Oliver Stone Thinks Big With 'Untold History'
"Come on, that's such a canard, you know that," Oliver Stone said. "'The Greatest Generation?' That was the biggest publishing hoax of all. It's to sell books."
This seemingly sacrosanct term was coined by Tom Brokaw for his 1998 book of the same title, in which he recounted the lives of ordinary, World War II-era Americans.
"I was in Vietnam with the Greatest Generation," Mr. Stone said. "They were master sergeants, generals, colonels. They had arrogance beyond belief. The hubris that allowed Henry Kissinger to say North Vietnam is a fourth-rate power we will break. The hubris of that!"
We were discussing Mr. Stone's latest project, a 10-part Showtime series and a 750-page companion volume called "The Untold History of the United States," which begins with World War I and ends with the first Obama administration. It's an Oliver Stone version of a History Channel documentary, one guaranteed to raise ire on both left and right. From where Mr. Stone sits, World War II begot the Cold War, which landed us in Vietnam, a manifestation of American imperialism, which led inexorably to our current battle in Afghanistan. We have, Mr. Stone says, been sold a fairy tale masquerading as history, and it is so blinding it may ultimately undo us.
"You have to understand what it was like to be a Roman empire and to find some barbarian tribe riding into Rome in 476 A.D.," he said. "It's quite a shock. And that's what will happen to us unless we change our attitude about what our role in the world is."
It was a late September morning, and Mr. Stone was sitting on the terrace of his hotel suite in San Sebastian, Spain, where his latest film, "Savages," was being screened as part of the city's 60-year- old film festival.
At a news conference he gave the day before, he suggested that the former Spanish president, Jose Maria Aznar, should be tried at The Hague on war-crimes charges for his participation in Bush's Coalition of the Willing during the Iraq War. The remark presumably only enhanced his status in San Sebastian, where he was presented with the Donostia, the festival's lifetime achievement award.
It has been more than 25 years since Mr. Stone's greatest critical and commercial success, "Platoon," an autobiographical retelling of his Vietnam experience, which won Oscars for best director and best picture. And now he's at the age where he's considering his legacy. "A lot of people when they get older they write autobiographies or memoirs," said Mr. Stone, who is 66. "But my priority would be to ask, What did the times I lived through mean? And did I understand them?"
Mr. Stone modeled his new series on the landmark 1973-74 BBC series "The World at War," which, at 26 episodes, is considered as exhaustive and authoritative a study of World War II as could be offered on television. Mr. Stone's "Untold History" jams almost 75 years of American history into just 10 hours, so that may kill the exhaustive angle, but he is certainly hoping for the authoritative bit. "This," he pronounced, "is truly the meaning of these events."
Last month, on the afternoon before the premiere of three episodes of "Untold History" at the New York Film Festival, Mr. Stone and Peter Kuznick were bickering in a conference room at Mr. Stone's publicity firm. Mr. Kuznick is the history professor at the American University in Washington who helped write the Showtime series and, even Mr. Stone admits, most of the book.
At 64, Mr. Kuznick is Mr. Stone's contemporary, and the two men in their identical outfits of black jackets and blue oxford shirts might suggest some sort of cosmic parity if their personal backgrounds weren't so dissimilar. Whereas Mr. Kuznick was raised by left-leaning, politically active Jews and joined the N.A.A.C.P. at age 12, Mr. Stone's political evolution has been a gradual but radical departure from his upbringing in the Upper East Side household of Louis Stone, a stockbroker and Eisenhower Republican, who instilled in his son an almost paralyzing fear of Russia's global military and economic ascendancy.
"I remember crying, practically, and saying why aren't we doing anything?" Mr. Stone said. He infuriated his father by dropping out of Yale after his first year, and later joined the Army and served in the infantry in Vietnam.
In a very small way, the challenges of objectively documenting history are made manifest when you ask Mr. Stone and Mr. Kuznick how they came to work together on "Untold History." Mr. Kuznick was a huge fan of Mr. Stone, so much so that in 1996, he started teaching a course called Oliver Stone's America, which attracted, in its first year, a visit from the only guy he considered an indispensable guest lecturer.
Over dinner that evening, Mr. Kuznick regaled him with his take on Henry Wallace, vice president during F.D.R.'s third term, whom Mr. Kuznick considers a brilliant progressive and an unsung hero. During the 1944 Democratic convention, Wallace, instead of being renominated for vice president, was at the last moment tossed aside for Harry Truman, a senator of limited experience who was only briefed that the United States was building the atomic bomb after Roosevelt died. If Wallace rather than Truman had become president, Mr. Kuznick told Mr. Stone, the United States might not have dropped atomic bombs on Japan, and the Cold War might never have started.
Mr. Stone commissioned Mr. Kuznick to write a treatment. Mr. Kuznick, convinced that he'd been ushered into the movie business, got himself an agent, who lobbied for Mr. Kuznick to write the script. But the screenplay suffered the same fate as several of Mr. Stone's pet projects -- the C.I.A.-hunting-Bin-Laden project, the Manuel Noriega project, the My Lai project. That is, it died. And this is where Mr. Kuznick and Mr. Stone's versions of history diverge.
Mr. Stone: "It was a great idea. I'd never heard the story, and I wanted to do a '40s kind of movie. It was perfect. And he (expletive) up the screenplay."
Mr. Kuznick: "Don't believe that, because Oliver told a mutual friend of ours who told me, 'Oliver said it's a work of genius, I'm dying to make it."'
Mr. Stone: "Nooo!"
Mr. Kuznick: "Well, you did. You forgot."
A decade later, Mr. Stone told Mr. Kuznick he wanted his help on a 90-minute documentary about Wallace, Truman and the birth of the atomic bomb. Soon after, the 90-minute documentary morphed into a 10- hour Showtime series that Mr. Kuznick was on the hook to write and research. Both men make the four years it took to put together the series sound about as much fun as the siege of Leningrad. Mr. Stone missed his deadline by two full years, and his foreign distributor almost ditched the project. It was one of the many bumps that didn't go unfelt by Mr. Kuznick.
"Oliver is always good about sharing the pressure," Mr. Kuznick told me. "Whatever pressure Oliver is feeling, I would get a double dose of."
The screening of "Untold History" during the New York Film Festival suggested that Mr. Stone might have a hit. At the end of the third hour, the crowd roared its approval. The cheers got only louder when Mr. Stone sauntered onstage for a post-screening panel discussion. "So much of what I saw today is what we try to do at The Nation," said Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher and editor of the left's beloved 147-year-old weekly.
Mr. Stone didn't seem particularly riveted by the conversation at first, but the historian Douglas Brinkley stirred things up. Even though Mr. Brinkley provided the authors a nice blurb, calling the book "a brave revisionist study which shatters many foreign policy myths," he had a few bones to pick with the project.
Mr. Brinkley said he thought the series had gone too far in demonizing Truman. Mr. Brinkley mentioned how Truman presided over the end of World War II, racially integrated American troops and helped create the state of Israel. "The only opening you're giving him is that he was a naif," Mr. Brinkley said. This perked Mr. Stone right up. He shook his head. "If he'd done something noble, believe me, we're not looking to cut it out," Mr. Stone said, earning him a round of applause. "I just don't see any nobleness."
But Mr. Brinkley has a point. If the only thing you ever learned about Truman was from "Untold History," you might conclude he was a virulent racist, mentally unfit for office and suffering from a gender confusion that led to mass murder. While Mr. Stone glancingly acknowledges Stalin's mass murder of his own people, Stalin, compared with Truman, still comes off as heroic, as an honest negotiator who, following F.D.R.'s death, was faced at every turn with Truman's diplomatic perfidy.
If Truman represents the black hat of "The Untold History," the white hats belong to those whose promise was unfulfilled -- F.D.R., who died before he could make peace in Europe and Asia humanely, and Kennedy, cut down before he could stem aggression toward communist elements in Southeast Asia. The biggest hero of all, though, is the man who inspired the whole project: Wallace. In the series, he is treated to reverent orchestral music when his face appears on screen.
Onstage, Mr. Kuznick said that he and Mr. Stone wanted to highlight pivotal moments in history when better decisions could have been made. "We actually came very close to having a very different kind of history," he said. "We want to give people the ability to think in a utopian fashion again."
I asked Mr. Stone what would have happened had Wallace, not Truman, become president. "There would not have been this Cold War," he said. "There would have been the continuation of the Roosevelt- Stalin working out of things. Vietnam wouldn't have happened."
While to his fans Mr. Stone's alternate histories are provocative, his detractors see them as grossly irresponsible cherry- picking. The conservative historian Ronald Radosh, professor emeritus at The City University of New York, said he found himself wanting to do harm to his television while watching the first four episodes, which he reviewed for the right-wing Weekly Standard. Mr. Radosh had been blogging skeptically about the Stone project since its announcement in 2010, but now that he'd actually seen it, he said, it was the historian rather than the conservative in him who was most offended.
According to Mr. Radosh, Mr. Stone and Mr. Kuznick's take on the U.S. role in the Cold War mirrors the argument in "We Can Be Friends," a book published in 1952 by Carl Marzani, who was convicted of concealing his affiliation to the Communist Party when he joined the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the C.I.A. "This Stone-Kuznick film could have been put out in 1955 as Soviet propaganda," Mr. Radosh said. "They use all the old stuff."
Mr. Radosh, who grew up as a Red Diaper baby in New York and only later turned to the right, thinks of himself as intimately familiar with the "old stuff." But fearing he might be dismissed as partisan, he insisted I reach out to Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian who is regarded as decidedly left-leaning. When I spoke to him, Mr. Wilentz said: "You can't get two historians more unlike each other than me and Ronnie Radosh. But we can agree about this. It's ridiculous."
Mr. Wilentz was in the middle of writing a review of Mr. Stone's book. "Always beware of books that describe themselves as the untold history of anything, because it's usually been told before," he said. "It sets up this thing that there is some sort of mysterious force suppressing the true facts, right? Glenn Beck does this all the time. It's the same thing here, except this is basically a very standard left-wing, C.P., fellow traveler, Wallace-ite vision of what happened in 1945-46."
It's not, Mr. Wilentz continued, that the questions raised aren't worth raising. "Is there a legitimate argument to be made about the origins of our nuclear diplomacy or the decision to build the H- bomb?" he said. "Of course there is. But it's so overloaded with ideological distortion that this question doesn't get raised in an intelligent way."
"Untold History" wants to present itself as the whole truth and nothing but. Yet Mr. Stone has always fared best as a provocateur. "JFK" may not be particularly good history, but so many people believed his 1991 film to be a document of the actual conspiracy, and so many others dismissed it as hooey, that Congress passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act in 1992, which precipitated the release of millions of pages of documents.
We would never discover that former President Lyndon Johnson had a hand in the killing -- as the monologue in the movie by Donald Sutherland's Colonel X would have us believe -- but we did find out that he thought preposterous the Warren Commission's "magic bullet" explanation for how one bullet could have passed through the bodies of Kennedy and John Connally only to emerge pristine.
On Nov. 10, two days before the premiere of "Untold History" on Showtime, Mr. Kuznick was onstage at a local New York event, crowing a bit about the project's reception. (He hadn't yet heard the excoriating opinions of Mr. Wilentz and others.) "It's interesting to see the early reviews," Mr. Kuznick said. "They're all glowing, really. I mean, nobody's challenging anything we're saying, either our facts or our interpretations." Mr. Stone, sitting next to him, gestured with his hands, as if to calm him down. "Well, it's early," he said.