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September 9 – September 12, 2016

Contesting History – The Films of Oliver Stone

Regarded as a politically radical firebrand as much as a courageous filmmaker, Oliver Stone is one of the monolithic voices of contemporary Hollywood—a figure about whom opinion tends to be divided starkly between suspicion and adulation, with little room for ambivalence in between. As a veteran of the Vietnam War whose Bronze Star and Purple Heart belie a profound disillusionment with his experience there, Stone has devoted most of his directorial career depicting events of the 1960s and 70s, paying particular attention to the ways in which the era’s tensions and contradictions act as barometers for more enduring problems in American politics. His overarching thesis as a filmmaker—that passive faith in one’s nation leaves one blind to the fact that the interconnected forces of government and national media construct digestible narratives for their citizenry in ways that protect their own interests—doubles as a call to action, which therefore brands Stone as an activist working within the entertainment business, a perch from which he wields a rare influence.  

Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, a 2012 undertaking that comprised a Showtime documentary series as well as a 784-page volume, is the most comprehensive declaration of Stone’s political views to date. The episodic program retraces post-WWII history with an eye toward linking US military blunders over the past half century under the persistent ideology of American exceptionalism, and it leaves no lingering questions as to exactly where Stone stands on matters of domestic and international policy. Although Untold History’s shrewdly curated archival images are buoyed by Stone’s own voice, the filmmaker’s persona had already long been cemented by early successes in big-budget studio work. In films such as Born on the Fourth of July, JFK and Nixon, Stone ferociously interrogated foundational patriotic myths and “official” accounts of history. And with each film, the disapproval of the right, the invigoration of the left, and even the suspicion of historians, grew louder.

The cornerstone work of Stone’s polemical oeuvre is JFK, which reveals just how persuasive the director can be when in full command of his craft. Immersing the viewer in a sumptuous dramatization of the notorious failed case against the Warren Commission, the film functions as both a stinging exposé of the bureaucratic cowardice and corruption in Washington and a kino-fisted treatise on the art of argumentation, with its lengthy closing courtroom scene breaking down the famous Zapruder document frame by frame to arrive at the empirically substantiated conclusion that the eponymous president simply could not have been slain by one bullet. Stone’s powers of persuasion, predicated on an assertive, rapid-cut mixed-media approach that would come to define his treatment of period material, are so formidable in JFK that the film’s central conspiracy theory spawned a fiery discussion that continues today, arguably even paving the way for such anarchic works of conspiratorial consciousness-raising as Dylan Avery’s 9/11 documentary Loose Change (2009).

While such later incarnations of dissident media often take on a tone of hectoring self-righteousness (and boast only a fraction of JFK’s visual and editorial dynamism), Stone’s best work cracks open myriad possible interpretations to history rather than closing in on single readings. Indeed, his films, in arguing that pushing against accepted narratives provides a vital counterbalance to informational tyranny, even invite the viewer to conduct their own investigations if so compelled; Untold History, for instance, closes on a string of prompts directed squarely at the audience. Stone’s upcoming feature, Snowden, focuses on one such inquisitive citizen from recent years, continuing the director’s long tradition of seizing upon episodes from modern history, in films like Salvador, Wall Street and World Trade Center, to sift through underexplored implications, overlooked perspectives, and hidden transgressions. Precious few active American filmmakers can claim to take such an outspokenly political angle with anything like regularity, yet Stone has honed this particular métier for several decades at a level of high commercial visibility. He stays restless, and we should too. – Carson Lund

Special thanks: Carrie Devine—Harvard Kennedy School and Caitlin Klevorick.

Film descriptions by Carson Lund and Haden Guest.

Monday September 5 at 7pm

Born on the Fourth of July

Directed by Oliver Stone. With Tom Cruise, Willem Dafoe, Kyra Sedgwick
US 1989, DCP, color, 144 min

Screen idol Tom Cruise has rarely been as exposed—or as grating—as he is in Stone’s tale of lost American innocence. As paralyzed Vietnam vet Ron Kovic, the actor journeys through a series of wartime archetypes: first an off-putting alpha male armed with patriotic slogans, then a textbook soldier, then a self-denying PTSD victim, and finally a long-haired loose cannon drunkenly shouting insurrectionary rhetoric and leading antiwar protests. Born on the Fourth of July fits squarely within the tradition of American-made Vietnam War films in its use of a coming-of-age structure to restore a sense of triumph and righteousness to a dishonorable period in our history; however, it is distinguished by the sustained fury of its attack. Stone drills this rebellious anger to the gut through a hyper-saturated, big-canvas expressionism that yields a battery of unforgettable images: patriotic parade floats cutting through a postcard-perfect Main Street, a silhouetted G.I. charging in front of the sunset before being gunned down, and two disillusioned cripples tussling in the red desert of Mexico—a pitiful display of deflated American machismo. DCP courtesy Universal Pictures.

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Friday September 9 at 7pm

JFK

Directed by Oliver Stone. With Kevin Costner, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones
US 1991, 35mm, color, 189 min

Stone’s emphatic, zeitgeist-shaking counter-history of the JFK assassination memorializes the valiant efforts of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison—played by Kevin Costner, boasting a thick southern drawl—to uncover an elaborate coup d'état within the military-industrial complex, a mission that takes him into both the depths of the CIA and a radical underworld. In blending actual archival footage with treated simulacra of archival footage as well as conspicuously artificial recreations of late-sixties America, Stone offers one of the boldest representational mash-ups of his career, an intoxicating, jarringly edited motorcade of images and sounds that knowingly clouds the border between living record and imitation. Though JFK has been rightfully scrutinized since its release over the relative accuracy of its historical account, key to its persuasively expressed thesis is the idea that in a functioning democracy, healthy suspicion toward government infrastructure and the narratives espoused by powerful interests are vital even if the struggles do not finally amount to legislative action. In the spirit of its titular fallen president, the film asks not what its proposed conspiracy theory can do for you, but what you can do with its call for an active and inquisitive citizenry.

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Saturday September 10 at 7pm

Nixon

Directed by Oliver Stone. With Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, Powers Boothe
US 1995, 35mm, color, 191 min

As controversial 37th president Richard Nixon, Anthony Hopkins is repeatedly juxtaposed against framed portraits of historical icons: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, etc. The visual equivalents may come as a surprise from the director of Born on the Fourth of July, given that Nixon’s misguided nuclear strategies kindled the fire depicted in that film’s wound-up protagonist. But Stone’s pageant for a powerful and conflicted man, much like his later W (2008), casts a lucid, if not quite forgiving, eye toward the high-pressure work of the presidency during times of war, an occupation represented here as a faintly hallucinatory procession of ticking-clock conversations in shadowy rooms hermetically sealed from the outside world. Told in jumbled chronology, with monochrome flashbacks to Nixon’s Quaker upbringing in Southern California sprinkled into passages from his political career, the film’s structure bestows a sense of fatalism to Nixon’s tenure, positing his pathological self-pity as his ultimate undoing. Print courtesy Disney.

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Sunday September 11 at 4pm

Untold History of The United States, Chapter 9: George H.W. Bush & Clinton - Squandered Peace and New World Order

Directed by Oliver Stone
US 2013, digital video, color, 58 min

The penultimate episode of Untold History of the United States begins at a point of historical indecision. Ronald Reagan, having bypassed the signing of a peace treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was to cede the presidential office in 1989, and a critical move for his successor would be the resolution of the Cold War. It is with conspicuous disappointment, then, that Stone narrates the induction of Republican George H. W. Bush, whose reserves of oil money and family ties to the Nazi party are bluntly clarified. The Bush administration’s eventual invasion of Panama in hopes of shutting down the drug war is thus treated as a foregone conclusion that spoiled any chance of sustained peace at the tail end of the Cold War. Bill Clinton’s ensuing presidency, a long-delayed Democratic return to the White House, is also evaluated, with the rise of special interests in Clinton’s campaign foretelling an era of disastrous compromises on economic and trade policies. In evoking this world of diminished potential and squashed hope, Stone wrangles together Nazi propaganda films, archival newspaper clippings, United Nations broadcasts, footage of the two presidents both in public and in private, and clips from films like Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor, which depicted for audiences of the time an increasingly incongruous ideal of American heroism.

Untold History of The United States, Chapter 10: George W. Bush & Obama - Age of Terror

Directed by Oliver Stone
US 2013, digital video, color, 58 min

Stone’s finale to Untold History of the United States traces a decade in the wake of 9/11, meticulously detailing the many military interventions in the Middle East that were routinely softened or outright disguised by administrative doublespeak. The Bush administration is presented as careless to a degree without precedent in remodeling the country as a fear-mongering empire, with George W’s blind faith in divine righteousness over empiricism likened to Islamic extremism. But the episode’s fury does not flag with the conclusion of Bush’s service: Obama, though introduced as a much-needed humanist savior, is taken to task for his eventual Wall Street bailouts on the domestic front and for a less zealous but scarcely less deadly continuation of Bush’s belligerence overseas. Even as Stone’s narration maintains a coldly declarative force, his montage generates contradictions and associations at a furious rate: in a densely packed hour, 21st century economics are paralleled with those of the Roaring Twenties, popular Hollywood war films are shown to disproportionately underscore military successes in lieu of overwhelming failures, and viewers are urged to ponder myths of American greatness as drone bombings light up the screen.

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Sneak Preview - Free Screening
Oliver Stone conversation simulcast live

Monday September 12 at 6pm

Snowden

Directed by Oliver Stone. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo
US 2016, DCP, color, 125 min

Opening with a vivid evocation of the first clandestine meeting in a Hong Kong hotel of Edward Snowden, filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald, Snowden turns skillfully and insightfully backwards through the tumultuous career of the precocious computer wizard, would-be solider, CIA employee and, finally, conscientious objector. Stone gives especially careful scrutiny to the wrenching soul-searching that lead to Snowden’s fateful decision to purposefully leak classified government documents, giving real human dimension to a now larger-than-life figure alternately shrouded, or clouded, by heroizing and defamatory myth. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an utterly convincing Snowden: boyish, overzealous, and fueled by an authentic patriotism that ultimately leads him to question the authority of his powerful employer. By offering Snowden as an interrogation of the responsibilities of government and citizenship in the 21st century—and on the eve of a fatefully charged US election—Stone delivers an urgent and provocative film, demanding us to rethink what it means to be an engaged patriot. DCP courtesy Open Road Films.

Oliver Stone will appear at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics at 6pm. The conversation will be simulcast live at the HFA before Snowden. For more information on the event, visit their website.

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Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700