Whimpering Toward Eternity:

The Waning Anger-and Art-of Oliver Stone

By Scott Sawyer

Copyright © 1995 Mars Hill Review 3 Fall 1995 · Issue No. 3: pgs 31-40.

"I had a mother and a father. Things that made sense. Do you remember things that made sense, things that you could count on, before we all got so lost?"
-Ron Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July

The nineteen-month period between October 1972 and May 1974 was a desperate one for my family and me. It was at the beginning of that stretch-when I was thirteen years old-that my older brother's leg was amputated due to bone cancer. It was also when we began the so-called "five year" waiting game-hoping, trusting, holding our breath, and praying to a God we didn't yet know that my brother would survive, unlike 80 percent of those who had osteogenic sarcoma.

There were few, if any, friends to whom I could disclose my feelings and fears about what my brother, my family, and I were going through during that time. But I remember clearly the great anguish and psychological torment that that waiting period produced. What if he lives? What then? I often wondered. I once asked my mother about this. What if he survives the cancer and has to live with just one leg? How will people at college see him-people who don't know him for who he is? What girl would ever love him, without looking at him as if he were half a man-as if he were only a decimated fraction of the brother I know?

The whole scenario seemed so tragic to me. My brother's entire adolescence had been spent trying to catch up athletically to his peers, and, at fourteen, he'd done it due to sheer grit and determination. He had just secured a starting position on the freshman football team. And after years of struggling just to make friends, he'd finally started to become attractive to girls-a lot of girls, I noticed. Then, the amputation. No matter how you looked at it, I thought, no one would ever see my brother-my brother-the same again.

As it turned out, we didn't have to face the questions that tormented me in those long, cruel days. A year later, the cancer came back-this time overtaking my brother's lungs, trachea, and other vital areas. The next four months-during chemotherapy and afterward, when we decided it was just too much-were excruciating, so much so that I don't remember very much of them. My brother's body began to deteriorate before our eyes. After a while, his teenage friends stopped dropping by our house to see him because they couldn't bear to see him wasting away.

It was during those four months that my mother had a dramatic experience with Christ, and our entire family (my father, both brothers, and I)-ripe for hope and answers-followed suit. I embraced Jesus with all the emotion and fervor that comes with being born again as a teenager; suddenly, I knew deep down what the word hope meant. But, answers? There was nothing easy, emotionally or intellectually, about giving up my brother to death when it came.

Over the years, as I grew in my faith, I heard testimony after testimony of people who had endured tragedies just like ours. Many had gained peace through their ordeal-even "victory," in the parlance of some-after having lost a loved one prematurely. I respected the words of those people. They were folks I knew and lived with shoulder to shoulder in our small town. In one sense, I knew the peace of which they spoke. I too had the hope that one day I would indeed see my brother again, and we would live together with our Savior forever. Yet, what was it that clung to me about his brief life and abrupt death? Knowing I would see him again did nothing to ease the sorrow I had over losing him-nothing to abate my intense longing to still have him here with me. Nor did the "blessed hope" of which the apostle Paul speaks alter the frequency of my dreams about my brother alive again, bodily whole, talking to me, on this earth. Waking up from those dreams was agony.

Years later, my wife and I were visiting my younger brother and his wife in Houston when we decided to see Born on the Fourth of July the night it opened. I had enjoyed other movies by the same director, the emotionally charged Platoon and Salvador. If those previous films were any indication, I knew we were in for our money's worth.

Yet I couldn't have anticipated that I would end up sobbing virtually throughout the length of the nearly three-hour movie-beginning, literally, before the opening credits were finished. The opening sequence was basically a five-minute setup for the emotionally wrought tragedy of real-life Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic. A gung-ho Long Island teenager with visions of heroism on the battlefield, Kovic lost both his innocence and the use of his lower body in Vietnam, returning to America to face an even harsher psychological aftermath.

To me the film might easily have been given the title of a another war film (one that Kovic might even have seen as a boy), an Audie Murphy vehicle called To Hell and Back. Halliwell's Film Guide says of the 1955 movie, "The emotion is congealed and there is no real personal response to the anguish of war." Nothing could be further from an apt description of Born on the Fourth of July. The film spared no emotion-none-in detailing Ron Kovic's hellish odyssey. When it was over, my senses and emotions had been wrung out like a limp washrag. Afterward I spent a full fifteen minutes in the men's room trying to compose myself.

Obviously, the film had offered several clear points of identification for me in regard to my brother's experience-the protagonist's crippling wound, his agonizing self-consciousness over his disability and physical weakness, his longing for conjugal love and a place in the community, his promise of a fruitful life tragically cut short-each of which immediately pulled out my buried emotions about my faith, my brother, my family, myself. Yet there had to be much more to Born on the Fourth of July than mere emotional identification to have summoned up such a thoroughly exhausting experience. There was something about the film and how it spoke to me that made me feel more than just emotion; I felt conviction too. Something inside me was shouting that my story-my brother's story, my family's, my faith community's-was worth telling; yet not only that, but worth bleeding over in the telling.

The maker of this film obviously had guts. Nothing up to that point in my life-no testimony, no sermon, no friend, no story by any evangelical author I had read-had ever spoken so nearly to the depths of my experience, my agony, my loss, my heart's recesses as had this film. I realized on a deep level that I had found a friend-someone who honestly and fully had told me a tale of abrupt tragedy and the slow agony of having to deal with it. Clearly this was someone with whom I could sit on the backyard picnic table and talk it all out. My new friend was Oliver Stone.

Common Reaction

Judging from the reactions around us in that brief, temporal community of moviegoers in Houston, Ron Kovic's story had tapped into a common vein. The majority of others had responded as I had-with handkerchiefs and tissues, bowed heads, and yet with heads held high upon exiting, as if with purpose or even exoneration. Perhaps, like many Americans, they had a friend or son or brother or nephew or uncle who served in Vietnam and who may have died there. In that respect, Born on the Fourth of July provided at least some degree of closure for a generation of people whose experiences both in the war and afterward were never fully acknowledged by our society. Indeed, the film was a welcome (if raw) relief after years of efforts by Hollywood to put Vietnam to rest-wildly metaphorical films like the Deer Hunter, domestic-minded melodramas like Coming Home, and detached demonstrations of madness such as Apocalypse Now. Now, like Platoon before it, Stone's movie told what it felt like to be there; yet not only that, but also what it was like to come home-to have survived the tragedy. It was this sense, so clear to me in Born on the Fourth of July, that sold me on my new friend: he was someone who might have been there in the cancer ward with my Dad and Mom and brother. He told a story by his raw feelings, his belly, his bowels, the place where you feel your pain the deepest. And he threw in every human motive and every character-including God-that had anything to do with the experience.

To me, those other Houston moviegoers' reactions had to do with something more than just a Vietnam experience. Perhaps it also had to do with their own stories of tragedy and faith, of ultimate questions and present sufferings. Sure, Stone's version of Kovic's experience was particular to a certain generation during a certain time in our country. Yet I think it's no exaggeration to say that the movie also spoke for a generation of Americans who have been brave or hungry or suffering enough to, in the simplest terms, openly seek God-as Ron Kovic did, on several occasions in the film-and who may not have found him.

Such is the scope of Oliver Stone's art-and the chorus of acclaim and criticism that has followed in its wake. Stone once termed his craft "wakeup cinema"-an accurate description of the effect of his in-your-face, hear-me-or-else, emotional-and-political-wallop style of filmmaking. His loudness, brashness, and especially his penchant for splattering his opinion onto 35- or 70-millimeter print has moved more than a mere moral majority to provocation at what is said to be his excesses, indulgences, and vanities. It is this quality that has made for a strictly love-him-or-hate-him reaction to Stone's films. Yet it is his very excesses-the gut-wrenching hospital scenes that had theater patrons heading for the lobby; the hero's nonstop agony at his loss-that sold me on his art. He was, in a way, telling my story-a story, I had thought, no one else would ever want to hear.

To a large degree, it was Stone's early bravado in moviemaking-the tackling of supposedly non-palatable subjects in a head-on style-that broke the field wide open for the independent filmmakers who form the spearhead's point of creativity in current cinema art. His Oscar-winning Platoon (1986), made long after Hollywood had given up its run on Vietnam movies, was the first independent film to gross $100 million-and ever afterward, it has been off to the races for anybody with a hand-held camera and a few credit cards. Indeed, Stone's no-holds-barred brand of filmmaking may have affected American cinema tastes permanently-or, at the very least, for an entire generation.

So, what are we to make of this Oliver Stone-a man whose name itself suggests contradictions: the first name boyish, eastern, whimsical, Dickensian; the latter manly, hard, immovable. The image in the mind's eye is of a young man, feet planted firmly in the earth, eyes wide open to worldly experience and ubiquitous tragedy, crying into the cosmos over the hell of a fallen world. This nominal combination might also serve as a description of Stone's art and calling: like a biblical figure whose given name proved to befit his character, he stands as a man astride the creation he inhabits-late-twentieth-century America-yet screaming as a boy into the heavens for the absence of eternity in the now.

Perhaps it is this figure, cut against a heretofore tame movie landscape, that so upsets us at the mention of the name. What is it, anyway, about Oliver Stone that both attracts and repulses such a large number of moviegoers? Why do we continue to flock to his films in droves, only to further accuse him of violent excesses and national heresies? Perhaps it is Stone's manner of unearthing unpleasant truths (notwithstanding JFK)-his disturbing tendency to put to us hard questions and force us to ask "Why?" along with him, when we've never wanted to face the questions at all. Or perhaps, more to the point, it is Stone's tendency to take on the ultimate questions himself-and to answer them in a way we wouldn't.

Lately, with last year's conspicuous release of the misguided Natural Born Killers, the tendency has been to lump Stone's art as a whole with that of a group of other, truly excessive filmmakers. In my opinion, this reaction is misplaced; rather, a fundamental change is taking place in Stone's filmmaking, and it is that to which we are reacting. To be sure, Stone's art suggests an occasional but dismissible flight of hubris. But if his films have any consistent flaw, it is his tendency to take on all the classic questions (which are what make his films great) and to try to answer them all literally. Critic David Denby writes: "...there's a damaging literal-mindedness in Stone's work....Someday, he may discover that art can be a way to truth rather than an escape from it."{1}

Departure from Credibility

"My characters are truth-seekers," Stone says. "And they are willing to experience hell if that's what it takes to discover who they are."2 Platoon succeeded at this. It was the self-discovery of infantryman Chris Taylor (actually a plot device used as an excuse for Stone's ground-level voyage into Vietnam) that formed the structure of the film. Yet with Chris's closing monologue, in which he speaks of returning to "teach others," Stone's passionate art began its slow departure from credibility. The director apparently took his protagonist's words to heart-for it has been his custom ever since to wrest didactic messages from his otherwise well-told tales. Not surprisingly, his art has suffered, along with his reputation.

There is a reason behind this unfortunate trend, however-and that is Stone's waning, or perhaps souring, anger. I have no question that what we buy into in Stone's work is his anger. (That was certainly true of me. I knew my tears in watching Born on the Fourth of July had to do with my anger at God over my brother's suffering and death.) The critics are in harmony on this point: each of Stone's artistic successes has been characterized by, if nothing else, his signature emotionalism. Indeed, it is only emotional force that could drive a film like Born on the Fourth of July for nearly three hours without letting up.

This is decidedly not the kind of anger that fueled another director who succeeded at making films critical of war, Samuel Fuller. Through four decades-from Steel Helmet (1950) to The Big Red One (1980)-Fuller cannily reigned and directed his anger to make great and lasting art, without once pulling a punch. Samuel Fuller may have been a patriot, but he was a tough-minded individual who didn't flinch at any of the issues he met in the ring. And, not surprisingly, he has a canon of films that have stood the test of time.

Stone's anger, on the other hand, is neither prophetic nor reformist-but, rather, an anger expressed from a very real and particular pain. His kind of anger makes for great art as well. But over time, if an artist doesn't learn from his anger or draw upon it rather than simply react to it, it becomes self-indulgent rot. A brief look at Stone's more significant films reveals the clear pattern of anger that has shaped his art. A chronological sequence including Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), JFK (1991), and Natural Born Killers (1994) reveals, respectively, initiation and disillusionment, personal anger and political outrage, and, finally, cynical resignation. It is in the more recent films that the power of the director's angry passion has most noticeably declined.

This decline had its apotheosis in Natural Born Killers. Stone has called the film a "satire" on contemporary America-yet anyone familiar with the director's overt, literal (and often heavy-handed) style isn't fooled. The story of Mickey and Mallory, serial killers on the loose, was as full of search-for-eternity moments in a desert of despair as all the rest of Stone's strongly narrative films. As much as the director might have wanted to masquerade his sincerity, or dress up an earnest narrative in psychedelic chaos, he couldn't hide his straightforward-indeed, his religious-storytelling. Mickey rhapsodizes: "I see the future, and there's no death. Just you and I are angels." It may sound postmodern, but it's uttered in a moral context of "actions have consequences"-pure Scorcese territory.

Also, there were too many slips into familiar points of audience identification (e.g., Mickey and Mallory's past abuses) to be convincing as either satire or postmodernism. In short, the film says, all these wild background effects which represent the madness in Mickey and Mallory's minds, and all the other creepy elements, are supposed to tell you: 1. we can't escape our past abuses, 2. we're destined to live in a hell of our own making, and 3. there is a little of Mickey and Mallory in all of us.

My reaction to this empty, didactic exercise was similar to that of most critics: In the words of Samuel Goldwyn, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." Simply put, Natural Born Killers is what happens when a poet's anguish turns to futility: his verse turns to rhetoric. Stone's movie had no guts-and calling it a satire couldn't disguise that fact.

Hedged Bets

So, what has happened to the angry, brave, emotional filmmaker with the unmatched visceral appeal? What has Oliver Stone done to hedge his creative bets? What about his angry quest has gone sour?

In my opinion, the director who once had me on the edge of my seat is stuck in emotional limbo. You see, a storyteller has the human experience as a microcosm of what might be broadly regarded as the universal spiritual (or Garden) experience: initial innocence or illusion thereof (childhood), awakening to fallenness (young adulthood), and the inevitable need for grace (adulthood). Stone, whose films clearly reveal him to be a religious storyteller, seems unwilling to move from the second stage to the third; emotionally, he's stuck in Vietnam (his defining experience, as it has been for scores of other American men). And his choice to remain there, angrily smoldering, seems to have drained the passion and purpose from all of his art since his Vietnam films. His essentially religious quest in his stories requires passage from one state of grace to the next-yet the director seems content to stay at level two and simply rail.

I realize that calling Oliver Stone a religious filmmaker may sound farfetched to some, but the label fits him by critical definition. Scholars Joel Martin and Conradt Oswalt write of the nature of narrative film:

...the very nature of narrative is religious; narrative contains within itself a structure that confronts the reader with that which is transcendent and beyond mundane experience and grants meaning to human experience by exposing it to the sacred realm, the realm of realities beyond human control. Even if the content of the specific story seems secular, the very form of the story, as narrative, can mediate an awareness of otherness, of the transcendent and, hence, can serve a religious function by providing access to the sacred.{3}

It isn't just Stone's employment of narrative that makes his films religious. Much more so, it is the degree to which religious feeling accompanies his narratives that they are elevated to a religious nature. Stone's more significant movies always possess the feeling of eternal questions being asked, of eternal consequences in the balance. Critic Richard Corliss says of the director's work, "Stone plays director as if he were at a cathedral organ with all stops out."4 Indeed, Stone's practice is to use every element at his command to transform the temporal into the eternal. Critic Pauline Kael notes in her assessment of Born on the Fourth of July: "The movie is constructed as a series of blackout episodes that suggest the Stations of the Cross; rising strings alert you to the heavy stuff. Then the finale-Resurrection-takes Ron [Kovic] into white light..."5 No matter how vehemently observers may wish to label Stone as overly political or postmodern in his filmmaking, the director consistently refuses to buck the elements of myth that give his films their emotional and spiritual depth. Even as he stands with feet planted in the wormy soil of American political and moral judgment, his head swims with the contemplation of ultimate things.

Consider also what I call the "guilt scenes" endemic to each of Stone's films. Inherent in these scenes is the longing for a recovery of innocence-for absolution and redemption-which function as elements of the eternal within the particular. In Platoon, the obligatory guilt scene takes place after Chris Taylor's mad act of spraying M-16 bullets at the foot of a one-legged villager. In Born on the Fourth of July, the guilt scene shows up when Ron Kovic discovers his squad has mistakenly killed villagers-under his orders-in a misguided assault mission. Even the ostensibly calloused Natural Born Killers contains a pivotal guilt scene. Mickey's murder of the Native American wise man is nothing if not a junked-out, perverted version of what took place with the soldiers in Stone's Vietnam films. And both Mickey and Mallory show remorse and bewilderment at what Mickey has done.

The lesson here is that Stone seems willing to use any element of narrative to elevate his characters' situations to cosmological heights-to address wrongs done in the temporal with the weight of eternity in mind. Thus, one gets the feeling watching Born on the Fourth of July that Ron Kovic wasn't looking for sexual consummation, or a political voice, or even for the use of his legs; he was looking for his better self which he'd lost in the village on the Cua River. The film isn't the story of a country's mass guilt and a young man's political awakening, much as Stone might contrive it to appear so; it is about a young man's soul on display, under the gaze of a puzzling and perhaps cruel God. As David Denby writes, "The movie takes (Kovic) down to the depths of degradation, and then part of the way back. All through it, he wails and howls, like a figure in a Greek tragedy crying out to the gods."{6}

Despite himself, Stone can't seem to escape his primal longings for eternity. Only his anger-once pure in its white-hot purpose-has waned. I admit I never finished watching Stone's Natural Born Killers. This wasn't because of the wacked-out violence for which the public scathed it (and for which one might find an "angry" moral lurking somewhere), but because I was bored-bored to tears. I wasn't repulsed; I simply wasn't convinced. I don't think Oliver Stone was convinced, either. There was no feeling, no personal risk, no heart to the film-nothing to indicate the great passion I first glimpsed in Salvador and found so abundant in Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. Natural Born Killers wasn't a satire but a sneer.

These are sad days for me, because I don't see Stone's wild-beating heart in any of his post-Vietnam films. I'm afraid this isn't just a case of creative block; no, Stone has proven his ability many times over to personally breathe fiery life into subjects considered dead by "sensible" filmmakers. The problem is, rather, that the man whose "wakeup cinema" has been a call to consciousness for scores of Americans (and even a dead-spirited evangelical like me) seems to have slipped into a kind of somnambulism himself.

I believe anyone who has suffered tragedy might benefit purely from identification with the suffering protagonists of either of Oliver Stone's Vietnam films. Stone is right on target with the personal dexterity he brings to the specifics and ultimate effects of those heroes' sufferings. But to watch any of the director's films after these, one must be on guard against the self-serving righteousness of a railing artist whose anger ultimately has not served him well.

It's sad-no, it's painful, something I feel deep in my belly-to watch this one-of-a-kind friend on such a downward slide. Oliver Stone's choice to remain stymied by his anger has withdrawn from him (temporarily, one hopes) the intensely personal and spiritual edge he succeeded at in earlier works. What I first heard in his art-and in turn recognized in myself-as a meaningful scream into eternity has become a self-indulgent whimper into the void. And that is the biggest tragedy of all.

{1} David Denby, "Days of Rage," New York (December 18, 1989), 102.

{2} George Hickenlooper, Reel Conversations (New York: Citadel Press, 1991), 122.

{3} Joel W. Martin and Conrad E. Ostwalt, eds., Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1995), 16.

{4} Norman Kagan, The Cinema of Oliver Stone (New York: Continuum, 1995), 158.

{5} Pauline Kael, For Keeps (New York: Dutton, 1994), 1231.

{6} Denby, 101.