I bet at Oscar parties, Oliver Stone is placed on the far side of the room. Get him near you, and Stone would sock you hard in the face and call you the Devil. While Stone has spent his life directing films that showcase the absurdness of war and its leaders, you glorify the cause and find the men heroic. Ah, let your critics pick at you. You’ve made too many solid films over your career to let anyone rate you as a mediocre director. Let me tell you why you’re great.
Your stories concern a leading man and his entourage, and they generate outstanding chemistry on the screen. How funny to note that your leading stars can’t shine above the constellation that orbit around them. It’s your ensembles that twinkle and carry your films. In 1989, no one on the screen was more powerful than Denzel Washington’s character, Pvt. Trip. When he braced himself for the lashing, proud, his cheek muscles quivering and the single tear falling down his face, I never needed to see Denzel Washington act in another role again. It was pure brilliance on the screen. Your mid-range to close-up shot of the flogging–choosing to focus on the face instead of the whip striking skin–tore me up and conveyed everything wrong about the “peculiar institution” without one word spoken. Also, Glory had one of my favorite performances by Morgan Freeman who showed a range of emotions and centered the ensemble with his wisdom. You romanticized their deaths; The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry sacrificed their lives for a higher purpose, and you raise a universal question. Is it noble to pay that price for freedom or foolish to be led to the slaughter? You give dignity to the men who believed freedom was worth dying for.
Legends of the Fall. Your films incorporate the beauty of the setting to offset the horror of the situation and enhance the grandeur of your soap opera. In 1994, you selected the magnificent Canadian Rockies to represent Montana for which you and Bronze Wrangler won an Oscar for Best Cinematography. The ensemble’s acting was solid throughout the epic. When the oldest brother, Alfred, who followed all laws of man and God but couldn’t compete with Tristan, redeemed himself in the eyes of his family in the last scene, I cheered as though my team won the Super Bowl.
There’s so much to like about the film, I don’t want to focus upon the petty mistakes such as Tristan’s conduct or long hair as an officer in WWI. I’d rather focus on Samuel’s loss of innocence amidst the fog of mustard gas and trench warfare which were effective and correct. Also, I love the added dimension of the Native Americans who were a part of the Ludlow family, especially the narrator, “One Stab” played by Gordon Tootoosie.
The costumes were breathtaking as was the actress, Julia Ormond. Even the death of Tristan wrestling with his talisman Grizzly was the perfect way to end the film. Yes, it was a melodramatic soap opera, but it was so beautiful to watch, I forgive you, Edward Zwick. You complete the manipulation of my senses by including a musical score that was as grand as the Rockies and as delicate as a field of white blossoms.
Let’s review The Last Samurai (2003).
Grandeur of the natural setting? Check.
A fantastic performance by the supporting actor, Ken Wanatabe, who made the film worth watching? Check.
One beautiful female in your all male cast? Check.
An endearing ensemble cast which adds smiles and dimension to the plot? Check.
Melodrama? Well, there’s your leading actor, Tom Cruise, whose passionate war cries, barking commands, and howlings from nightmares and Delirium tremens pushed it a bit. Let me defend Tom by saying it’s not easy to speak Japanese and execute the Samurai fighting positions gracefully or play the tender surrogate dad as well as he did. Algren did have the best line in the film when he told Colonel Bagley: “For $500, I’ll kill Japos or the killers of Japos. But just remember, I’d happily kill you for free.”
You got the pattern down, and your best film, one of my favorite films was Blood Diamond (2006). Djimon Hounsou was your fantastic supporting actor. Jennifer Connelly your one beautiful brunette. Red earth, gorgeous Africa your setting. Expressive Leonardo DiCaprio nailed the Afrikaner accent. Noble cause worth dying for? To stop the trade of illegal diamonds and the rebels who mutilate, enslave, and brainwash children into an army? That’ll work. It was a powerful topic and you made no mistakes. No soap opera. Just art. Bravo!
In 2008, you made the Holocaust film, Defiance. Your love for based-on-a-true-story plot is clear here. Three brothers led and protected Polish Jews in an ancient forest for 2 years. Amazing! But there was no beautiful landscape, no stunning costumes or majestic score. It was dark, gray, and seemed to lack that ensemble chemistry, even though Liev Schreiber was your supporting character and acted his heart out. Your brunette was pretty but not gorgeous. It was a very serious film without memorable lines or charm to lighten the mood.
I’ve waited patiently, Edward Zwick, for you to make another film. Love and Other Drugs (2010) doesn’t count. I miss the beauty, the ensemble chemistry, the supporting actor, the theme of the noble act. That’s why I go to the movies. I’m a big sucker for your magic. If I want depressing realism, I’ll watch an Oliver Stone film or Schindler’s List. I like to believe that a life beyond instant gratification and lived for a larger purpose like family, freedom, and heritage is the life worth living. Your films remind me that, and that’s why you’re great in my book.
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