From “Platoon” to “JFK” to “Nixon” and beyond, few filmmakers have done more to challenge the convenient bonafides of US history than Oliver Stone. Judging by the response to yesterday’s sneak peak at his upcoming Showtime series “The Untold History of the United States,” the director has lost none of his audacity in his transition to premium cable. (Video from press conference below.)
The entertaining first three episodes, narrated by Stone and compiled largely from archival footage, animated maps and film clips (among them “Twelve O’Clock High,” “Sands of Iwo Jima,” and of course, a whole lot of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), were followed by a civil but occasionally boisterous panel at the Walter Reade Theater. NYFF’s Richard Pena moderated the discussion between co-writers Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel and Jonathan Schell, and finally historian Douglas Brinkley, who called into question several aspects of the episodes’ negative portrayal of Harry Truman.
Condi Rice once named Truman her favorite president, echoing the commonly held notion that his decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an example of the “tough choices” great leaders need to make to save American lives. But the Harry Truman of these first chapters of “Untold History” emerges as something of a buffoon, a hopelessly unqualified candidate who owed his ascension purely to the political enemies of Roosevelt’s three-term Vice President Henry Wallace (a figure whom Stone and Kuznick seek to instate as an “unsung hero of the second world war”). They devote a good deal of attention to Wallace’s dramatic 1944 democratic sidelining, as well as the often ignored Soviet contribution to both the Allies’ victory over Hitler and the Japanese surrender following the Russian invasion of Manchuria. They also argue that if he had become the president, Wallace might have continued the spirit of relative goodwill and peacemaking between FDR and Stalin during the last years of the war, and perhaps even avoided both the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.
Now 66, Stone told the audience that he was largely motivated by seeing his 16-year-old daughter learn the same myths about American history that he himself was taught in high school.
Stone’s introductory remarks here and video from press conference below: