Talk Radio is perhaps Oliver Stone's angriest film; an apt designation considering he teamed up with an even angrier man in playwright Eric Bogosian (who also stars as the lead). What they're angry at is more arbitrary than what Ron Kovic, the subject of Stone's 1989 hit film Born on the Fourth of July, is angry at. For Kovic the focus of that anger is clear: disillusionment and betrayal from those he trusted most (his government, his parents, American ideals); however, the anger directed by Barry, the subject of Stone's 1988 film Talk Radio, is more at society in general. Both films, though, have an angry director behind the camera; crystallizing his frustrations by using others' stories as source material. In Talk Radio it's the story of 'shock jock' (before Howard Stern popularized such a term) Barry (played by Bogosian who also co-wrote the play the film is based on which is also based on a book about Alan Berg, a radio host from Denver who was murdered in 1984…whew, did you get all that?) who has a popular late night talk show that caters to all kind of right-wing nutjobs and conspiracy theorists, not to mention the usual talk radio listener who seems to only exist to continuously irk the radio host with their clichéd philosophies on life. In Born on the Fourth of July it's Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), a once baby-faced Midwestern high school wrestler who dreamt of making his mark in the Marines the way his father and grandfather (not to mention John Wayne in all of those WWII movies) did. Both films have similar themes about people being disillusioned with the culture that surrounds them, and both films have an angry undercurrent running through them.
After the pretty benign (thematically speaking) Wall Street it's interesting to see the fire back in the belly of Stone with 1988's Talk Radio. The film is a tightly shot (Stone once again uses DP Robert Richardson) 110 minutes where it's almost as if we're listening to Barry's radio show and getting all wound-up while Barry slaloms his way through asinine call after asinine call. It's an intense, claustrophobic movie experience that once again shows a filmmaker in Stone who doesn't get in the way of his actors.
The film essentially centers around Barry and one night after having the promise national syndication pulled from him because of his unwillingness to conform to the rules set by the suits (his boss is played by Alec Baldwin). We're given some context as to why Barry is the way he is, and what makes him the kind of radio host that he is (read: why he's such a loud-mouthed prick), but that's really the most interesting part of the film; it's the one part that Stone obviously felt he needed to add to get the film out of the radio station and feeling like a film rather than a filmed play. But the context is pretty unnecessary in the grand scheme of the film because we don't really care why Barry is such a prick, we're more concerned about being entertained by his rants.
The aesthetic really isn't anything more than a filmed play, though, but that's alright because when in the studio Richardson's camera swirls around Bogosian as he delivers his lines with a ferocity and conviction that exudes the appropriate aura for the kind of self-righteous, overtalker Barry is. There's something incredibly interesting and intriguing about being holed-up with Barry in his bunker as many moments (especially when Barry invites a stoned-out caller onto the show, much to the behest of his boss and screener), and what's even more surprising is that I didn't notice being holed-up; I never enclosed or suffocated by the aesthetic of the film, and much credit must be given to Bogosian for always keeping Barry an interesting character, but a lot of credit must also be given to Stone and Richardson for keeping the camera fluid – and not just by shaking it and getting all hand-held or zoom-happy, but the camera ushers the viewer through the studio and moves to the beats of Barry's cadence. It's a subtle thing because our focus is always on Barry, but when you shake yourself from the trance you notice that camera is almost always moving, keeping things from becoming stale without drawing attention to it.
Barry is what I imagine Bud Fox, the character from Wall Street, would be at an older age: grown up and a little wiser to the world that he so desperately wanted to tackle with vim, but was slapped with reality when his hero, Gordon Gekko, pulled the curtain back and showed him how life as a major player on Wall Street really works. Barry seems like all of the Stone characters we've talked about so far: both green and wide-eyed (think Platoon or Wall Street), and cemented in their jaded philosophies about how the world works (Salvador), but an event makes them re-examine their outlook on life. Since we enter the film with the already-jaded Barry we don't see the Blakean progression of innocence to experience the way we do with Platoon and Wall Street, but we do see a bit of a change to a hard-assed purveyor of truth a la the photojournalist played by James Woods in Salvador. And so far this seems to be the underlying theme with all of Stone's films, and most prominently displayed in Stone's follow up to Talk Radio, 1989's Born on the Fourth of July.
Born on the Fourth of July is the second film of Stone's unofficial "Vietnam trilogy", and is a lot more subjective and angry than the first installment, Platoon. Where Stone's popular, Oscar winning war film was more of a anecdotal retelling (with some melodrama mixed in with the Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe characters) of Stone's own experiences during the war, Born on the Fourth of July – based on the bestselling book by Ron Kovic – is a film with a wider scope and more poignant and heartbreaking conclusion considering the journey we follow Ron Kovic on. It was one of Stone's most successful films at the box office and earned him a bevy of Oscar nominations; it also cemented Tom Cruise as a legitimate actor who could handle the load of being the lead of a heavily dramatic film.
Born on the Fourth of July is definitely remembered for its lead performance in the same way Wall Street is: you have suave, Hollywood leading men playing against type. Here, Tom Cruise is perfect in embodying everything about the Blakean prototype Stone has been so fascinated with in his prior films. As the film begins with John Williams' beautiful score we see kids running through the woods playing war. The theme for the film is being stated clearly enough within a matter of seconds: we're going to see how one looks at war through an idealized lens, but comes back more jaded at those who are blind to what war us really like. The opening is an interesting moment, too, in how it reminded me of Platoon: Stone wonderfully juxtaposes the woods of the opening of this film – with its beams of sunlight bursting through the trees – to the claustrophobic and confusing jungles of Vietnam in Platoon. This idea of playing war in the backyard was exactly why Stone wanted to make Platoon. Stone wanted to get rid of the misconceptions about war as most boys thought it based upon John Wayne films. We see this ideal and this mentality in young Ron growing up in the 50's where parades, flag-waving, baseball games, ice cream socials, and enthusiastic American pride was at its height following WWII, and with Kovic's source material Stone found something angry and pointed to attach his Vietnam experience to; creating a film with a much wider scope than Platoon, and far more effective, too.
The opening borders on tongue-in-cheek; a parody of a "simpler" time, meant to drive the point home further once we see the adult Ron come back in his wheelchair. It's an odd mix: the beginning has the ironic veneer of David Lynch's Blue Velvet, and the rest of the film has the seething anger boiling beneath a la Hal Ashby's Coming Home. And even though the film doesn't work as a whole, the opening 30 minutes and the final hour where Ron comes back home are some of the most powerful moments Stone has ever filmed.
Kovic's story is an interesting, if not familiar, one: young man growing up wants to emulate those that fought before him, so he enlists in the Marines and heads off to Vietnam. Once there the horrors of war are a shock to someone who thought it was going to be as exciting and visceral as playing guns in the backyard. Confusion reigns in Vietnam and Kovic feels that he is to blame for shooting a fellow soldier. Shortly after Kovic is shot and loses feeling beneath his waste. Now obviously this is an over-simplification of Kovic's story (which is a powerful one), but I only over-simplify to show that the arc of the film's narrative is rather ordinary, and that's what makes it so great because this could have been just "another" movie about Vietnam directed by a one-not director; however, along with Cruise's performance, Stone makes the film so much more than what it appears to be on paper.
Despite a soggy middle where Kovic retreats to Mexico for booze and hookers – kind of a Land of Misfit Toys for Vietnam vets – the film remains a powerful experience thanks in large part to Cruise's performance as Kovic. At this point in his career Cruise had really only been in two "dramatic" roles: Rain Man and The Color of Money. Both of those films were flawed at best, and there was nothing to really write home about in regards to Cruise's performance. Prior to those roles Cruise was a college kid throwing a party while his parents away, a cocky bartender, and a fighter pilot. There was no doubt he was a huge movie star and could do whatever he wanted.
Unlike the studio's need to press Stone into casting an actor he didn't want like in Wall Street (Stone, obviously, won that battle) there seemed to be no backlash with Stone wanting to cast Tom Cruise as Kovic. It was about this time that Cruise was starting to mature as an actor and seemed the perfect fit for the idealistic Kovic that opens the film, the soul-searching Kovic of the middle of the film, and the pissed off Kovic at the end of the film. Cruise was certainly playing against type, and in the modern era of the blockbuster film it may be the first example of a huge star doing a very serious dramatic turn (in the vein of what Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler would do nearly two decades later). Cruise's performance is layered, something not previously seen from the actor whose prior idea of being dramatic was simply to yell a lot (like in Rain Man), but here as Ron Kovic he does a lot non-verbally, and makes the performance resonate with the viewer long after the film is over. Perhaps the greatest compliment to Cruise is that he makes Kovic a person one wants to learn more about once the film is over. I remember when I was about 13 I went to the library after seeing this movie so that I could check out Kovic's book and learn more about him. A lot of that was because of Cruise's performance and how he portrayed Kovic as the kind of person you may have known that was deeply affected by a horrible experience.
It's not just the theme of innocence to experience and Cruise's perfect encapsulation of that theme, but it's the way the Kovic's story really seems to echo Stone's own experience. Both came from a place of American Conservatism where young men went into the war with a rah rah attitude that was drummed up by countless war films and war stories from parents and grandparents. However, once soldiers started returning from home – soldiers whose ideals and preconceived notions about war were completely destroyed once they stepped foot in Vietnam – with no limbs and jaded attitudes about the government a new kind of Americanism was being drummed up, and Kovac was at the center of that, and it's clear that Stone wanted to attach his experience to Kovic's because Kovic was able to articulate his anger at the war better than Stone could. The two together have made one of the best anti-war films.
Both Talk Radio and Born on the Fourth of July show an angrier Oliver Stone; however, he would put that anger on the back burner for his next film: a generic biopic that (surprise, surprise) contains a great lead performance.