Film Studies: Mr Stone... back from the brink

It breaks no pacts of secrecy to say that in the last few years Oliver Stone has had a rough time. He has always been over-wrought, self-dramatising, and a fearsome mix of genuine creativity and reckless exploitation of his own talent. The most endearing thing about him has been his urge to make big pictures that addressed the central issues that mattered to America. You can see and feel that energy, at its best, in Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July. Equally - in this opinion - you can see the talent, or the judgement, succumbing to sensationalism in The Doors, JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon.

But no one could ever doubt the degree to which Stone cares, or the galloping, paranoid vision that had worked out the whole nightmare of modern Americana from 22 November 1963 to the end of Nixon.

I think JFK and Nixon are pretty bad films, but I find myself re-watching them because Stone is always doing something amazing with film - his command of camera and editing are not rivalled, not even by Scorsese; and he is a great director of actors (who seems to have hardly any interest in actresses).

Things weren't going so well for Stone in the late Nineties. Let's just say he was struggling with personal problems during this period, some of which might be deduced from Natural Born Killers and U-Turn which, with Any Given Sunday were clearly the works of someone with larger things to worry about.

There then followed a gap that is four years already, and likely to be at least five before we see his version of Alexander. Not that Stone has been entirely idle. He has done two interesting documentaries in the interim - Comandante (about Fidel Castro) and Persona Non Grata (an attempt to track down Yasser Arafat in an increasingly ruined Ramallah). Both films remind us of the way, in a movie like Salvador, Oliver Stone was caught up in the dangerous life of international journalism.

Stone is 57 now, and I hope he's feeling stronger, because the epic scale of Alexander, the remote locations, the elephants - to say nothing of a cast that includes Colin Farrell, Jared Leto and Angelina Jolie - is not likely to be routine work. Stone has done the script himself, and he promises a film of unusual psychological depth. But there was a similar movie made in the mid-Fifties, with Richard Burton as Alexander and Fredric March as his father, with similar protestations of insight, and it only left viewers marvelling that men in helmets and short skirts could talk like characters in 1950s problem plays.

These days, the battles and the elephants usually get done well enough, but Gladiator worked only because Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe made us believe in that guy. I don't know whether Colin Farrell is exactly your idea of Alexander the Great. But Stone's picture is intriguing just because it promises to show the love relationship between Alexander and his friend Hephaestion (Jared Leto). Stone has seldom treated gayness before - yet you could argue that it's always been there: within the Platoon; in Nixon's White House; in the band in The Doors; and, of course, in JFK where the scenes of homosexual entourage (Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci and Kevin Bacon) were the best in the picture.

Alexander has another pressure hanging over it - a second film on the same subject, Alexander the Great, to be directed by Baz Luhrmann, with Leonardo DiCaprio as the emperor and Nicole Kidman as his woman. Why two Alexanders? Well, essentially, I think, because Gladiator revived the commercial vitality of what used to be called "swords and sandals" films.

That is not necessarily enough reason for making either. But Oliver Stone is a real movie-maker, and if he has at last found a way to get at the unspoken passion between men who are determined to go to war together, it's just possible that he could bring in a movie that helped us understand the age of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush. At the very least, it's hard to accept that Stone doesn't have dark intentions to expose the history of his time, instead of the third century BC.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

'Comandante' is released 3 Oct; 'Persona Non Grata' screens at the London Film Festival (020 7928 3232), 4 & 5 Nov

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