Chasing The Light by Oliver Stone

Review by Brian Tanguay

Oliver Stone was an only child, the product of a whirlwind romance between his father, a US Army officer who served under General Dwight Eisenhower, and a French woman of no family standing or wealth. It was many years before Stone came to know his father, and more beyond that to feel that he had made his father proud. Stone’s upbringing in New York City was privileged, and emotionally complicated. He loved his parents, but often found himself caught between them. He was off at boarding school in Pennsylvania in 1962 when he learned that his parents were getting a divorce. About this time Stone writes, “I’d have to become harder now, be on my own, not give in to grief or weakness or self-pity.” 

Stone came of age in a time of great social upheaval, when the United States sat atop the world order militarily and economically. Along with his private school classmates, he watched black-and-white news coverage of the assassination of President Kennedy, only vaguely aware of how significantly the world, and America’s place in it, was about to change. The broad outlines came into focus when he spent a year in Vietnam teaching english to high school students. After a brief stint in the merchant marine, Stone traveled to Mexico where he holed up in a hotel room and wrote about his recent experiences, a glorious release of all the pent-up emotions he was feeling. For the first time in his young life Stone felt that he existed as a unique individual, at least on paper. He finished this autobiographical novel in New York City and through his father’s connections sent it off to several publishers. When the manuscript was rejected, Stone felt like a failure, as if he was worthless and his life was over. It was in this state of mind that he enlisted in the Army as an infantryman and returned to Vietnam, this time to take part in the war of his generation. 

For readers who don’t know much about how movies are made, and I count myself among them, Chasing the Light is a fascinating peek into the labyrinthe of scripts, producers, studio gatekeepers, directors, and the financiers who put up the money. It’s a risky, mercurial game, with what seems like hundreds of moving parts, outsized egos, and constant uncertainty, even during filming. Stone broke into the business as a screenwriter, winning an Academy Award in 1979 for Midnight Express at the age of thirty-three. Over the next seven years he wrote the screenplay for Scarface, and wrote and directed two films that would make his reputation: Salvador and Platoon. Like the script for Born on the 4th of July, which Stone co-wrote with Ron Kovic, the script for Platoon had knocked around Hollywood for several years, waiting for a confluence of timing, money, and a studio willing to take a risk on a film unlike most American war movies. Stone’s raw, violent, and morally challenging script depicted US involvement in Vietnam as futile and savage rather than heroic. Platoon is about lost innocence — individual and collective. In the fevered madness of battle, an American soldier had the same capacity to dehumanize the enemy and commit atrocities as a German, Japanese, Russian or Turkish soldier. War is as likely to bring out the beast in men as it is to call forth selfless acts of heroism and bravery. Platoon is arguably the most realistic movie about the Vietnam War. It won Academy Awards in 1987 for Best Picture and Best Director. 

The memoir ends at that high water mark. As Stone writes, “Thirty years now, I look back and realize I had no idea then of the storm that was coming, but I did know instinctively that I’d reached a moment in time whose glory would last me forever.”