean Penn as a hapless motorist whose car breaks down in a small town in Arizona where his life rapidly becomes a tourist’s worst nightmare, while Any Given Sunday (1999) explores the macho ethics of football culture. Alexander (2004) is a historical epic that was not well received; Stone’s World Trade Center (2006) depicts rescue efforts in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.