Chasing The Light

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Oliver Stone bares his soul in CHASING THE LIGHT, one of the best books on Hollywood I have ever read.

Stone, the remarkable and controversial writer/director of such films as “Salvador,” “Platoon,” “Scarface” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” has written a book that is part-memoir, part-Hollywood expose. The book, which reads like a novel, is written with power, honesty and fearlessness. Even those who dislike his films, calling them “bombastic,” “paranoid” and even “machismo nonsense” (Steven Vineberg, film critic of the Boston Phoenix), will find much to admire and enjoy here.

“This is a story about making a dream at all costs, even without money,” Stones confides in his introduction. “It’s about cutting corners, improvising, hustling, cobbling together workarounds to get movies made and into theatres, not knowing where the next payday is coming from–-or the next monsoon or scorpion bite. It’s about not taking ‘no’ for an answer. It’s about lying outrageously, gritting it out with sweat and tears, surviving. It goes from a magical New York childhood to the Vietnam War and my struggles to come back from it, ending at the age of forty in the making of ‘Platoon.’ It’s about growing up. It’s about failure, loss of confidence. And it’s about early success and arrogance too. It’s about drugs, and the times we lived through politically and socially. It’s about imagination, dreaming up what you want and going out to make it happen. And of course it’s full of deceits, betrayals, crooks and heroes, people who bless you with their presence and those who destroy you if you let them.”

The two major influences on Stone’s life were his parents’ divorce and Vietnam. His “magical” childhood came to an end at the age of fifteen when he learned that his mother and father were parting as a result of sexual infidelity. “It was the end of a family,” he writes. “I had no brother or sister to share the blow with. We were suddenly three different people in three different places” (he was in a boarding school).

Three years later, 1966, found Stone in Vietnam, having volunteered to join the army as an infantryman. His battle experiences were brutal, bloody and horrific. He served in three different combat units and was wounded and evacuated twice. He was awarded a Bronze Star for heroism and was promoted to Specialist 4th Class. But by the time he was discharged in 1968 he had come to realize that he had participated in a meaningless war and that a part of him had gone numb there...”died in Vietnam, murdered.”

He put all his anger, shame and resentment into the writing of “Platoon.” He knew it was good, solid work...and that it would be a tough sell. “There’d been no movie made from the grunt’s point of view about Vietnam, and it was still a highly unpopular war, ‘a bummer’ to the American imagination. No one, I was made to believe, wanted to know more about it. I wasn’t optimistic.”

In CHASING THE LIGHT Stone devotes several chapters to the making of “Platoon.” Because no Hollywood studio would touch it–-or his other equally uncommercial 1986 movie, “Salvador”–-Stone and his partner John Daly had to go the indie route, raising money in England, Europe and Mexico–-money which sometimes came as promised but mostly never materialized. Staying one step ahead of bill collectors, police and lawyers, trying to cope with neurotic actors like James Woods and Al Pacino and shady producers like Dino De Laurentiis and Jon Peters, Stone had to tapdance through a cinematic minefield, powered by cocaine, grass and booze. That he somehow managed to survive and finish the film was something of a miracle–-which was topped six months later when “Platoon” not only became a box office success but won two Academy Awards (best director, best picture).

“I’d been chasing the light a long time now,” Stone writes at the end of his book. “I was now forty years old, proverbially at the halfway point. It’d been a remarkable two-film journey from the bottom back to the top of the Hollywood mountain. With ’Salvador,’ I’d slung the stone hard and far, and it had given me a foothold. And with ‘Platoon’ I’d managed to crest into the light. Money, fame, glory and honor, it was all there at the same time and space. I had to move now. I’d been waiting too many years to make films. Time had wings. I wanted to make one after another in a race against that Time–-I suppose it was really a race against myself in a hall of mirrors of my own making.”

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)