One of my favorite movies ever made is JFK, Oliver Stone’s magnum opus of conspiracy theorizing about the John F. Kennedy assassination. I find the whole enterprise largely preposterous, but it’s presented in an incredibly mesmerizing way. The sequence at the end, in which Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison lays out exactly how he believes the assassination to have taken place, is a masterful example of using film craft to manipulate an audience to a particular end, and I fall for it every time. I understand on an intellectual level that the film has massive problems—its overreliance on horrifying stereotypes, for one—but its attempt to uncover a secret history speaks directly to me in a really appealing way. I’ve always loved the idea that there’s something unspoken and subterranean buried beneath the official story, and even if it’s an insane conspiracy theory, I enjoy watching someone try to peel back the top layers and expose the grubs squirming underneath.
Oliver Stone’s Untold History Of The United States isn’t quite that. For the most part—at least in the first episode, which focuses on World War II—it’s just recounting stuff that history tomes that dig a little bit deeper than the official story would get into. Stone bases much of the first hour around the thought that the Nazis lost World War II not because of the American military launching an offensive in France, but because the Soviet army eventually exhausted and beat the German forces back. At that point, what the Americans and British pulled off at Normandy was important, but the course of the war was essentially set. The Germans had essentially defeated themselves, thanks to Hitler’s hubris and Stalin’s gutsy decision-making and, well, the Russian people’s willingness to sacrifice itself out of its sheer refusal to give an inch. In this episode, Stone, who narrates, constantly praises the battles on the Eastern Front as the greatest ever fought, and when he’s talking about them, it’s not hard to agree.
Untold History has been in the works for four years, and I find it amazing that Showtime gave Stone the money to make this miniseries. It’s 10 hours long (split into 10 episodes), and even in this episode—which isn’t all that revolutionary—it’s intent on undermining the usual narratives we’re told about history. The stories we’re told usually involve predictable cause-and-effect rationales, great men who take it upon themselves to change the arc of history and either succeed or fail at that task. The problem is that this is often too simplistic. Anything humans do is a complex undertaking, stretching back millennia in one way or another, and this is one of those things we’re unable to zoom out far enough to see. In the introduction to the series, Stone says that he’s going to pull back and show us the patterns we’ve been missing, the things we’ve never been taught. And while, again, this is an episode that doesn’t do very much in that regard when it comes to World War II, there are hints here and there that he’s going to do just that as we go along, including one point where he zooms all the way back to the Middle Ages to explain why the Germans were so angry at the Slavic peoples.
Visually speaking, Untold History is mostly unremarkable. There’s nothing here that wouldn’t look out of place in a standard-issue PBS or History Channel documentary about the era, and while Stone’s use of footage from films to illustrate some of his points can be clever—as when he dramatizes the underrepresented Spanish Civil War by presenting footage from a film of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls—he also does stuff like depict a wide-eyed young dreamer making his mark in Washington, D.C., by sticking in the usual footage from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. This is basically a film collage, assembling pieces together to build a broader point, and if anyone was expecting the weird grandeur of that sequence from JFK, it’s not really present here. Stone is a master of montage editing, but this all feels very familiar, very sedate.
It’s the content over the images that makes this an enjoyable watch. Stone is deeply engaged in everything he’s saying, and he really wants to bring to light a bunch of things he thinks you should know. In particular, he’s taken with Henry Wallace, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s former Secretary of Agriculture, who became his Vice President after Roosevelt won a third term in 1940. Wallace is presented as that genuine man, the Mr. Smith who went to Washington and wanted to do good, and even if Stone doesn’t really get into it in this episode, he’s already positioning Wallace for a big fall. (And, in fact, he’s already positioning Harry S. Truman, who would succeed Wallace, as one of his villains, complete with a bit quoting a speech Truman gave on the Senate floor to help the Germans when they were losing to the Soviets and the Soviets when they were losing to the Germans.) Stone doesn’t seem to trust much of anyone, but he’s got a big love for Wallace, with his lefty politics and his apparently enduring friendship with the great scientist George Washington Carver. Wallace is the man who’s too good to succeed, and you can all but feel the way he’ll be torn down in next week’s episode (helpfully entitled “Roosevelt, Wallace, And Truman”).
I’m not sure where Stone is going to go with this in the weeks to come. (Critics who’ve seen the whole series say that it’s going to run all the way through Obama’s first term.) It’s entirely possible that this will become gradually more and more unhinged, until we’re just hanging out in ol’ Uncle Oliver’s head and he’s telling us all of the crazy bullshit he’s been reading about in books he ordered from the classified ads in Soldier Of Fortune magazine. But in the first episode, at least, Untold History is a bracing and entertaining corrective to the usual “great man” theory of history, to the idea that the story we have is the only one that could have been and that all events are unique, instead of a part of an unending pattern that keeps repeating itself. Whether you like what Stone is selling you or think it’s utter bullshit, it’s definitely not the usual narrative, and watching him present his argument is a lot of fun. I’ll be sticking with this one for all 10 weeks, even if it ends up with Oliver Stone and me staring into a storm drain in his basement and talking about how chemtrails control my every thought.