Monday, August 23, 2010

Oliver Stone: Salvador and Platoon

Oliver Stone is as interesting a filmmaker we have working today in American cinema. The problem is that he basically made the same film over and over until people grew tired of his shtick. To see an Oliver Stone film is to see something controversial; the filmmaker has always been interested in not creating controversy, but seeking it out and explicating the chaos and greed and corruption of America's infrastructures (Wall Street/greed; Vietnam/war; Washington, D.C./corruption in politics; television/violence in the media). Stone got his start writing screenplays – quite popular screenplays – for big time filmmakers like Brian De Palma (Scarface) and Hal Ashby (8 Million Ways to Die), and wrote screenplays for big budget films like Conan the Barbarian. You got a sense of Stone's writing in one of his first screenplays, Midnight Express, and he would cut his teeth as a director – like so many filmmakers do – in the horror genre with films like Seizure and The Hand. However, after the success of the aforementioned screenplays Stone began working on his first feature that would set the tone for how we view Stone as a filmmaker. That feature was Salvador – a weird hybrid of an adventure film and a film about journalism while trying to be a message film. The film is flawed, but it would be the catalyst for what was Stone's most impressive run of films – a run he's likely never to duplicate.

The period was between 1986 – 1995, and Stone could do no wrong with his controversial films that pushed the envelope, challenging the audience to examine what was fiction or what was fact, or what were crazy, inane conspiracy theories conceived out of thin air by Stone like some kind of Libertarian Merlin. His aesthetic evolved, too, and Stone became associated with schizophrenic editing, employing multiple film stocks and colors to evoke the appropriate tone of uneasiness that Stone felt with subjects he was putting under the microscope. What's interesting about his two films released in 1986, Salvador and Platoon is how you can see a filmmaker, and dare I say an auteur, really coming into his own. Of course, he won the Best Director and Best Picture Oscar's for Platoon, and away we go into a career filled with interesting films; flawed perhaps, but always interesting.


Stone worked with photojournalist Rick Boyle on Salvador to bring to the screen the injustices of El Salvador and how the American government was funding the wrong side. Of course, the argument for the "other side" is that El Salvador will always be a country of violence, and at least the U.S. can control the brutality if they're funding it. This of course is what pisses Stone off, and you get a sense of that anger throughout Salvador, an uneven film that is really only saved thanks to the performance of James Woods.

In Salvador we have a film that is essentially about a road trip between two buddies, photojournalist Richard Boyle (James Woods) and his DJ buddy played by James Belushi. Belushi is completely out of his element here, and is one of the worst things about the film. Every time he is given screen time it almost lessens the power of the message Stone is trying to convey, and the film goes from being a serious study of the injustices of the American government in a third world country into some kind of adventure lark about to American's in a foreign country. However, Woods as Boyle is phenomenal, and as we follow him as he goes from wanting to get a quick buck by snapping photos of the war in El Salvador to becoming a man with a conscience as he tries to get his girlfriend out of the country.

I don't have much more to add to Salvador, as it's a very basic premise that only sometimes works because of the intensity and immediacy of Woods' performance. Nothing really struck me about the film, and if I were pressed to find something apart from the lead performance it would be that it really feels like Stone is just warming up for Platoon. Salvador is wholly unmemorable, and that's not a good thing when you're making a movie about such injustices; a film like this should stick with you long after you've seen it, but Stone's reliance on rather banal adventure tropes gives the film an odd feeling to it. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards: one for screenplay and the other for Best Actor...

Which brings me back to James Woods: Woods has always been one of my favorite actors. He immediately piques my interest in an film whenever I see him pop up – whether it be in small b-pictures like the grimy, exploitation film Cop, or the flim-flam comedy Diggstown, or the campy John Carpenter horror flick Vampires. He also has a tendency to steal scenes from great actors like Clint Eastwood in True Crime or Robert DeNiro in Casino. He's a fascinating actor who uses odd ticks and timing to give the audience characters that they surely have never seen before. Here he creates a character in Boyle that is as interesting a character as he's ever played (Boyle co-wrote the screenplay). Woods has some great moments where his frustration is palpable, but he does it without ever seeming like he's playing to the back of the room; it's an amazing balancing act. Because of Woods' magnetism the film is watchable without ever being boring, but not to the point where you don't notice how inconsistent the tone is. Is this an adventure film or is this a serious expose of political injustice? It's a question that Stone would be able to hone to a finer point of emphasis with his follow-up film released in the same year, the highly popular Platoon.


I have to be honest with you here: I was ready to hate on Platoon. I don't know why, really. Maybe it was because it had been over ten years since seeing it, and I was all ready to claim that it was one of those overrated films that took a bunch of Oscars away from a better movie (like the un-nominated Blue Velvet, for example), but I was surprised by how well the film holds up and by how much the I found to be a powerful experience upon a second viewing nearly ten years after I initially saw it. Here's a film that succeeds and holds up well because of its characters and Stone's reliance on those characters (instead of action) to lead us through the story and make Platoon a different kind of war film.

I will probably call Platoon a message movie more than once here, but really, it seems like more than a message movie – and it's definitely different than the kind of message movie Stone made with Salvador – it feels more like Stone remembering what it was like as an infantryman, relaying a kind of truth and unfiltered authenticity about the Vietnam War the same way the photographs of Robert Boyle portrayed an unfiltered message about the horrors and injustices of El Salvador. This time it's Stone's experiences that we see on screen, though, as he doesn't have to try and represent someone else's vision; Stone, you see, fought in Vietnam and brings those experiences to Platoon to create perhaps the first truly anti-war picture that shows combat. In Roger Ebert's 1986 review of the film he opens with this wonderful comment:

It was Francois Truffaut who said that it's not possible to make an anti-war movie, because all war movies, with their energy and sense of adventure, end up making combat look like fun. If Truffaut had lived to see "Platoon," the best film of 1986, he might have wanted to modify his opinion. Here is a movie that regards combat from ground level, from the infantryman's point of view, and it does not make war look like fun.

I agree with Ebert's statement here because the tone of Platoon is much different than Salvador – which is the type of film that Truffaut seems to be speaking to with his sentiments on anti-war films. In Platoon, however, the action is more focused on the confusion of the event, rather than being focused on the warfare being any kind of visceral exhibition. Stone wisely avoids focusing on just the action in certain scenes, instead focusing on making sure the film's tone is consistent with its character-centric approach to the material. Because Stone humanizes the experience (and let's be honest here, he was not the first to humanize the Vietnam experience; that distinction would have to go to Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter or Hal Ashby's Coming Home) it makes the film more powerful and effective when the characters are in peril.

The film is filled with great performances from actors like Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe, who plays Sergents who represent the polar opposites of war-time philosophies. They're perfect here as the hard ass, violence-seeking war machine Barnes, and the more thoughtful, mentor-like Elias, respectively. You also have interesting cameos from actors like Forrest Whitaker and Johnny Depp, but noteworthy only when he look back on the film in hindsight and realize who these actors became. The real star, oddly enough, is Charlie Sheen who is perfect as the greenhorn, Chris, whose wide-eyed, schoolboy charm is wonderfully juxtaposed with the grisliness of what he's getting himself into. Once he steps foot off the helicopter as he passes by corpses being loaded into trucks and soldiers with cynical grins on their face. It doesn't take long for Chris to become weary of the war once he sees what the day-to-day operations are in Vietnam, and once he sees how his peers feel about the war.

One of the important motifs of the film is how we see Chris mature before eyes. He is the moral compass of the group; screaming at his platoon-mates who rape and pillage villages that the Vietnamese villagers aren't the enemy, but that they're humans, too. The only link outside of the jungle is the voiceover narration of Chris writing letters to his Grandma which gradually decrease the longer Chris stays in Vietnam; Stone is not interested in telling us what's going outside of what the people face on a daily basis: snakes, leeches, monsoon-like rain, countless hiking excursions, meandering missions, red ants, dehydration, diarrhea, and confusing firefights. It's no wonder why a lot of Vietnam veterans had trouble getting re-acclimated to life in the States. Once you go through all of that with the people next you in your platoon, then they're probably the only people who are going to understand where you're coming from; so, writing letters home to Grandma becomes an arbitrary exercise because that link back home has no way of knowing what you're really going through.

Stone employed DP Robert Richardson to shoot Platoon (and some of his later films like Talk Radio) and he gives the viewer the appropriate sense of claustrophobia and confusion that the soldiers, and Stone himself, must have felt in the jungles of Vietnam. Stone's aesthetic has always been an odd mixture of guerrilla documentarian and a more classical approach with a basic understanding of how to frame a shot. What I mean by that is this: in Platoon, Stone keeps his distance. In one of the film's most powerful scenes the platoon make their way through a village, arbitrarily killing people and animals. Instead of getting all hand-held on us, Stone keeps most of the action in medium shot, as if we're observing from the weeds, watching the horror unfold. It's interesting that Stone's aesthetic would become more ADD, but in his 1980's output he was a filmmaker who mostly stayed out of the way of his actors and his message, and I think that's why some people prefer his 80's stuff to his more experimental 90's stuff. We'll get more into this when we cover Talk Radio and Wall Street, but look at the difference between how he edits those films and paces them (he makes talking interesting and intense) versus how he treats similar films in the 90's with lots of talking (but way more points of view) like JFK and Nixon; there's a clear difference in his approach where it seems his vision and ideas (or conspiracy theories) became the stars over the actors. Where once Stone would just shoot and observe his characters and what they have to say, he switched into a more anxious style where you have a character telling a story or relaying some bit of information, and Stone would splice in odd bits of footage meant to give us the visual of what the characters are thinking about or telling us. This is prevalent throughout JFK and Natural Born Killers. Whether that's a good thing or bad thing is a debate best reserved for when I cover those films, but what I'm fascinated about here is how just how different Stone's aesthetic is. It'll be interesting to see why he chose to go from a more conventional, documentary-like aesthetic to the gonzo style he employed in the mid-to-late 90's.

Because of Stone's style in his early films I often call the director a "faux-documentarian" because his films are always seen through a very subjective lens; yet, they're almost always stylized in some fashion. The major difference between Salvador and Platoon is the obvious growth Stone made as a director from his first major film to his second. Where Salvador teeters between not knowing whether it wants to be an adventure film or a message film, Platoon knows exactly what it is. And that's because Stone is speaking from experience here, whereas Salvador is filtered through someone else's vision and experiences. In Platoon you have horrendous acts simply being observed (albeit, again, with Stone's very subjective eye) without a lot of trickery or music to manipulate emotions. Here we see Stone as a filmmaker who also better directs his ensemble cast. In Salvador he didn't much direction, and didn't need to because it was essentially James Woods' movie and he stole it with his tremendously insane performance; in Platoon however, you have a large ensemble, each with their own moral compass, and Stone negotiates each character's ethos perfectly. This isn't a bang-bang war film – it's more of a message film, and it's important that we feel what the characters feel, and perhaps for the only time in Stone's career (with the possible exception of Born on the Fourth of July) he creates a message movie with real emotion because he doesn't interlope with all of the editing trickery that he would litter his later films with (think JFK, Nixon, and Natural Born Killers). Salvador was an interesting jumping-off point for Stone; clearly showing a filmmaker that we should keep our eye on – a filmmaker who made angry message films. With Platoon, though, Stone announced himself to the scene, and the film – a huge success with the public in addition to its Academy Awards – showed us a different kind of director; the kind of filmmaker that hadn't been around since the 1970's. Here was a filmmaker not afraid to get his vision and his message to the screen – no matter how unpopular that vision was. Like him or not, that is what is so refreshing about Oliver Stone's early output.

Next, we'll take a look at how Stone follows up his hugely successful Vietnam War film with a look at different kind of war in a different kind of jungle.


  1. Great analysis of these two films-- I haven't seen either one since the 80s. I remember liking SALVADOR, and of course, PLATOON was a powerful experience at the movies. I'll have to check these out soon.

  2. Excellent analysis! You write:

    "Salvador is wholly unmemorable"

    I have to strongly disagree with you on this one. If anything, it is one his more memorable in the sense that differentiates his film from others of that ilk (THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, UNDER FIRE, etc.) by making the film so gritty and intense and intimate. You really get under Boyle's skin, thanks to James Woods' stellar performance but I never felt that there was any confusion on Stone's part: he knew exactly what kind of film he was making. Essentially, he starts making a riff on FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (James Belushi as Dr. Gonzo?) and then once he's introduced these two guys and their relationship towards each other, the film mutates into an angry message picture as Stone rails against the injustices of El Salvador. I don't think I'll ever forget the assassination of four American churchwomen in the film. That scene chills me to the bone every time and the aftermath and how Woods reacts to it is very powerful indeed and I would put it up against anything else in Stone's filmography.

    There was all kinds of friction between Woods and Stone during the filming of SALVADOR and it comes out in a good way on screen as both pushed each other to really draw out their best.

    As for PLATOON, I watched it a few years ago and was struck by how amazing Tom Berenger is in this film. I mean, he hadn't done too much up to that point, most memorably films like THE BIG CHILL and EDDIE & THE CRUISERS, roles that did not prepare us for what he pulled off in Stone's film. Ditto for Willem Dafoe who had been cast has a heavy up to that point in films like STREETS OF FIRE and TO LIVE & DIE IN L.A. but he really is the heart and soul of the film and a great counterbalance to Berenger's sociopathic sergeant.

  3. Gonna have to disagree with you on Salvador man, curiously enough, I just recently re-watched this one and I found it to be a very profound experience.

    I give kudos to Stone because the film rings true. I mean, the film exposes an evil government, a murderous government which killed more than 800 people simply to quiet down their voices, because they were willing to fight for their rights as humans in a country that was stomping them, murdering them.

    Everything is made that much more immediate, when we take in consideration that all these evil deeds happened for real, which is something that happens to me while watching an Oliver Stone film, everything is believable, and plausible, because for all intents and purposes, these things happened. And this film is based on the story of a real person who survived through all that evil and saw it first hand.

    Which is something I appreciate about Oliver Stone's films, he takes a real story and adapts it to film, making the impact of the film that much stronger.

    I do agree with you on the similarities between Stone's films. Actually, I believe Salvador has a lot more in common with Heaven and Earth than with Platoon. If you see Heaven and Earth you will see whole sequences that are extremely similar to the ones in Salvador, yet Heaven and Earth is its own thing.

    I recently reviewed Heaven and Earth and its basically the same story, but instead of Salvador, we go to Vietnanm. Where Tommy Lee Jones plays an American soldier who falls for a Vietnamese girl and wants to take her out of that hell hole. But Heaven and Earth goes a bit further, because it shows us what happens after he takes her to America, and the problems she encounters while there.

    Heaven and Earth is extremely epic! I reviewed it in my blog a couple of weeks ago and loved the hell out of it, HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT! Here's the link to my review for it if you are interested:

  4. Geoff:

    Thanks for checking this out and for the kind words. I appreciate it.

  5. J.D.:

    Yeah, SALVADOR just didn't jive with me. I remember thinking throughout the film that there had to be something more happening, but it all just felt very basic to me. Perhaps it's because I watched it on the same day as PLATOON, but the only thing that really stood out to me was Woods' performance. Don't get me wrong, the film is good, just not as memorable as Stone's other films. But it is the template for what would follow in his career for nearly ten years.

    I like what you say about the FEAR AND LOATHING comparison, and I briefly thought about that during the film but failed to mention it in my review (I also see that I didn't even write it down in my notes), and you're right about that church scene...whew. Woods' acting is brilliant during and after that scene.

    I like what you say about the friction between Woods and Stone bringing out the best in each other. I did read somewhere that Woods was offered a role in PLATOON and said that there was no way in hell he was going back into the jungle with Stone. Hehe.

    Thanks for the comment, J.D.

  6. TFC:

    You aren't the only one disagreeing with me today! Hehe. I just felt like the tone was all wrong for SALVADOR. It has its moments, and it's not a terrible film, just not Stone's most memorable for me. I remember thinking that certain scenes really stood out (the aforementioned church slaughter), but I just didn't feel like it didn't think it all coalesced into a great, memorable movie experience.

    Your link to HEAVEN AND EARTH is much appreciated. I'll be reviewing that one shortly, so I'll look forward to reading it. Thanks for checking this out and for commenting. Always appreciate having you stop by here.

  7. For me there were a couple of scenes that stood out on this one, like the one where the photo journalists are dying to take a great picture as the plane is about to pass...they want to get so close to the action that the plane shoots them!

    I also dug that scene where the two photo journalists are taking pictures of all those dead bodies on the field, kind of creepy.

    And the tension as woods is telling the kid on the bus how he is going to Disneyland and all that and suddenly the border patrol comes in and screws everything up! And that tension as they almost blow Woods head off!

    Insane stuff, tense.

    One thing I noticed in the making off documentary for this movie is that James Woods is kind of a prick! He is a tight ass dude!

    He mentions that had he not asked for some one to check on the gun that was going to be pointed at his head, he would have been dead right now! The interviews on the dvd are awesome, check them out.