Review by Mountain Monkey
SCUM Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
While we at SCUM often plumb the cinematic depths to bring you reviews in B-grade schlock, we’re not immune to enjoying more serious movies, and in this case, documentaries.
Oliver Stone is a SCUM favorite, particularly for his hallucinogenic head-trip, Natural Born Killers (1994). More recently, he’s dealt with other aspects of dark Americana in features such as World Trade Center (2006) and W. (2008). His latest epic though, The Untold History of the United States (2012), ups the ante considerably, delivering a 10 hour meditation on America’s bellicose role in the world since World War II.
The 10 part TV series, broadcast on the CBS-owned network Showtime in 2012, dives deep into the ‘bizarre and weird’, but this time in real, historical life. It essentially addresses George W. Bush’s infamous 9-11 question, ‘Why do they hate us?’ — and Stone’s answer is dark, disturbing and nowhere near as simplified and sanitized as Bush’s rhetoric.
Scripted by Stone, historian Peter J. Kuznick and script writer Matt Graham, the series presents arguments that won’t be entirely unfamiliar to readers of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn or Chalmers Johnson.
What the series adds of course is a visceral, highly-visual element. Over the span of 10 hours, we’re exposed to thousands of snippets from rare archival stock footage. Combined with Stone’s stoic narration and poignant music from Craig Armstrong, and the effect is completely mesmerizing.
Starting with America’s initial reluctance to be drawn into World War II, the series re-examines controversial events through lenses that are decidedly non-mainstream but nonetheless based on historical fact — this includes the atomic bombing of Japan despite the fact that it’s army was on the verge of defeat, Roosevelt’s dropping of progressive Henry Wallace as his vice-presidential running mate in 1944 and Truman’s subsequent escalation of tensions with the Soviet Union. Later episodes deal with the Cold War and America’s debacle in Vietnam, and how these ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ wars could have ended much earlier, with significantly less bloodshed if there was the political will in Washington.
The final two episodes conclude with the presidencies of Clinton, Bush and Obama, and argue that despite Vietnam and collapse of the Soviet Union, the American administration remains bent on maintaining its role as the world’s sole superpower, more recently through escalating drone attacks and the geostrategic encircling of China.
Stone’s concluding remarks in the final episode ties together the overarching theme of the series — that America is not ‘exceptional’ and God’s ‘chosen’ nation and that it instead deals in real politick, where ‘might is right’ and compassion, understanding and compromise is seen as weakness.
The series does let hope shine through though, illustrating that there are moments in time where America, and indeed any great power, has the opportunity to take the better path that benefits the majority rather than a slim elite — from popular support for Henry Wallace in 1944, to JFK’s later desire to end the Vietnam War, and even people movements such as the civil rights movement, opposition to the war in Iraq and the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Is this 10 hour history lesson from Oliver Stone worth your time? Yes, completely and absolutely. I also have no doubt that this series will be Stone’s lasting legacy and indeed his great contribution to the world’s collective conscience. Highly recommended.
A companion book to the TV series (The Untold History of the United States) is published by Simon & Schuster.