Book Review: Oliver Stone recounts his early years in film, “Chasing the Light”

William Oliver “Ollie” Stone, child of Eastern privilege who eschewed at least some of that advantage to go through hard knocks on his own, a Vietnam Vet who enlisted and fought as an infantryman, later a pacifist and outspoken critic of American foreign policy and values, shock impact screenwriter and artful, sometimes poetic director — they’re all present in the 70something filmmaker’s rise-to-glory memoir, “Chasing the Light.”

I’ve been a fan pretty much since “Salvador.” My first reporting assignment at my first newspaper, where I was a freelance critic had me take five Vietnam War veterans to a showing of “Platoon” and buy them coffee at a local diner afterwards. Their harrowing stories, and tears at seeing their experience reflected so “accurately,” stick with me.

Stone remains a fascinating study in contradictions, champion of the underdog and occasionally an on-set bully, macho yet lefty, generous to every collaborator and teacher who helped him “make it,” learn his craft and get better at it, but almost always hitting them with a backhanded compliment or two. Or three.

From the beginning he has been an artist of stark dualities and excesses. He sees himself as Odysseus or a pirate, a rogue operator outside “The System.”

He comes off in print the way he’s always come off in interviews — passionate, thoughtful and somewhat dogmatic. I’ve interviewed him several times over the years, about his “Vietnamese POV” Vietnam film, “Heaven and Earth” (the third in his “trilogy” about his war — after “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July”), about “World Trade Center,” his post-9/11 tribute to first responders and most “pro-American” work, and that Latin American politics doc he did a few years back. He’s long had that confidence of his opinions, certitude that he’s “right” in a historical sense, quick to analyze a performance, a colleague’s film or judge his own — sometimes harshly.

There’s a lot of psychoanalyzing of himself, his parents, their failed marriage, his own failures and insecurities in “Chasing the Light.” He talks about his drug abuse, hits a few romantic relationships, and consults his decades of diaries to remember everything from his father’s death to his first brushes with triumph.

I didn’t recall that his first trip to Vietnam was before the “escalation,” as an English teacher. I had no idea he was in LRRPs in Vietnam (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol). That’s infantry on steroids.

I knew he had boarding school and Yale acceptance (he didn’t stick it out long) in his pedigree.

I didn’t realize he’d studied under wunderkind alumnus Martin Scorsese at NYU.

He understudied/worked for/was critiqued by the great screenwriter Robert Bolt (“Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago”) in his 20s.

For this book about his long, long road to fame — “Seizure” (nobody saw it) to “The Hand” (a few more saw it) to “Salvador” (ditto) and then “Platoon” — Stone traces everything, from his scripts to his own saga, back to “The Odyssey.”

Stone’s lasting obsessions aren’t just Vietnam and America’s misguided way of throwing its weight around the world. It’s The Doors and Jim Morrison, as he quotes The Doors often, sees himself (and occasionally others) in Lizard King terms at several points in his memoir.

He details the ordeals involved in each early directing effort, and in his many screenwriting challenges — “Midnight Express,” “Year of the Dragon” and “Scarface” among them. Those are some of the most fascinating chapters in the book. He says Brian DePalma’s “operatic” take on his “Scarface” script has grown on him. Some.

Of Billy Hayes, the “hero” of “Midnight Express,” passed off in the media and the movie as just “a kid who made a mistake” — “stunned” that Hayes, contrary to the way he told his story, was caught on his “fourth” hash smuggling run out of Turkey, that Hayes led people to believe he was heterosexual, heightening (if that’s possible) the horror of prison sexual assaults and encounters.

“How do you live with yourself? I have no problem believing he can.”

Stone opens the book with an introduction to his love/hate relationship with the mercurial, motor-mouthed blowhard James Woods, telling tales out of school of Woods’ tantrums and fear-filled experiences filming “Salvador” on the fly in Mexico in the ’80s, fleeing a cavalry charge shot too early, exaggerating the danger and “Stone didn’t know what he was doing…but I did” way Woods described the experience.

Having interviewed Woods myself, a bantam rooster who can’t wait to work his (alleged) IQ into any introductory conversation, Stone seems on the mark in picking at the man being “the most insecure” movie star of them all. They worked together several times after their near-brawling “Salvador” experience.

The compliments mixed with slaps extends from Alan Parker, director of “Midnight Express,” who took his script and never invited him to the set, to Dale Dye, the formidable Vietnam vet and military consultant on many a war movie, who developed his “boot camp” for the cast of “Platoon,” and repeated that in other war films he worked on. Dye made “Platoon’s” cast a unit, with the right look and jumpy reflexes Stone remembered from his service. But keep politics out of the conversation, and Dye’s racial tolerance — filming in the Philippines — wasn’t the most enlightened.

Then again, he wasn’t the guy who kicked a Filipino production manager in the ass, on set, in front of the entire crew. That was Stone, who airs lots of his dirty laundry, even if he takes his shot at “explaining” or spinning that behavior.

He also quotes freely from interviews conducted by a biographer who talked to many of those he worked for

Stone is wise to limit this volume to his early years. His career has been winding down, although he has a small scale film, “White Lies,” in pre-production, “Snowden” didn’t set the world on fire and the Castro, Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin interview docs he’s made in the last haven’t done much for his reputation.

He turned 74 in mid September, and probably needed a better book editor to fact check his memories. He confuses the F4 Phantoms used in Vietnam with F16s — repeatedly (They didn’t come into service until ten years after his 1968 battles “in country”), gets a major plot detail wrong in “Gone With the Wind” just to make an analogy to his French mother taking up with his WWII American command staff officer father work. He thinks one-time producer-nemesis Dino DeLaurentis opened a movie studio in the middle of their ’80s kerfuffle in “Wilmington, Delaware” (Wilmington, NC sport).

But it’s a fair self-portrait, with enough colorful detail of research trips, filming ordeals and failing and failing and failing before finally succeeding, fine fodder for a film biography of one of the cinema’s grand mavericks.

“Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing and Surviving ‘Platoon,’ ‘Midnight Express,’ ‘Scarface,’ ‘Salvador’ and the Movie Game” by Oliver Stone. Houghton Miflin, 328 pages. $28.

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1 Response to Book Review: Oliver Stone recounts his early years in film, “Chasing the Light”

  1. Platoon was my introduction to Oliver Stone. I was gobsmacked by its realism. I went back and watched Salvador and Wall Street quickly cemented my appreciation of Stone as a filmmaker.

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