President Obama gave a few speeches acknowledging the U.S. hasn’t always been above reproach in international affairs and has forever since been accused of conducting an “apology tour.” One can scarcely imagine what those same critics will say about “Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States,” a 10-part Showtime documentary series accompanied by a book Stone wrote with historian Peter Kuznick. Like Stone’s historical movies, “Untold History” can be irritating — thought-provoking, yes, but alternately stuffy and shrill. But it’s a legitimate rejoinder to the “My country right or wrong” crowd, perhaps uniquely suited to pay cable’s ad-free confines.
In the premiere, Stone speaks of “a forgotten set of heroes … who have been lost to history because they did not conform,” as well as the “profound mistakes” the U.S. has made. That gives way to a fairly wonky retelling of WWII, with an emphasis on the enormous toll the conflict inflicted on the Soviet Union, whose role in defeating the Nazis, Stone suggests, has been downplayed in U.S. history.
The project really begins to gain focus, though, in the second, third and fourth installments, which center on a very clear hero and villain: Henry Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president in 1940, is the former — a peace-loving champion of the common man who was replaced on the ticket in the next election by Harry Truman, who thus became president after FDR’s death in 1945.
Truman’s sins, detailed here at some length, include using the atomic bomb on Japan, ushering in the Cold War and giving birth to the CIA, with Stone noting its nickname as “Capitalism’s Invisible Army.”
These themes will be familiar to anyone who has seen some of Stone’s earlier films, especially “JFK” — namely, that military and industrial interests built up the communist bogeyman, escalated conflict with the Soviet Union and propped up dictatorships around the world. In that regard, Stone also singles out Winston Churchill as a major culprit for his “Iron Curtain” speech, which gave a catchy name to the communist threat.
In addition to directing and co-writing the piece, Stone also narrates, a decision that does the documentary no favors, strictly from a viewing standpoint. He also incorporates a bombastic element throughout: in addition to the dramatic music, he augments the visuals with tidbits like scenes from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
Stone and Kuznick hammer away at several uncomfortable truths, like the role racism played in the willingness to target Japanese civilians for wholesale slaughter. Yet as a whole, the project cries out for the voices of third-party historians — or at least some voice, beyond the grainy newsreel footage and dramatic readings by actors, other than Stone’s.
Stone also overreaches, in tone if nothing else, by going beyond simply blaming Truman for the onset of the Cold War to attempting to psychoanalyze him, characterizing the president as a wimp during his youth who chose to stare down the Soviets motivated in part by a bruised psyche desperate for his late father’s approval.
At its core, “Untold History” represents a full-throated response to the question of American exceptionalism and the way the right has cornered the left on matters of patriotism — making any second-guessing of U.S. behavior, past or present, politically dangerous. In that respect, Stone will likely find many receptive ears in the form of progressives tired of being bullied on the topic.
Still, as a filmmaker, there’s a part of Stone that appears to believe anything worth doing is worth overdoing. And like the U.S. during the period he chronicles, the director sometimes feels like his own most formidable enemy.