“From the outset, I’ve looked at this project as a legacy to my children and a way to understand the times I’ve lived through. I hope it can contribute to a more global, broader insight into our history.”
- Oliver Stone
Whatever you think you know about U.S. history in the 20th century you can damn well set aside. Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States (2012) is nothing short of an eye-opener, imbued with Stone’s inimitable sad-eyed/clear-eyed search for the truth in an era and a nation hell-bent on preserving its own mythology and canonization for political sainthood, despite the overwhelming record of atrocities its various presidents have committed under the guise of preserving their own version of ‘truth’, ‘justice’ and ‘the American way’. According to Stone, it is either this way or the highway, as countless third world regimes, from Asia to South America have discovered under the rancor of U.S. interventions in their internal affairs. Under the guise of liberating the world from communist tyranny, each presidency since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s time has increasingly anted up this margin of error with a devastating loss in human life; magnifying the numbers of its own military casualties while utterly distorting, minimizing or even more egregiously expunging the shocking sacrifices incurred by ‘the enemy’ – both military and civilian.
Stone’s exposure of America’s checkered past will likely be viewed by some as muckraking sensationalism of a different kind. Yet, it remains Stone’s most noteworthy attribute that he neither takes sides nor vilifies any of the leaders who have held the highest office in the land, but rather, with dispirited clarity, seeks to illustrate the rather psychotic repetition of past blunders recreated with each new rudderless leadership occupying the Oval Office; the escalation in terror, bloodshed and worldwide oppression, defended in the name of democracy and capitalism, reaching their tipping point almost by accident. Stone’s factual recitations, collaborated on by American University historian, Peter J. Kuznick, are shockingly clairvoyant in crystalizing America’s present age of iniquity as merely the last stop on this out of control nightmare we, who understand far less – or perhaps, even more embarrassingly, far too little – have laughingly rechristened as ‘progress’ in ‘American exceptionalism’.
No nation is without its sins. This much is for certain. And surely, from Sun Tzu’s art of war to the political theorizing of Italy’s Niccolò Machiavelli – and beyond, into the hellish regimes of Adolf Hitler, Cambodia’s Pol Pot and virtually all points serving as connective tissue in between, humanity – if one can even suggest it as much - has witnessed either first hand or been given unfettered access to an unprecedented compendium of the very worst aspirations man is capable of and can so easily descend into as a bottomless purgatory, given half an ounce of ambition, a shot glass of moral ambiguity, and, more than a modicum of thirst for political power, predicated on nothing greater than greed. In the history of the world, since man learned to stand erect on his two feet, he has regrettably not learned any more valuable lessons that would either support or embrace the Christian doctrine for everlasting peace. It is rather unlikely that in his future pursuits, given his track record thus far, he will do any better.
And Stone’s Untold History is actually a testament in support of the notion man has, in fact, remained not only ignorant of this past, but occasionally reveled in surpassing the flagrant aggression of his predecessors. Ambition, after all, knows know master. It considers God, only as an afterthought – corrupting Biblical precepts to reshape and defend its own irreprehensible behaviors. In an era where it seems no one is at fault for either the precedent or the present, Stone’s documentary series – divided into 12 bone-chillingly corrosive installments – seeks to reestablish and expose a chronic malaise of ongoing political deceit, long since buried by a corruption – or rather, exclusion – of these more unflattering chapters; history, given to wild interpretations made by those who have remodeled it in the image they choose to present to the nation as fact, with little, if any regard for anything more or better than the promotion of America as a fairy tale. Like all bedtime stories taught to children, there is darkness as well as light to this allegory; alas, far more than anyone might at first anticipate.
The Untold History of the United States is not an outright condemnation of America as an aspiring ‘great nation’, a brutal debasement of its mythologized ‘greatest generation’ or a dismantling of ‘the great society’ that ought to have followed it. But it remains a sobering and provocative de-glamorization of the lies that have fermented, proliferated, afflicted and obscured the national social consciousness for well over a century; trading impressions in an ongoing political agenda – perpetuated by both sides – for the systematic dumbing down of the American cultural mindset. Even as American presidents have pushed hard to expand the plunder and pursuit of natural resources from all over the globe, America’s peoples have been misdirected in their world views about anyone existing beyond their borders of language and culture; assuming a God-given natural authority and entitlement, while believing their best interests have remained at the forefront of these various government regimes. Such an isolationist mentality – on the surface, utterly thoughtless and idiotic - really cannot be entirely blamed on the American peoples. For nearly a hundred years, they have been force-fed such fanciful parodies of their place or origin and its’ importance upon the world stage; further colored by the lingering clear-cut gullibility of childhood ‘good vs. evil’ repeatedly drummed into their heads, re-framed as an ‘us vs. them’ scenario – communist Russia the favorite, fear-mongering punching bag; the narrative made palpable with repeat or, as Hitler once astutely pointed out “the greater the lie, the more apt people are to believe it”; entire generations kept in the dark about every political coup, assassination, orchestrated public execution and botched imposition of puppet regimes, spreading like a cancer to infect the U.S.’s interests abroad at the expense of third world nations.
It is, after all, more than a little unnerving to grow up and realize the whole world does not revolve around you; that the nation in which one resides and has been taught to take immense pride in since birth, is not without its foibles; some, so egregiously vial, that it has served more than the overweening reach of the media to shield the fragile national psyche from the realizations America has long since devolved into a rudderless leviathan, bent on achieving global destabilization to maintain its supremacy as a super power. The mask of obscenities perpetrated at home and abroad is staggering; defying the very precepts of self-preservation elsewhere for fear an out-and-out people’s revolution is looming somewhere on the horizon. Like the lingering vapors from one of those many hydrogen or atom bombs detonated much too close to home, the capacity for exposure has mushroomed to pulverize its own master until it is nothing more than dust in the aftermath of its own nuclear fallout; also, to set off a chain reaction of humanity’s rants and inhuman cries that are fast advancing into a macro chaos as yet unknown. The human devastation, mostly glimpsed, though never dwelt upon, in Oliver Stone’s latest masterwork, has thus far been quite enough to simultaneously whet the appetite of cultural historians with or without a humanitarian streak, yet sour the belly of most anyone possessing the egocentric, nation-building audacity to still consider the other side in any conflict as inconsequential to this equation.
The Untold History of the United States is a far-reaching, if thoroughly incomplete record of the hellish wreckage U.S. foreign policies have wrought all over the world since the end of WWII. To fully digest the scale of these atrocities would have resulted in a gargantuan orgy of newsreels for which Stone’s expansive 10 part miniseries has neither the opportunity nor the time to fully invest. Even so, with its ongoing critical discourse ever advanced by Stone’s running commentary, delivered in Stone’s atypical deadpan style, this groundbreaking series has managed the minor coup of taking copiously researched materials from an abundant wellspring, processing them into a mostly coherent and textually dense overview of the mid-to-latter half of the 20th century and dawning of the 21st; stripped bare of the benefits of those halcyon memories usually ascribed through very rose-colored glasses. It is, perhaps, an imperfect investigation, marred by Stone’s infrequent dyad between real history and reel references culled from Hollywood movies of the period; also, by some truly laughable voice characterizations that in no way mimic the historical figures they are attempting to imitate. Oft criticized for being an alarmist, extreme in his alternative conspiracy theorizing, Oliver Stone remains one of the 20th century’s most prolific and imaginative cultural mandarins of his ilk and generation. While some may find Stone’s particular brand of hypotheses veer dangerously into self-aggrandizing pontification; one cannot – and should not – discount the essence and/or potency of his methodology. At the very least, he offers us an alternative to the pre-processed junk that has passed for mass public education for far too long and at his most provocative, Stone points to a more insidious denial, often misappropriated or reclaimed by those who seek to distort and rewrite history with themselves as the irrefutable, philanthropic victors.
One of the most rewarding aspects of Oliver Stone’s film-making genius, is his general unwillingness to take sides, coupled with his determination to remain as objective as possible to the cold hard testaments of history – some of which have never been entirely disclosed to the public until more recent times when the transparencies of the internet age have made it virtually impossible to maintain such whitewashed silence. Those who would discredit Stone’s quest as simply a callous venture to sensationalize history itself, merely for entertainment purposes, would do well to reconsider that in his running commentaries he never once falters, shies away from, or outwardly ignores the contextualization of irrefutable facts and figures that point to a systematic betrayal of the American people’s best interests. These pale by comparison to the grotesque duplicities and annihilations endured by nations unlucky enough to come under the U.S.’s scrutiny and/or microscope; deemed viable commodities for what they can offer the various U.S. governments in the moment – natural resources, shifting political alliances against a temporarily held ‘common’ foe or simply, control over another military secret or burgeoning technology that can best serve the corporate greed at the expense of the nation’s constitutional mandate towards its own peoples.
Stone has used the atomic age as the framework for most of his postwar theories on U.S. history; this understandably cataclysmic discovery of how to split the atom for maximum devastation, resulting in an ever-escalating fear of reprisals from offending nations whose governments equally aspire to possess such monumentally injurious apparatuses in our on-going tug-o-war devolution toward world domination. One figure alone should stagger the imagination; a record 1132 nuclear devices detonated as ‘tests’ in the United States since the mid-1940’s; another 981 in the USSR, with descending numbers of experiments conducted by the British, French, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and North Koreans; for a total documented 2475 bombs detonated to poison the earth, wind and water. Frankly, it is a minor miracle any part of it has survived humanity’s mad inhumane noise in these ensuing decades; that we are not all born with four heads, eight arms, three testicles and other perverted and cancer-causing deformities with greater frequency incurred from all the radioactive fallout that has showered the atmosphere and encircled the globe hundreds of times over. How idiotic is man; misguided in his seemingly Freudian male preoccupation with ‘size’; ever desiring to build the ultimate weapon of mass destruction that will render the point of whose is bigger moot by killing every last living thing on the planet, while plunging the few remaining survivors into a hellish and ultimately smothering nuclear winter from which there is no escape.
It would be so easily adolescent to dismiss Oliver Stone’s history as conspiracy theories or to merely label them as correspondingly misguided, if not for the fact Stone is neither an doom merchant nor a sensationalist seeking to shock, revile and disgust. He requires no such help there; history itself far more disturbing and ominous than anything his filmmaker’s camera eye could invent or reinvent. And Stone, for all the negative hype swirling around his endeavors – chiefly perpetuated by those who would seek to discredit him without actually reviewing the cruel facts of history itself first – has proven time and again to be one of the most unreservedly clear-headed investigators. His Untold History of the United States is sensational without ever succumbing to rank sensationalism; his densely packed narrative, viewed through the rubric of the U.S.’s variously flawed presidencies and failed foreign policies reveals a nation slowly left to feed upon itself, along the way reinventing its own mythologies as fact, while broadsiding the American public with media-sanctioned lies masquerading as the truth.
To those unable, or perhaps too nervous and therefore unwilling to appreciate what Oliver Stone has wrought herein, it would be so lovely – I suspect – to bury one’s head in the sand like the ostrich; to continue to believe in the Hollywood-ized version of America: the beautiful – all wishing wells and fairytales; a cosmopolitan Disneyland that the post-Camelot era of disillusionment, left behind by an assassin’s bullet in Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963 (if, in fact, the lone gunman theory foisted upon a Lee Harvey Oswald holds any validity anymore) momentarily shook America to its very core; since left to molder with a past, presumably bygone, but without lessons learned; political mentalities of subsequent regimes reframed by even greater misfires; race riots, the threat of Islamic terrorism and spank of a still relatively fresh 9-11 be damned – or rather polluted and later expunged from the record entirely. Stone’s documentary, like a good many of his ‘fictional’ movies loosely based on fact, is like the proverbial mad dog pit bull, utterly refusing to let go of our collective consciousness.
If, as John 8:32 first proclaims, “the truth shall set you free”, then arguably Stone’s documentary can be viewed as a liberating experience; the first nail in the coffin of deceit, long overdue for its proper exhumation. Alas, the fateful beauty and tragedy of the historical record is that it unequivocally exists in perpetuity to be reconsidered from various vantages of interpretation for all time. Untold History of the United States is a harrowing, blistering, unflattering, and sadly, mostly accurate depiction of that miraculously misguided notion we have been led to recall ad nauseam as ‘history’. Imperfect in the extreme, and with much to atone for, America’s future fate may lie somewhere in revisiting this pit of despair, perpetuated by a plague of some very bad karma it has already disseminated elsewhere over the last 100 years. If one is spiritually inclined to believe in such vengeance from an omnipotent force greater than America’s own, I shudder to think of what this future will bring. The past is, after all, the past; though it should never be forgotten, mislaid or rewritten as a reinvention of itself: something finer, less deviant or more altruistic beyond its own self-serving avarice.
In the end, America is no more that shining beacon on the hill prophesized by the late Ronald Reagan than the warring empires that preceded it and once held dominion over vast quantities of the earth: the Egyptian, Roman, British, French, Spanish and Germanic influences all with their own crosses to bear. For a long while, the pall of the Eisenhower era, with its cloak of postwar American prosperity, was outwardly to imply a long overdue evolution in this ongoing chain of world empires: America somehow elevated and made to consider itself as more pure of heart and willing to stand up for nations around the world unable to do as much for themselves. Alas, in hindsight, this template of the perfect society rings ominously like Hitler’s own ambitions for a pure race of super-intellectuals. It also reveals the inherent flaw of placing our absolute blind faith in heroes when humanity is, in fact, made up of either the easily tainted or morally corrupt.
For decades, America aspired to better itself – to be better than the rest – or, at the very least, present itself as such to the world. But it increasingly has gone about this evolution in decidedly the wrong way. Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States plays out this hand with surprisingly unvarnished tiers to suggest how mind-bogglingly horrific things have become, not because America is evil, but rather, because it has shrouded its own historical record in the flag-waving artlessness of buying into its own myth. America’s nation-building days are over. There may be hope in this, as their political structure requires no help these days to self-destruct; nor do I suspect this as Oliver Stone’s primary motivation for making this monumental and compelling series. But if nothing else, the Untold History of the United States ought to serve as a cautionary tale; a sort of ‘how not to’ blunder from misfire to misfire or, at the very least, realign as well as illustrate what ruin can come to roost on any nation that readily shares in the effrontery of disbelief it can do no wrong. Kudos to Oliver Stone for being brash enough to tarnish the reputation, if not the hopes of a great nation, with the even more sincere endeavor to provide its free-thinking peoples with a more productive and proactive education so it might, at least, strive to do better in future generations. As Stone himself once suggested, “…the past is prologue.” So now, let the process begin, for America to redefine itself anew. It has at least the oath of that characteristic in history to fall back upon and draw from.
Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States is presented on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video, in a rather lavishly appointed hard-bound box set. Part One is divided into three chapters: WWII, Roosevelt, Truman & Wallace, and, The Bomb – gripping in Stone’s ability to contextualize America’s nation-building era. In Part Two, Stone examines The Cold War, The Fifties/Eisenhower and The Third World, JFK, Johnson, Nixon and Vietnam; indeed the most telling and turbulent of times. Part Three is the least revealing of this exposé perhaps because the jadedness of our present era has resulting in a lot more questioning of the scandals and cover-ups we have been exposed to in our lifetimes. Finally, this set includes a superbly produced ‘prologue’ to the series – never aired on TV – that looks back on WWI, The Russian Revolution, Woodrow Wilson and America’s dawning as the ‘new’ empire. There is also a fascinating conversation piece, featuring political philosopher, Tariq Ali and Oliver Stone. As most of the footage featured in this documentary is culled from both film and video-tape based archival materials, the quality ranges from fairly impressive to downright poor; dirt, scratches and other vintage damage left intact, presumably to add a layer of verisimilitude to this exercise. What I found rather off-putting were the digital anomalies not inherent in the original sources; such as chroma-bleeding during some of the B&W footage and a disturbing video-based line running across the top of the screen – removed only by slightly zooming in the image with my remote. The 5.1 surround is satisfying, and Stone’s running commentary is never anything less than spectacular. Overall, this is well worth the price of admission. Prepare to be dazzled and ashamed by what you are about to see. Hemingway once said, “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” After seeing Untold History of the United States, I sincerely have misgivings the ole wordsmith was only partly right. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)