BY ANDREW MOODY
Academy Award winning filmmaker and Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone has divided audiences for decades. His obsession with liberal politics and war guilt over America’s participation in what he claims are illegal wars make him one of the most contentious major filmmakers in Hollywood. His recent memoir Chasing the Light: How I Fought My Way into Hollywood is essential reading for fans of his work, from Platoon to Natural Born Killers, from Born on the Fourth of July to JFK. The conspiratorial nature of his movies leans towards a hidden truth about America, and the American soul.
I didn’t really wake up until I was thirty years old- in 1976. I was not the kid I thought I was. I was really the child of two fathers- Barnes and Elias, who represented this dividing war for America. I was darkened. A part of me had gone numb there…died, in Vietnam, murdered.
Stone details his first kill in the field with little emotion, he had thrown a direct hit with a grenade into a Viet Cong hole, mutilating the body of his target, an obliteration.
My description of it might seem callous, but it isn’t – that moment will stay with me the rest of my life. I see the moment again and again in my consciousness. Why? I don’t know why. I feel no guilt. He’s dead. I’m alive. That’s the way (war) works.
The memoir follows Stone’s first forty years, candidly revealing his drug use and early career as a screenwriter. He won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Midnight Express (1978) and also wrote the gangster picture Scarface (1983). The book details the nitty gritty of life in the fast lane of Hollywood, climaxing with his Best Director Oscar win for Platoon (1986), the time in his life where he had already surpassed his greatest dreams. The early chapters cover his ambition to write a novel, which he did, A Child’s Night Dream, an abstract, autobiographical stream of consciousness failure. He writes of his months of poverty, his copious reading and classical education, his parents’ divorce, his predilection for older women and his burning desire to succeed somehow as an artist. He recounts his military service clinically and honestly. He attended legendary teacher Haig P. Manoogian’s NY film school, (also attended by Martin Scorsese) and hashed out experimental shorts, using his combat pay to finance his education. As he was beginning to write screenplays, he knew that The Platoon (as it was originally called) would force America to face up to the holocaust they had inflicted on Vietnam, not to protect their own homeland, but simply from some vague spectre of the spread of Communism which they failed to do, in a war they lost.
No honest American could ever look himself in the eye and say this was akin to our World War II effort against German Nazi fascism or Japanese imperialism. I wanted the viewers (of Platoon) to feel the shame that I felt, and that we all should have felt…for participating in that war as a nation.
Breaking into movie making first as a successful screenwriter, he was lambasted by the legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael for his script for Midnight Express, calling it “a mean spirited, fake visceral sadomasochistic porno fantasy.” He would be a target for her ire until he wrote and directed Salvador (1986) a violent take on the Salvadoran civil war. Kael wrote: “Stone writes and directs as if someone had put a gun to the back of his neck and yelled ‘Go!’ and didn’t take it away until he’d finished.”
This passion and hyper kinetic style of movie making stood out as his star rose, often leaning towards sentimentality, the natural reaction to violent machismo, no doubt a personal burden he carried from his military service in Vietnam. Stone has remained in the top tier of American filmmakers throughout his long career, and Chasing the Light is a well written, compulsive and moving addition to literary Hollywood memoirs.
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