The attacks of 9/11/2001, not unlike the ambush at Pearl Harbor, indeed marked “a day which would live in infamy,” in that it was the single day in an entire century in which a war was fought on U.S. soil, in which we could feel what it was like to be Vietnamese every day in the 1960s, or Korean during the 1950s, or Russian or French or British during the 1940s.
This is the direction one’s thoughts can take, when viewing Oliver Stone’s new series.
Filmmaker Stone is best known for his feature films, like Talk Radio, Natural Born Killers and most recently Savages. But his television series Untold History of the United States, makes his brand of left-wing social criticism accessible to the widest public yet. Untold History centers its revisionist narrative on the succession of U.S. Presidential administrations of the 20th century—as a device, it works, though even Stone seems unable to escape the idea that history equals big events like war, and big entities like government. But the service provided is that every episode offers a radical shift in focus and interpretation of these entities. For example, unlike the usual telling of The World War II Story, as if it were a Hollywood movie that every schoolchild was required to view, Stone argues that it was the Russians who actually defeated Hitler’s Nazis in WWII Europe, losing ten people for every soldier lost by U.S. Forces.
Each episode consists of a montage of Stone’s narration, documentary footage, still images of government documents, and recordings of voices whose authenticity one can never be sure of, so startling are some of the statements (some of Lyndon Johnson’s profanities and verbal contempt, for example, would never air in a more tender age). Statistics are offered at their most dramatic (unlike the count of American dead so famously etched in the monument in Washington D.C., the claim of well over 3 million Vietnamese casualties during the same war there would be difficult/impossible to verify.)
To use them as exemplars, among the revelations of episodes Seven and Eight:
-Gorbachev made serious overtures to deescalate the arms race that Ronald Reagan insisted on ignoring, in his egomaniacal infatuation with power of the SDI (Star Wars.)
-The CIA’s rise to power after WWII, and its active support of tyrannical regimes—often disguised as democracies– throughout the world, has probably done more to destabilize international relations than all the forces of Communism over 150 years.
-Despite the rise of a hagiography following his death several years back, Richard Nixon was indeed as bad as we always thought.
As he approaches the present, the filmmaker seems justly excited about the treatment of living generations by recent leaders—he makes no bones about claiming that history repeats itself today, and that we are just as vulnerable to fraud and manipulation, by those in power, as our forbears. Perhaps even more compelling than this, at least to those whose grasp of history is best done through individual biography, we are given glimpses of what contemporary figures—like President Obama, and Osama Bin Laden—were up to, in their younger days.
Stone’s place in the American consciousness seems to be as the voice that never allows us our complacency about what we’ve been told by authorities, nor have investigated for ourselves. His film, JFK, played a significant role in legislation of the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act and the expansions of the Freedom of Information Act in the 1990s. He has consistently targeted the mass media as an inadequate filter and delivery vehicle for information, acting as it does either in collusion with the government, or in willful ignorance of its cover-ups.
Implicit in every viewing ought to be the assurance that Stone is inviting, challenging, even demanding his viewers to look deeper into matters for themselves, to do their own thinking—not necessarily to swallow his version whole, either. That would be an equally irresponsible swing of the pendulum from the sanitized, jingoistic version of the place of our nation in the world that we all accepted as children. I personally would not even recommend the series—which is excellent–without this vital disclaimer.