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Jeff Simon: Oliver Stone proved his genius with 'Platoon.' Then things started to go wrong.

Jeff Simon: Oliver Stone proved his genius with 'Platoon.' Then things started to go wrong.

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Oliver Stone

Movie director Oliver Stone.

Oliver Stone was on the other end of the phone.

He and his publicists were looking for movie critics who would give Stone's 1986 film "Salvador" – his first major film as a director – a fair hearing at the very least and quite possibly a good review or better.

In my case, they certainly came to the right place.

I wasn't going to hold his first film as director against him – "The Hand," a new variation of the old horror films "The Hands of Orlac" and "The Beast With Five Fingers" about a homicidal disembodied hand. Everybody's got to begin someplace and a humble entry-level work proves less than nothing. (Let's at least remember this: His star was Michael Caine.)

He had already been ringing bells since winning a screenwriting Oscar in 1978 for "Midnight Express."

"Salvador" was a brilliant way for a serious filmmaker to announce himself. I was more than happy to listen to the civil, well-bred and gentle voice on the other end of the line (Stone's father was a stockbroker. His future film "Wall Street" would make the bio-fact crucial.)

What happened in just a couple more years was unforeseeable. In my opinion, Stone became, in his short prime, the most consequential American film directors of the past 50 years with one film, "Platoon."

It has always seemed to me that Stone, more than any other figure anywhere, gave America a safe and decent way out of the ideological and emotional maze of the war in Vietnam.

Here, with "Platoon" was a war film written and directed by a man who had been a decorated soldier in Vietnam (Bronze Star, Purple Heart), a restless man who had been a Yale dropout and an enlisted soldier, not a draftee.

His anti-war film "Platoon" had more than weight and authority. It had something approaching definition – the feel of great American literature – it reminded me of Stephen Crane – and the panache to make indelible use of great American music (Barber's "Adagio for Strings").

What he had done that was so significant to American history itself was to codify and consecrate forever one persuasive ideological stance in a horrifically divided country. His film led the way to a new desperately needed norm: pro-Vietnam veteran but anti-war.

For years, Hollywood and miscellaneous media had turned fulminating anti-war sentiment into a vicious and horrifying condemnation of the soldiers themselves. And then along came "Platoon" to brilliantly separate the exploited veterans of the war from the pro-war, Bob Hope jingoism with which the powers that be at the time tried to sell a war that was never destined to be a popular cause.

This was a smart military veteran making that case, and then reinforcing it later with "Born on the Fourth of July" for anyone who still didn't get the point.

I interviewed Stone a few more times, in "one on ones" and with other members of the press. For his first professional decade, I found him to be as important and exciting a figure as American movies had.

And then things started to go wrong. Very, very wrong. I loathed every overwrought minute of his Tarantino collaboration "Natural Born Killers." I admired the gigantic chutzpah of "JFK" but simply couldn't be persuaded that the ideal dissent from the Warren Commission conclusions on the Kennedy Assassination should be centered around New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. What almost instantly became skepticism about the Warren Report's legendarily dubious conclusions deserved a much better hearing than "JFK."

Like, for instance, what Stone offered us on Showtime this week to commemorate the anniversary of that monstrous assassination. The murder of John F. Kennedy ushered in a new era, an era of modern calamity on American soil, not just in foreign wars. And Stone was taking it upon himself to deal with it, despite that discordant typhoon of misinformation and disinformation in which it existed.

That typhoon was what the Warren Report was supposed to clear up but wound up exacerbating right from the first. Its fatal flaw as propaganda was self-evident.

Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone gunman? Jack Ruby as HIS lone assassin? Oswald as a single crack marksman whose fatal "magic bullet" killed Kennedy and went on to strike Gov. John Connally in two places before being accidentally "discovered" later completely intact? Worst episode of "CSI" ever.

Almost nothing that the Warren Report was created to settle has ever been truly settled in the American mind. And that left Stone, among many other things, an excessive obsessive.

At 75, he's still all of that as Showtime proved on its "JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass" wherein the leftist counter-mythologist paid as much attention as possible in two hours to the recently declassified information that, according to Stone, turned "conspiracy theory into conspiracy fact."

Neither his lapses in taste or his chutzpah or his frantic incoherent tempo have ever improved. (His film "Nixon" was a hopeless miscasting of both Stone himself as his own director and Anthony Hopkins as his willing star.)

He has since become a kind of brand name in leftist dissent – the pop film and media version of "A People's History of the United States" writer Howard Zinn.

His attempt at doing a Kennedy assassination "what-we-know-so-far" was packed with still more things to undercut the never-persuasive Warren Report. For instance, Oswald's front the "Fair Play for Cuba Committee" was located right across the street from the local address of the CIA (Stone's major source of governmental villainy.) Or the CIA's insistence that its longtime director Allen Dulles be appointed to the Warren Commission even though JFK had fired him as CIA director after the Bay of Pigs debacle.

There was so much more to be considered in the echoes of those horrors from that day in Dallas' Dealey Plaza in 1963 but they would have required Stone's filling his two-hour tapestry with more macro-thought and less micro-info.

In "The Untold History of the United States," a Zinn-like effort that he co-wrote from his TV series with Peter Kuznick, they wrote this about The Kennedy Assassination: "We may never know who was responsible or what the motive was." Members of the commission itself, after all, were dubious about the "lone gunman" and "magic bullet" theories, as were Kennedy's fellow victim John Connally and his soon-to-be victim brother, Robert F. Kennedy.

All we know, still, are those who were JFK's ideological enemies. And those future presidents of a slightly older generation (Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Reagan) who "would systematically destroy the promise of the Kennedy years as they returned the country to war and repression," according to Stone and Kuznick.

Oliver Stone's own promise was UN-systematically destroyed by Stone himself, with Hollywood's enthusiastic cooperation.

His energy and drive completely overwhelmed his talent.

I'm happy he still exists and persists in attempting important work. But I'm hugely sorry he never ultimately figured out how to get out of his own way.

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Semi-Retired Columnist and Critic

Jeff Simon began working at The News as a copyboy 57 years ago. Since that time, he has been closely involved in all aspects of The News' cultural coverage – as critic, columnist and Arts and Books editor for 25 years.

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