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Oliver Stone teaches American history

The director heads to television with a 10-part series told from an unusual perspective. Bone up on Henry Wallace and the atomic bomb.

November 11, 2012|By Scott Timberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • OLIVER STONE calls his "Untold History of the United States" "the most significant thing I've achieved" and is proud that American television has taken it on.
OLIVER STONE calls his "Untold History of the United States"… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Artists and writers have been weighing in on political matters for a long time now. But when a filmmaker as controversial as Oliver Stone announces a 10-part television series about American history, it makes you wonder: Do we really want a history lesson from a guy who thinks LBJ had a hand in killing Kennedy?

Stone laughs a little when asked how his new "The Untold History of the United States" fits into a feature film career that includes projects like "JFK," which suggested that the Mafia, the CIA and Lyndon Johnson had roles in assassinating the president. "That's not fair," Stone says, "because nowhere in the film does it say that; it doesn't actually indicate who … ." He trails off a bit but comes back saying that Johnson clearly "knew something" and participated in the official cover-up of the Warren Commission.

A conversation with Oliver Stone, 66, is a bit like the editing on his early films: a mix of choppy, passionate, intelligent and indecipherable.

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So it's striking that "Untold History," which begins a 10-week run on a revitalized Showtime on Monday, is reasonably mainstream and persuasive. Stone emphasizes how it's not the same kind of animal as "JFK," "Nixon" or "W." — films that aimed to present counter-myths or to get into the heads of their protagonists. These films, along with "Born on the 4th of July," about a Vietnam veteran turned antiwar protester, have had their details or points of view challenged over the years.

But "Untold History," which focuses primarily on post-World War II events, has not only been repeatedly fact-checked — including a layer of confirmation by Showtime — it's co-written with an American University historian.

And although much of the film's material may be familiar, the way Stone and company present the context — the emphasis on Britain's struggle to sustain its empire during World War II, for instance — feels unorthodox. In his own education at good private schools and as an on-again, off-again Yale student, Stone says, he got little sense of the big picture.

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"They never mentioned World War II in the same context as British [imperialism]," says the director, whose voice-over narration often accompanies old footage. "They didn't say it was a three-empire monte game, with Britain, Russia and the U.S. ... So this is the beginning of a huge mushroom here. Once you get into that mushroom, it's huge."

The first spores of the mushroom were planted in 1996, when Peter Kuznick, whose work concentrates on the Cold War and nuclear weaponry, began teaching an American University course called "Oliver Stone's America." Stone came in to speak to the class, and at a dinner afterward, the historian told the director about his idea for a film, looking at Franklin Delano Roosevelt's wartime vice president, Henry Wallace, and how the road to Hiroshima might have been different if he'd succeeded FDR instead of Harry S. Truman.

The two became friends, and Kuznick sent Stone a screenplay. (The director now pronounces it "a 200-page turkey.") But years later, Stone came up with the idea to develop the idea into a one-hour documentary. The atomic bomb, the filmmaker says, was "the beginning of the origin myth of my time — I was born in 1946."

Stone — who begins the documentary discussing how his travels, including his service as an infantryman in Vietnam, showed him how shallow his early education had been — was fascinated by the history he dug into, and the project expanded. "This thing grew," says Stone at the Showtime offices in Westwood, "into the monster you see before you."

It grew, in fact, so large that Stone and Kuznick had to jettison two almost-finished sections on World War I and the Great Depression to keep the film even vaguely within budget. As it is, Stone calls his work on the project consuming — "for over 41/2 years, every chance I had, I would be in that editing room" — as well as "pro bono."

Even with the project retooled, Wallace — an eccentric Iowan, enormously popular in the '30s, later forced off the 1944 Democratic ticket by the party's establishment and often accused of being too friendly with the Soviets — has an outsized place in the first three episodes of "Untold History."

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Says Kuznick, 64, whose nasal delivery contrasts with Stone's prep-school baritone: "We're arguing, basically, that had Henry Wallace become president, it might have been possible to avoid not only the atomic bombing and the nuclear arms race but also the Cold War. And the world might have been — you don't know how it would have turned out — an entirely different place. We spend so much of our global wealth on killing each other, and trying to think of better ways to kill each other."

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