Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States
Academy award winning director Oliver Stone has never been one to shy away from wearing his politics on his sleeve. From no holds barred documentaries to politically-charged biopics, much of Stone’s career has been focused on chapters in American history that the United States government usually gloss over or present to their nation with rose tinted spectacles.
The Untold History of the United States continues Stone’s quest to lift the lid on American history, in this ten part documentary. Starting in the days before World War II and following the American timeline right up until the Obama presidency of today, each episode focuses on key turning points in Western History, framed by the social and political conditions that caused them in the first place. Often critical of many United States political figures from throughout the twenty and twenty-first century, Stone’s message is clear throughout; American foreign policy needs to learn from its past mistakes and adapt so that history doesn’t repeat itself.
Each episode pieces together a collage of film reels, newspaper articles, photographs, computer generated maps and sound bites straight from the horse’s mouth, all weaved together by Stone’s narration. It’s surprisingly meaty, and doesn’t rely on theoretical conjecture of historians or distorted testimonials from prominent members of the American government to make a case. The series brings only the facts to the table, and this format strengthens Stone’s case as his arguments and beliefs are presented with crystal clarity.
The revelations presented by Stone throughout the course of the series may seem like old news to European audience members. From the huge death toll of the Red Army during World War II and the disastrous campaign in Vietnam, to the back door political deals and miscalculations by some of America’s most admired presidents, each episode will tread familiar ground for anyone who has taken a GCSE history class. However, as the title implies, the series was created mainly for an American audience. Stone always reminds us that history is written by the victors and given the arrogance and domination of American foreign policy throughout the twentieth century; it becomes clear that the American public aren’t always given the facts. Stone comments that many of America’s most controversial acts, such as the unnecessary dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, the anti-communist catastrophic campaign in Vietnam and the gung-ho War on Terror, are either glossed over or given a positive spin by the American media. It’s no wonder that Stone feels the need to tell the American public the truth.
Stone also draws comparisons between the state of American politics and his own preferred creative medium, the feature film. Using clips from his own personal filmography, such as Salvador, JFK and Wall Street, it becomes clear that Stone’s political values have heavily influenced his film-making career. It’s not just his films in the spotlight however, as he also demonstrates how American historical knowledge is idealised thanks to the film industry. He uses Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour as one example, noting that the film comes across as a glorious victory for the United States, despite the reality being quite the opposite. He doesn’t go as far as to criticise the films themselves, but this idea of the American hero in Hollywood only bolsters his argument that the American media aren’t entirely to be trusted.
Many of America’s most iconic figures fall under Stone’s scrutiny as he attempts to challenge the perception of the American public gazing upon them as heroes. President Harry Truman, a man often given credit for putting an end to the Second World War, is one such character in Stone’s sights. Stone is quick to point out that the Japanese surrender would have come even without the horrific atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Nixon, Regan, Bush Senior, Bush Junior and even Barack Obama all suffer the same ridicule, but Stone’s scornfulness is not unjustified. He attempts to shatter American spin by pointing out that Al Qaeda were originally armed by the CIA, that ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was more willing to give up more for an end to the Cold War than Reagan was, and that many Latin Americans suffered at the hands of American Death Squads during the eighties. There are figures he does choose to admire. Franklin Roosevelt, his Vice President Henry Wallace and the late John F. Kennedy are seen in Stone’s eyes as American politicians who truly did strive to make a difference.
As The Untold History of the United States closes, Stone implores the American people to imagine a world beyond that of global domination and American supremacy. He comments that foreign policy has remained largely unchanged ever since the creation of the Truman Doctrine. The economic boom created by the war economy of World War II has led America to consistently find itself in theaters of conflict since 1945, with superfluous wars in Vietnam, Latin America, Iraq and Afghanistan helping the wealthy line their pockets, whilst the American tax-payer fronts the bill. It’s a powerful statement from Oliver Stone, but not one without merit, as he proves in this thought-provoking, intelligent and smart documentary challenging every misconception you’ve ever had about modern America.