X Close

by Will Lloyd
Thursday, 8
July 2021

The sad decline of Oliver Stone

The filmmaker has sold himself to some of the worst tyrannies on earth
by Will Lloyd
Oliver Stone during the Vietnam War, in 1967

Writer-director Oliver Stone is one of the most gifted filmmakers the United States ever produced. In the late 1980s, Stone had a remarkable run, with Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July making him one of the most discussed, imitated, and controversial figures in Hollywood.

Left-wing but idiosyncratic in his politics, uber-literate and a maximal drug user, for a time Stone was the baby boom generation’s foremost guru.

Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in

So how deflating to see that Stone is reduced to shilling for Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former President of Kazakhstan. Qazaq: History of the Golden Man is an eight-hour documentary about Nazarbayev and his near three decades long, quasi-monarchical rule of the central Asian state. The film premiered on the autocrat’s 81st birthday — one of several gifts, which also included the unveiling of two new Nazarbayev statues in Kazakh cities.


The authorities in Kazakhstan regularly harass, arrest, detain, and send severed dogs’ heads to their critics. Nazarbayev himself is an out of central-casting kleptocrat who sits Smaug-like on an enormous pile of oil wealth. It’s that wealth that has tempted both Kanye West and Tony Blair to work in Kazakhstan over the years.

Oliver Stone is not exactly alone in doing some lackey work for Nazarbayev. Even so, History of the Golden Man looks particularly embarrassing, with the trailer splicing sterile shots of Nazarbayev’s face with footage of swooping golden eagles. L’aigle c’est moi! At least Leni Riefenstahl put a bit of effort into the Triumph of the Will. Stone probably just needs the money. “There’s a… mystical aspect to this Golden Man” Stone intones sagely, while Nazarbayev nods. This is both a throwback to the fantastical musings that once made Stone so popular in his home country, and very sad to watch.

As a director, Stone had success at an unusually young age. By the time he was in his early forties he’d won every prize going, and seemed to hold the future of American cinema in his hands. For this macho, brawny, unabashedly trigger-happy director, there were few worlds left to conquer.

It is notable that his recent memoir Chasing the Light is about the years from his birth to 1986 — before he became a cultural force. It’s as if he can’t bear to remember his real downfall, which arrived ahead of his association with Nazarbayev, or his other hagiographical tributes to strongman leaders like Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin.

Stone’s marvellously paranoid thriller JFK was released in 1991. Initially acclaimed, Stone’s liberties with the historical record (the film implies that Lyndon Johnson plotted Kennedy’s assassination) soon attracted heavyweight criticism from America’s prestige press and Hollywood power-brokers. “A man of technical skill, scant education, and negligible consequence,” was how the Washington Post‘s George Will described the director at the time. Stone was denounced as a conspiracy theorist, cancelled, and would never regain his position at the centre of American culture.

But there were good reasons why Stone’s education was scant. Unlike Will, who’d spent the sixties studying at Oxford, Stone dropped out of Yale to enlist as a private in the Army. He was wounded twice in Vietnam. This vital fact, I think, gives him some leeway as a skin-in-the-game critic of American foreign policy. He was there man.

For decades he’s had to scramble and stoop in the margins to make his living, largely for political reasons. In the end, as bleak as this journey has been, it means Stone has become a much greater entertainment than the movies he makes.

Join the discussion

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
2 years ago

Creatives with big buck paint boxes go were the money is. Think of Leonardo, hawking his ideas around the tyrants of renaissance Italy. Posterity remembers the genius who painted the Mona Lisa. Orson Welles spent far too long trying to get projects off the ground, approaching some very dodgy people out of necessity, because Hollywood hated him and didn’t trust him to make good use of their money.
Wagner was a total sycophant, sucking up to Ludwig of Bavaria, encouraging his
fantasies, desperate for money and patronage.
Most great lives don’t survive too much scrutiny. Their utter devotion to their craft is what drives them. We consume the culture but disdain the grubby means by which it is achieved. I think Oliver Stone is a great auteur, like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, that doesn’t preclude criticism and sensure. Samson’s riddle of the decaying lion seems a good analogy, “out of the eater something to eat, out of the strong, something sweet”
For many creative people the ends justifies the means, only because the alternative is a recipe for creative impotency.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Rose

I think there is a balance here. Ludwig II was not a tyrant, and Wagner’s art was worth something. Stone is not a great auteur anyway, his political films were always mendacious, but at least done with style. Now he is plumbing the depths in a truly embarrassing way.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
rick stubbs
rick stubbs
2 years ago

It is apparent to me that Stone’s recent docudramas idolize fellow travelers, eg, those he aspires to emulate and once thought he had become. These sad, simpatico portraits are merely the “dictatorial” delusions of a sidelined Hollywood director.
And his big movies are genre pieces that the test of time and competition have eroded. After all, Platoon and 4th of July portrayed exactly how an emerging boomer elite needed to view the VN war, post hoc, to validate avoiding service in it. Both Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket easily transcend it in every way. I say this as one who served as VN infantryman but harbors no illusions about that war.
I also doubt Stone’s experience lends his US foreign policy critique credibility, but first of all, what is that critique and which experiences?
Stone is an interesting character and well worth examining. I wish this article had provided a longer form discussion of the author’s take. Perhaps that is forthcoming??

Last edited 2 years ago by rick stubbs
mallowry2@yahoo.com mallowry2@yahoo.com

Oliver Stone was criticized by Billy Hayes, the author of Midnight Express, upon which Stone based his script for the movie of the same name.
Hayes complained Stone demonized the Turkish people in the film when the book made efforts to show that there were decent Turks to be found in his prison experience.
Stone was also lambasted by at least one expert on his J.F.K assassination movie. Rotten Tomatoes said, ” As history, Oliver Stone’s JFK is dubious”
Stone who likes to show himself as a political justice advocate focused on righting America has made no comment on the invitation by Donald Trump of anti-Semties, Kanye West and Nick Fuentes (also White Supremacist) to Mar-a-Lago.
This dangerous turn in American racist politics was of no concern to him apparently.- he whose father was Jewish.
Cherry picking about what’s wrong with America or advancing old age responsible for this , ….or cowardice?

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

The man is a true artist, willing to stick his neck out to explore what is true and what is not.
But truth, writ on a global scale, is too large a beast to tame. Perhaps Oliver has, like Van Gogh, cut off his ear (to the ground) to spite his face, as he strives to depict the world as it really is, rather than as it ought to be.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

Gosh, that really is ‘the art matters more than anything’ stuff. His films are now hagiographical rubbish, the subjects appalling and in the case of Nazarbayev, a latter day petty Stalin (but not too petty for his victims).

Stone is in any ordinary moral terms an appalling individual.

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

For all that he’s a bigger man than his critics.