tv review

Seitz on Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States: Telling Tales Out of School

A still from the documentary series OLIVER STONE'S UNTOLD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES.
Photo: Library of Congress/Showtime

Why would anyone want to sit through The Untold History of the United States, a documentary series directed and narrated by Oliver Stone? Fifteen years ago, no one would have asked that question; love him or hate him, the director of PlatoonJFKNatural Born Killers, and other feverish, politically charged dramas was a giant — an influential filmmaker who pushed the medium forward while ripping the scabs off social and historical wounds. Today, Stone is thought of as Sam Peckinpah by way of Michael Moore — a Hollywood outsider and foot-in-mouth political crank, chilling with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez in the documentary South of the Border and suggesting that American media fixated on the Holocaust and “scapegoated” Hitler while downplaying Soviet deaths during World War II because of “Jewish domination of the media.” For these and other reasons, viewers might consider the messenger of Untold History and then dismiss its message, sight unseen.

They shouldn’t. Four years in the making and ten hours long, it’s a remarkable, if dense and often difficult program — at once the most stylistically stripped-down thing Stone has done and (somehow) the most Oliver Stone-y. I wouldn’t call it entertainment, exactly, unless you’re the sort of person who might stay up all night debating the “real” cause of Vietnam on a chat board that hasn’t been redesigned since 1998. But if you have even a smidgen of that tendency — full disclosure: I do! — this series is a TV event. If Mr. X, the JFK character who laid out the grand military-industrial-complex conspiracy for Jim Garrison, got his own TV series, it might play like Untold History: ominous, seductive, verbose, apocalypse-left in its politics, filled with scurrilous factoids about men who have monuments named after them. Co-written and co-produced by American University history professor Peter Kuznick — who collaborated with Stone on a same-titled, 784-page tie-in book — Untold History is part of a tradition of alternative cultural criticism, journalism, and history. Its chapters echo Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, John Reid, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Norman Mailer and mid-century muckraker I.F. Stone (no relation). To quote a beloved reality-show cliché, it isn’t here to make friends.

There’s a Trojan horse aspect this series. If you mute the narration for several minutes at a stretch, what’s onscreen will seem indistinguishable from a standard-issue History Channel documentary; then it’ll suddenly throw in a shocking World War II–era cartoon of a buck-toothed “Jap” soldier, or a clip from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s literate but not respectable. Parts of it are gonzo. Its ambition and personality make most other TV documentaries feel timid. 

Through Stone and Kuznick’s prism, religion and ideology play important roles in historical events, but not as important as most history textbooks and pledge-week PBS docs would have us believe. The deeper causes of war, famine, poverty, genocide, and other momentous events are often appallingly basic: Some person or company or political faction wanted more money or land or power, then pushed buttons on the national character to produce the desired result. This seems like a cynical way to look at human civilization, but the further away we get from once-current events, the more plausible it seems; it’s through this cockeyed vantage point that Stone and Kuznick view the last 75 years of U.S. history (and world history). Because it starts in the late thirties and continues through President Obama’s first term, the series ends up putting somewhat recent events in context of the past, so that you see patterns emerging, tendencies in the national character recurring, with only the details changed. The ginned-up “Saddam has nukes!” panic that got us into Iraq feels a lot like Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin incident — wars which (the filmmakers argue) benefited mainly power-obsessed ideologues and munitions contractors. Post-9/11 anti-Muslim discrimination and anti-Japanese bigotry after Pearl Harbor are both seen as iterations of a centuries-old American white supremacist streak, also manifested in the Native American genocide, slavery, and Jim Crow. The United States goes into periodic shock over losing its innocence (Pearl Harbor, JFK, 9/11, et al.); Untold History says that the country never had much innocence to lose, while also insisting that it does stand for certain core principles (equality above all), and has, over time, gotten closer to making them real for people who don’t have white skin, land, and a penis.

The series’ closest thing to a pure-hearted, old-movie good guy is Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s longtime vice-president Henry Wallace, a humanist, socialist, and utopian who got thrown over for Harry S. Truman at the 1942 Democratic convention. Stone and Kuznick depict Wallace as a thwarted dreamer who might have steered the country toward a less paranoid and self-devouring postwar identity (and perhaps found a way not to drop nukes on Japan) if he’d replaced FDR. Frank Capra’s trademark liberty bells ring throughout Untold History, to ironic effect. Mr. Smith keeps going to Washington – and Moscow, and Beijing, and everywhere else – and getting his ass kicked.

None of this will be news to historians, of course — but in context of mainstream TV, Untold History’s take feels fresh, even cheeky. It has zero interest in telling us we’re a nation of Galahads that means well but sometimes stumbles. It treats that image as a self-deluding reflection or tactical façade, and instead insists that when we do live up to our noblest national aspirations, it’s a rare and beautiful event — a sunbeam cutting through permanently overcast skies.

You just don’t see this kind of sentiment in most history docs that air on American television. Nor do you see the “elephant’s memory” approach to U.S. history, which refuses to present events as discrete happenings with beginnings and middles and ends, and instead treats them as chapters in a never-ending story whose subplots are intertwined, and rooted in the deep past. A few weeks ago I watched a TV documentary about the Cuban Missile Crisis whose Big Idea was that the crisis was shaped by the strong personalities of president John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev — which, aside from being a bit “duh,” limits our perception of the event to fifties-and-sixties tensions: JFK vs. Khrushchev, capitalism vs. communism. Untold History’s version of the missile crisis covers those aspects, but it also shows how the nuclear arms race proceeded from World War II and postwar jockeying for global dominance, and how these periods proceeded from World War I, a cataclysm that shattered Great Britain and opened a geopolitical power vacuum that the U.S. leapt to fill. It traces the American-Russian rivalry back to the United States’ identity as a strutting young country desperate to prove that it could be a British-size empire without the costly infrastructure and bad publicity. And it puts the Cuban missile crisis in context of other mid-century capitalist-communist battlegrounds, including Greece, Guatemala, Iran, and Vietnam.  

The program’s montage-plus-narration style is Nonfiction 101 — the default mode of documentaries on The History Channel and PBS, minus the talking heads. And yet the content is radical, because the voice is Stone’s, not just figuratively, but literally. That’s him talking over newsreel snippets, photos, political cartoons, and film clips; firing off dates and place names; parsing the never-ending tensions between labor unions and corporations, humanists and racists, doves and hawks. The digressions play like anecdotes that a charismatic but scruffy history prof might tell his favorite students in a pub after finals. Did you know there was more labor unrest during World War II than at any other time in U.S. history, and that some of the staunchest anti-Nazi guerrilla fighters were communists, and that the U.S. backed them during World War II and tried to destroy them afterward, and that Truman, the president who integrated the military, was a bigot who casually used racist epithets in a love letter to his future wife? You didn’t? Bartender! Next round’s on the messenger!

Seitz on The Untold History of the United States