- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

Conservatives recoiled when Paramount Pictures announced Oliver Stone would direct “World Trade Center,” a thriller based on the terrorist attacks of September 11. What conspiracy, they wondered, would the lefty auteur spring on us now?

Film fans also winced, but not out of ideological reflex.

When was the last time Mr. Stone made a good, let alone a great, movie?

Early notices hint the director’s drought may be over.

Even some conservatives are singing Mr. Stone’s praises after seeing the new film, which opens Wednesday. The film follows two Port Authority officers who rush into the collapsing buildings to save as many lives as possible. “WTC” stars Nicolas Cage, Maria Bello, Michael Pena (“Crash”) and Maggie Gyllenhaal, among others.

“World Trade Center” doesn’t blame America, President George W. Bush or any talk radio titan for the attacks.

Making a fact-based epic from this country’s greatest catastrophe seems an odd path toward career resurrection, but “World Trade Center” might just make Mr. Stone relevant again.

Mr. Stone emerged as a filmmaking force buoyed by both his scriptwriting (1978’s “Midnight Express”) and his directing (1986’s Oscar-winning “Platoon”).

He drew upon his own Vietnam experiences for his early directorial triumphs, then began collecting detractors with a series of politically charged films that claimed wide creative license for themselves in treating historical subjects.

His 1991 film “JFK,” a pastiche of conspiracy theories which preyed on our collective unease about President Kennedy’s assassination, rankled filmgoers and historians alike.

By that time, the right already viewed Mr. Stone with suspicion. His script for 1986’s “Salvador” questioned U.S. foreign policy, and 1987’s “Wall Street” targeted the Reagan-era economic boom, mocking its supposed shallowness with the catchphrase “Greed is good.”

“Natural Born Killers” alienated even more of the movie-going public, but its arresting images made it hard to look away. Mr. Stone’s 1994 vision of two killers who become a media sensation seemed, to some, to glorify death and destruction. The film engulfed Mr. Stone in a real lawsuit involving a 1995 murder case in which the killers said the film inspired their actions. The suit was later dismissed on First Amendment grounds.

Mr. Stone’s films aren’t all blockbusters — “Platoon’s” $138 million haul still represents his career zenith — but they at least could count on the occasional Oscar buzz. His 1995 biography “Nixon” alone snared four nominations. He hasn’t been nominated since, unless you count being selected as a finalist for Worst Director in the 1997 Razzie Awards (for “U-Turn”).

Mr. Stone’s football expose “Any Given Sunday” (1999) featured more sizzle than story, but at least made a small profit with its box office take of $75 million.

The director followed “Sunday” with a curious documentary palimpsest involving Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Mr. Stone’s “Comandante” (2003) featured a rare, one-on-one interview with the communist leader, but word quickly leaked of the cozy rapport between interviewer and subject. When Castro’s regime inconveniently executed three Cuban hijackers and jailed 75 dissidents, Mr. Stone returned to Cuba to conduct somewhat tougher interviews. The result, “Looking for Fidel,” aired on HBO in 2004.

The director’s biggest bomb came with “Alexander,” 2004’s misbegotten take on the great Macedonian leader. Made at an estimated cost of $150 million, the film drew withering reviews and earned a paltry $34 million domestically, according to www.boxofficemojo.com. (Internationally, the feature fared much better.)

Brandon Gray, president and publisher of Box Office Mojo, says a director with Mr. Stone’s clout will always find work.

The Oscar winner still needs to watch the initial ticket sales.

“The box office success means [directors] can do exactly the movie they want to do,” Mr. Gray says. “After successive box office failures, it’s more difficult for a director to make his dream project.”

Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations, says Mr. Stone is virtually a household name, a rarity in directorial circles.

That star value insulates him against box office bombs, to a certain point.

“This is a very important film for him,” Mr. Dergarabedian says.

Mr. Stone is further protected by the nature of the film itself. He’d suffer more if “WTC” dishonored that day’s memory than if it stiffs on its opening weekend.

“It will be held to a different standard. These 9/11 films are not about making money,” he says.

It’s hard not to compare Mr. Stone’s trajectory to that of Spike Lee, who took a break from flinging cinematic Molotov cocktails to helm this year’s “Inside Man.” The black director made audiences of all races sit up straight with bracing fare like 1986’s “Do the Right Thing” only to watch his films devolve into scattershot screeds.

It took the taut “Inside Man,” filmed from a script not written by Mr. Lee, to remind us what a potent filmmaker he can still be.

Perhaps Mr. Stone, so keenly aware of the scrutiny a project like “WTC” would draw, found it liberating to leave the scriptwriting duties to others.

Bernard Cook, assistant dean at Georgetown University and professor of American Studies, argues “WTC” marks a “return to an engagement with social relevance for Stone,” even if it lacks a conspiratorial edge.

“‘Salvador’ and ‘Platoon’ were celebrated and critiqued by others for their very visceral, very intense connection to dynamic world events,” Mr. Cook says. “Lately he seems to have been working through more genre filmmaking [like] ‘Any Given Sunday.’”

Structurally, Mr. Cook says “WTC” is like “Platoon” in that both deal with a major American subject seen through the eyes of a few. In “Platoon,” it was the grunt played by Charlie Sheen. In “WTC,” we see the horrors via Mr. Cage’s Port Authority officer.

Mr. Stone’s proposed next project, “Son of the Morning Star,” should return him to familiar territory. The film is based on Evan Connell’s book about Gen. George Custer’s last stand and the country’s treatment of American Indians.

Sounds like his wooing of conservatives will be short-lived.

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