Brow Beat

Oliver Stone’s Untold History Is Neither Good History Nor Quite Untold

Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone in 2012.

Photo by TIZIANA FABI/AFP/GettyImages

Would we even recognize an Oliver Stone production if it didn’t kick up the usual fuss? He has a TV series now, so we could expect the usual recipe in response: one part excessive praise, one part eye-rolling, one part outrage. In New York, Matt Zoller Seitz proclaimed Stone’s new Untold History of the United States “remarkable, if dense and often difficult” just a few paragraphs before calling it “fresh, even cheeky.” The Daily Beast, meanwhile, sent Michael Moynihan into the breach and—surprise! In the book that accompanies the show, there are factual errors. Is this unexpected? We are a talking about a man who has for so long played fast and loose with the facts that it has become an intrinsic element of his brand. It’s a symptom of the megalomania that is the real downfall of his work. “Quit complaining,” he remarkably told Slate critic June Thomas when she interviewed him last week and dared to ask about his pacing.

Since JFK (1991), Stone has occupied the crooked intersection of “public intellectual” and “conspiracy-minded hack.” (Note that these two roles are not mutually exclusive.) His suggestion in that film that Lyndon Johnson might have had something to do with the Kennedy assassination was so completely contrary to fact—not just in its ideas about Johnson, but in its presumption that Kennedy would never have taken the country deeper into Vietnam—that even his admirers had to pause for a bit. His career has never entirely recovered. In a piece about the Hollywood marketing machine that took the PR effort for Stone’s W. (2008) as its fulcrum, Tad Friend quoted an executive who cut to the chase: “Who wants to see an evenhanded editorial think piece from Oliver Stone?”

But Stone has had powerful defenders even during his greatest overreaches. No less than Nora Ephron and Norman Mailer appeared to defend him at New York City’s Town Hall in 1992. Mailer’s justification was typical: Stone, he said, had the “the integrity of a brute.” Ephron, nursing an old wound over the reception of her based-on-a-true-story movie Silkwood, gave voice to the now common idea that in order to “impose a narrative,” certain real-life facts must be altered.  Most academic historians accept that historians’ own circumstances demand that they tell the story in a particular way, of course. While people wring their hands about “revisionist” historians, on some level the correction and amplification of various parts of the past is not “revisionism” as it is simply the process of any historical writing.

If Stone himself showed any awareness of this, his series might be better than it is. But he’s never been a very deep thinker. In the sternly voiced yet hilarious opening to his documentary, Stone bravely sets his sights on the history curricula of public schools. (Spoiler alert: They’re overly simplistic.) “We live much of our lives in a fog, all of us,” he intones, before droning wearily about “the tyranny of now.” But he doesn’t mean the same thing a historiographer might—he isn’t concerned in the least that his view of history might be limited by his own circumstances. He’s referring to the “media” noise machine—a pretty rich claim for a big-studio, picture-a-year director to make. Pauline Kael once called Stone a “pounder,” for his heavy-handedness, and damned if he hasn’t spent his entire career proving her right. He might want to turn his own bass line down a touch before he gets on about noise.

Untold History claims to debunk some other story of history, but it never tells us beyond generalities what that supposedly official story might be. Stone refers vaguely to uncritical beliefs that America was “great,” and generously assumes that it all ends there for everyone. He is, once again, underestimating his audience’s intelligence.

Indeed, Stone’s “new” telling of American history is far more familiar than he thinks. The first two episodes go through oft-trod ground on the geopolitics of World War II and post-war anti-Soviet policy. Stone thinks Truman was too hard on the Soviets. So firm is he in this conviction that he whips out—no kidding—a dictionary definition of empathy, suggesting that Truman lacked it. And then he quotes a Kennedy speech from 1963 which sympathizes with Soviet sacrifices, leaving the viewer bewildered. Is it told or untold, Stone? Pick a side.

Stone’s lionizing of Kennedy points to another problem: The cast of The Untold History is made up of the usual suspects, powerful and established politicians all. His idea of an unsung hero is Henry Wallace, a man who got to be Vice President; the greatest injustice of post-war America in Stone’s eyes seems to be the replacement of Wallace in that office by Harry S. Truman. Stone is imagined as some radical leftist, but every hero in his work turns out to be a white man, usually a quite successful one of good education and breeding. Which is what makes all the comparisons between this show and the People’s History of the United States so misplaced. While the author of that book, Howard Zinn, said nice things about Stone, he himself was less interested in the machinations of elite men than he was in giving voice to the disaffected. Stone’s approach is nothing like this.

When Truman defeats Henry Wallace, the tragedy is dramatized by a long clip from another fantasia of righteous white guys in Congress, Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Which just proves that Ronald Steel had Stone’s number years ago, in The New Republic, when he wrote of JFK:

There is something touchingly simpleminded in this approach to politics, which shrinks historical forces into conspiratorial plots by greedy men to do in virtuous ones. If Stone were a Marxist, instead of a Hollywood liberal, he might have seen the Vietnam War not as a conspiracy, but as the natural expression of American state capitalism in its self-destructive imperialist mode… But he is, at bottom, a sentimentalist, who has reduced the complexities of war, power, and ambition to the machinations of a few bad guys.

Stone, in other words, doesn’t belong in the company of the Old American Left so much as in the pages of the cheaper men’s magazines and old Boys’ Own serials. Just days after an election that suggested the Age of the Angry White Man might be fading, if not over, he’s the guy on the airwaves unapologetically explaining why this or that other Great White Man could have made it all turn out differently. And for some reason, some of us are still listening.