The Oliver Stone Experience by Matt Zoller Seitz
Abrams Books, 2016; 480 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
Cinema needs directors like Oliver Stone. At the height of his career, Stone directed movies almost yearly, and not just churning them out like a journeyman director in the day of the studio system. No, Stone made sprawling epics, angry and challenging political dramas, films with chaotic and violent content that challenged his audiences as much as they entertained. Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July won him directing Oscars, with the former film winning best picture. JFK helped create the JFK Records Act which will allow the public to see the files covering the investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination, scheduled for 2017. For a man who became such a public and controversial figure (directors rarely become household names), discussion about Stone’s films has faded in recent years, especially as mainstream movies become less challenging and more pandering. Maybe Matt Zoller Seitz’s engrossing new book The Oliver Stone Experience can change that.
Seitz, a world-class interviewer and critic, conducts a book-length chat with Stone about the man’s life and career, from the director’s early days of being a prep school Republican who became more radically left after returning home from Vietnam and immersing himself in the counterculture. After attending film school, Stone became an Oscar-winning screenwriter for the films like Midnight Express and Scarface. Despite some early success, Stone didn’t break out as a director until the one-two punch of Salvador and Platoon in 1986, followed by other incendiary films like Wall Street, JFK, and Natural Born Killers. Each movie in his filmography earns an in-depth discussion, like the underrated Heaven & Earth which draws out the topic of women in Stone’s films, or more recent Stone movies like W. and the controversy it drew in some circles because Stone portrayed President George W. Bush in a sympathetic light. Snowden, his underrated new film, is also featured.
Stone makes for a great interview subject because he’s a candid person about his films, politics, and the people he’s worked with over the years (perhaps too candid at times given that several passages of the book have been redacted). What makes The Oliver Stone Experience such an exciting book to read is that the conversation between Seitz and Stone is so consuming and intimate that it’s hard to step away from the book, but at the same time the in-depth chats about many of his films are so beguiling that the end of a conversation will have you looking to see how you can get ahold of the film being discussed so you can watch it. Like Seitz’s visual essays or his two books on Wes Anderson, The Oliver Stone Experience is rich with images that highlight conversations and emphasize the impact of Stone’s work. The material includes excerpts from scripts, production stills, shots from the films, personal photos, and other visual references. The book offers so much for readers to consume be they dedicated fans of Stone or those looking new to his work. Whatever kind of film fan you are, here’s a book worth adding to your shelf.