Monday, August 30, 2010

Oliver Stone: Talk Radio and Born on the Fourth of July

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 clich├ęd 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.


  1. I'm routinely impressed by how Born on the Fourth of July, despite being about a man turned to activism, works on more of an emotional level than a visceral, political one. Even Platoon, which is the better film, doesn't feel quite so personal even though that's the one based on Stone's own experiences. Both, though, are impressively nonjudgmental of the people who shouldn't be judged and focused entirely on that which deserves scorn. (Even Berenger's sergeant is more a symbol than an inflated vision of a specific person.)

    And Tom Cruise, boy. Looking back, would anyone have ever expected him to give Daniel Day-Lewis a serious run for his money for the Best Actor Oscar? He really didn't bother committing himself fully again 'til Magnolia, but this one performance couteracts a decade's worth of star-making BS like Top Gun and Cocktails. I wish he would go back to this well instead of trying to recapture his faded glory days.

  2. Jake:

    You're right about how BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY works so wonderfully on an emotional level. I think John Williams' score has a lot to do with that, too. I agree with you about Cruise. I can't think of a single movie post- BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY -- outside, perhaps, of something average like Pollack's THE FIRM or De Palma's MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -- where I was excited to see him in a movie until P.T. Anderson came calling.

    Thanks as always for the read and the comment.

  3. Yeah, I've always felt that Cruise is the kind of actor who needs a really strong director to challenge and get the best out of him. I think his best performances reflect that: working with Scorsese in COLOR OF MONEY, with De Palma in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, with Stone in BORN, with Kubrick in EYES WIDE SHUT, with PTA in MAGNOLIA and with Mann in COLLATERAL. All these guys got Cruise to get out of his comfort zone and really stretch as an actor. I would say that his work in BORN may be his best to date (with MAGNOLIA a close second) as he really gives it all he's got in this film. Amazing stuff.

    I also really like TALK RADIO and agree with what you say about how riveting Eric Bogsian is so that you're not even aware of what Stone is doing with the camera and how he tightens things up to create a claustrophobic vibe. And you're right, it is such an angry film.

  4. I agreed with you J.d. at the point "Cruise is the kind of actor who needs a really strong director to challenge and get the best out of him". He is great actor..And love watching his films..

  5. Talk Radio is great, I love how it lashes out on society, and blames society itself for being so damned messed up.

    Born on the 4th of July really got to me, its such an emotional rollercoaster ride. Made all the more real because once again, Stone bases his film on real life events. This is something that brings credibility and believability to his films. Awesome flick!

    It's funny, it seems we are watching Oliver Stone films at the same time! I also reviewed Born on the 4th of July a couple of days ago.

    Heres my take on Born on the 4th:

    Heres my take on Talk Radio if your interested:

  6. Sadly I have yet to see Talk Radio, but Born on the Fourt of July has been a favorite since my middle school days. I used to make it a tradition to watch the film every Independence Day, but it's such a tough movie to take that eventually I had to stop doing that. But I try to revisit the film ever three years. It might be Stone's best. This or JFK.

    Cruise is incredible in this film. Most of the Cruise detractors I meet haven't even seen Born on the Fourth of July. I always refer them to this movie as well as Magnolia and Spielberg's Minority Report. It's amazing that Stone wanted to cast Cruise at the time, though, considering that Stone himself had once dissed Top Gun in an interview; he complained that Tony Scott and Simpson/Bruckheimer were sending a message to yuppie kids around the USA that they could "get a girlfriend if they started World War 3". That sounds fairly accurate, I must say!

    You mention throughout this piece that Stone is revolting against the stuff of John Wayne's war movies. Actually, sometime around Platoon's release, Stone complained in another interview, "I like John Wayne, but Sands of Iwo Jima made me go to Vietnam thinking I could make a man out of myself... I don't think John Wayne ever went to war."

    (to that I say that if Stone was offended by Iwo Jima, he ought to check out The Green Berets!)

  7. J.D.:

    Regarding Cruise: I've always liked him. Even in his Hollywood roles I've always felt like he was underrated because people only saw him as a pretty boy who looked good with his shirt off instead of actually looking at his acting ability.

    I didn't much care for his 90's work aside from some minor stuff like THE FIRM or the obvious choices of something like MAGNOLIA and EYES WIDE SHUT. One thing I always struck by Cruise was how fondly his directors and co-stars spoke of him and his worth ethic...the same, I am assuming, can't be said of a lot of big time Hollywood stars who simply want to shoot their scenes, wrap, and collect their paycheck.

    I think he began to really change gears as an actor after 1999 and working with one old master in Kubrick and a new one in Anderson. After that I have to say I really liked his Spielberg performances in MINORITY REPORT (one of my very favorite films of his and of Spielberg) and the oft-overlooked WAR OF THE WORLDS which I think, ironically enough considering the type of film it is, is somewhat of an underrated masterpiece.

    I also think people tend to forget how good he was in stuff like COLLATERAL and VANILLA SKY, which is probably my favorite Cameron Crowe movie. I haven't seen VALKYRIE or KNIGHT AND DAY, but I liked his action stuff in the 00's a lot: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III was a lot of fun, and THE LAST SAMURAI was good for what it was (even though it tried a little too hard to be something more); and I loved that he was willing to do what he did in cameo roles in stuff like AUSTIN POWERS GOLDMEMBER and TROPIC THUNDER.

  8. TFC:

    I have been reading your Stone essays. They've been great reads and I look forward to more. It is funny that we both decided to write about Stone recently. I'll be going through NIXON and then reviewing WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS when it's released. I don't know if I have it in me to sit through U-TURN and ANY GIVEN SUNDAY again, hehe.

  9. Adam:

    Yeah, I was primarily speaking to the themes of Wayne's war films and how it seemed Stone was railing against that, not Wayne himself. That quote you share backs that up, too. It's a fascinating quote and I think that was probably true for a lot of young Americans at the time. Your rite of passage was to go to war, and that's where you would learn how to be the man you were going to be; that slowly started to fade with disillusionment for war caused by Vietnam and the new battlefield, so to speak, became college and MBA's and other pieces of paper that supposedly helped you find yourself. Or, to align with Stone's WALL STREET and the themes he tackled in that film, the way you quantified yourself as a man or found out how to be a man was by the accumulation of stuff.

  10. BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY is the most emotional film of Stone's career, and it contains what is unquestionably the finest performance of Tom Cruise's career. The tinny-voiced actor is not one of my favorites, but in this film (and in Anderson's MAGNOLIA) he is affecting. Kovic is a symbol, but Stone makes the flesh and blood shine through. For all Americans who consider themselves political liberals, and who have lived through the cultural revolution, the film will showcase the ideals and disillusionments of that period. Ralph Richardson's widescreen color cinematography is exemplary, and John Williams's elegiac, piercing score is one of the finest of his illustrious career.

    Again, you've peeled away the gauze and gotten to the essence of one of Stone's best films (with JFK, SALVADOR, NIXON and PLATOON)

    I wished I liked TALK RADIO more than I do, but again a fine treatment here, Kevin.

  11. Great movies, these two. I like Born on the 4th of July more because of its war theme. Plus it historically quite correct.