Oliver Stone‘s “Untold History of the United States,” premiering Monday, Nov. 12, on Showtime, is bound to antagonize and infuriate.
The exceptionally well-done 10-part documentary series is also bound to enlighten and engage.
Ultimately, the Academy Award-winning director wants it to spur people to think differently, to look at interpretations long taken for granted and consider if they are indeed facts. This tackles subjects we assume we know and looks at them from a completely different perspective, a perspective that is not all about flag waving and chanting “U-S-A.”
Before anyone challenges Stone’s patriotism, remember he is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who enlisted in the Army. He won Oscars for his searing movies about war.
His colleague in the documentary and book of the same title is Peter Kuznick, a professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University.
Both men meet with Zap2it in a midtown Manhattan office building conference room to discuss this work that took four years.
This is unlike other documentaries on TV, and if the natural comparison is to Ken Burns because he tends to make multi-part series on major historical topics, Stone sloughs that off.
“Not that I agree with American exceptionalism and pro-USA,” Stone says.
“He’s better at sports and jazz,” Kuznick says.
“And that best-generation hype,” Stone says.
“We know what the greatest generation did,” Kuznick adds. “We both felt that the U.S. had to fight that war.”
The series kicks off with “World War II.”
“When I was a young boy in New York City, I thought I received a good education,” Stone says, facing the camera in the opening. “I studied history extensively. It made sense. We were the center of the world; a manifest destiny, we were the good guys.”
Perturbed that his children were not receiving a fuller view of history, Stone continues that he wanted them to “know more than the tyranny of now.”
The films are remarkable in many ways. Stone uses his superior film-making talents to distill insanely complex topics and illustrates with fascinating visuals. Even those who watch a lot of history documentaries are bound to see footage that are new to them. Stone and what he calls his “guerrilla operation” foraged for historical clips around the world.
He reminds us that 60 to 65 million people died in World War II, the bloodiest war, and shows how it started slowly in 1931. He ably traces its beginnings and what was going on internationally, then shows how long it was until full American involvement.
The footage from the Soviet Union, of civilians working relentlessly to stave off invaders, is striking. And despite the decades since, it will be so new to so many.
“Though the myth lives on that the U.S. won World War II, serious historians agree that it was the Soviet Union and its entire society, including its brutal dictator, Joseph Stalin, who through sheer desperation and incredibly stoic heroism forged the great narrative of World War II — the defeat of the monster German war machine,” Stone, as narrator, says.
Kuznick wrote the script, and it is exceptionally good. It is also, as a perusal of the 750-page book reveals, professorial. But a very strong argument can be made that television would benefit immensely from having more thoughtful and thought-provoking professors and directors and less shrieking, fighting and shopping from ill-behaved boors aiming only for fame.
In “Roosevelt, Truman and Wallace,” there is a lot about Henry Wallace, the mostly forgotten agriculture secretary and vice president under Franklin Roosevelt, who once ran for president. Wallace was not like most in Washington, D.C.; pretty much the opposite of a slick politician. Wallace was a spiritual man who studied Navajo tribal religion, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. He did not drink or smoke.
Essentially, what Stone and Kuznick do is question what has been handed to all of us. They are not arguing for the sake of an exercise, but debunking what is long held as fact. If nothing else, it should make viewers question what they have long believed, a prospect that delights both men.
The result is a stunningly different take on history, one that will likely aggravate those certain that the United States was always the leader of the victors.
“We are still so dominant that we haven’t had to question our mythology the way other countries do,” Kuznick says.
“It will change the way we think,” Stone says, “to get outside the spin.”
“My daughter has a school textbook,” Stone says. “I looked up the Cold War. She was in 11th grade. I wanted to see what she was learning. It was all about the Soviet Union’s domination of Eastern Europe.”
Though he, of course, acknowledges the truth in that statement, Stone says, “it doesn’t do what Peter and my book and movie do — and give the global perspective.”