Is there another living American director with a greater run of movies than Oliver Stone? The dozen films he directed over a span of 13 years, from 1986-1999, form a body of work unparalleled in contemporary cinema. They came one after the other — artful provocations, sometimes clouded in disreputable airs, that delved into recent history and modern-day affairs with a defiant ferocity and style: “Salvador,” “Platoon,” “Wall Street,” “Talk Radio,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “The Doors,” “JFK,” “Heaven & Earth,” “Natural Born Killers,” “Nixon,” “U-Turn” and “Any Given Sunday.”
That stretch of movies brought Stone financial success, Oscar glory and Hollywood clout. It also influenced a generation of film buffs and critics, including Matt Zoller Seitz, who describes the streak in the preface to his book “The Oliver Stone Experience” this way:
“It’s hard to describe to somebody who wasn’t alive at the time (and old enough to see R-rated movies — Oliver never made films for kids) how thrilling it was to watch him gain confidence and skill and break fresh ground with each project. His movies were brash, confrontational, sometimes assaultive, often tawdry or nasty, greedily sensual, anti-bourgeois, and fueled by the urgent energy of an artist who wanted to make big statements on subjects that the mainstream preferred to avoid.”
This might sound like Stone, who turns 70 on Sept. 15, has retired, although of course he hasn’t. His more recent films (“Savages,” “Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps,” “W.”) haven’t had the impact his earlier work did, but his artistic fire remains. His new movie “Snowden,” which opens Friday, stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who revealed the extent of the invasion of privacy the U.S. government had resorted to post- 9/11 to combat home-grown terrorism.
The film, which reportedly cost $50 million, was made with the participation of the real-life Snowden, who currently lives in Russia and makes a cameo in the movie. The large cast — Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Rhys Ifans, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Olyphant, Nicolas Cage — could earn the attention of Oscar voters (the distributor is Open Road Films, which released last year’s Best Picture winner, “Spotlight”).
“Snowden” is discussed in the last chapter of “The Oliver Stone Experience”: Seitz links the film to the theme of “The Beast,” or the military-industrial complex, that recurs throughout Stone’s work. But most of the 480 pages of this massive, six-pound volume, which you don’t so much read as you spend time with poring over it, are devoted to Stone’s life and career.
The bulk of the book is Q&A conversations between Seitz and Stone, drawn from more than 100 hours of interviews conducted from 2011-2015, that cover everything from Stone’s childhood to his tour of duty in Vietnam; his film school education at NYU (Martin Scorsese was one of his professors) to his early work as a screenwriter (including “Scarface,” “Year of the Dragon” and “Midnight Express,” for which he won his first Oscar); his smaller, lesser-known projects, such as his ambitious 10-part documentary “The Untold Story of the United States,” which Stone calls his best work, or his controversial interviews with Fidel Castro; and an endless number of irresistible anecdotes, such as the director’s combative relationship with producer Dino De Laurentiis, his original vision for “Conan the Barbarian” (a 12-film series) and his opinion of Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (Stone didn’t like it the first time around but grew to love it).
Seitz, who is best known as the TV critic for New York magazine, is also a veteran movie critic who was a 1994 Pulitzer finalist for his reviews for the Dallas Observer, wrote trenchant criticism for the New York Press and is currently the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com. He has written two books about the films of Wes Anderson, elegantly illustrated in the style of Anderson’s movies.
But “The Oliver Stone Experience” is his biggest, most ambitious project to date. The book is a combination of film criticism (“For all its gore and cruelty ... [‘U-Turn’] is ultimately a comedy about the universe’s indifference to our wants”), biography (Stone talks frankly about his privileged upbringing, his parents’ divorce and losing his virginity to a prostitute his father hired for him), world history (extensive endnotes, compiled by Seitz and Keith Uhlich, annotate everything from Greek mythology to the Black Panther party) and coffee-table photography (the book is lavishly illustrated with photos, script pages, artwork, film frames and Stone’s personal memorabilia). The attention to detail is scrupulous: Short footnotes by Seitz throughout double as a concise encyclopedia of popular culture (on Josh Brolin: “Ruggedly handsome leading man who is starting to feel like the next-generation Nick Nolte as he ages”).
Stone can be a prickly interview subject, but he’s also an uncommonly eloquent and informed artist who doesn’t back down from his opinions. When Seitz asks him about a controversial statement he made during a public panel discussion in New York City shortly after 9/11 in which he compared the attack to “a French Revolution moment,” Stone replies, “I was on a stage and I was impassioned, but I meant those words. There’s nothing false in what I said.” Despite all the criticism he’s withstood throughout his career, Stone often comes off as surprisingly humble and vulnerable, although he doesn’t shy away from disagreement (on Seitz’s interpretation of “Talk Radio”: “You can criticize the movie, call it a five-finger exercise or whatever the f--- you call it later in the book. But at least try to understand what we’re trying to do.”)
“The Oliver Stone Experience” wouldn’t have worked if Seitz hadn’t prepared so well for his interviews with Stone, who is prone to going off on tangents. Seitz talks about the split diopter shots in “Talk Radio” as comfortably as he debates the currency of myth and how it relates to “Alexander,” Stone’s costly 2004 epic (Seitz may be the only film critic on the planet to have seen all four versions of the film, which add up to nearly 13 hours). He spars with Stone about his portrayal of women in his early pictures, dives deep into the director’s editing techniques and use of film grammar and explores the autobiographical strands in his movies.
But what shines through brightest in “The Oliver Stone Experience” is Seitz’s profound admiration and respect for Stone’s work and, by extension, the man. The best critics are able to express how a piece of art affects their lives — they can personalize something by connecting with it on an emotional or intellectual level — and this lavish, beautiful book is as much a piece of serious criticism as it is an expression of pure movie love. When Stone tells Seitz he’s having a hard time picturing what kind of shape the finished book will take, Seitz tells him, “It’s an Oliver Stone movie about Oliver Stone, but in the form of a book.” “The Oliver Stone Experience” turns out to be just that, complete with gorgeous visuals, a sweeping sense of history, mysteriously redacted text like the Warren Commission report and a bombshell revelation about the JFK assassination that Seitz saves for the final page — a last-minute plot twist before the end credits roll.
“The Oliver Stone Experience.” By Matt Zoller Seitz. Abrams. 480 pages. $50. In stores Sept. 13.