Sunday, October 7, 2012

Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States (2012) Parts 1-3 New York Film Festival 2012

Long in the works and two years past deadline the Showtime series by Oliver Stone The Untold History of United States will finally air in November. Those of us who jumped when tickets went on sale before they sold out got to see the first three episodes with Stone in attendance when they were screened as part of The New York Film Festival yesterday.

Some of you may remember that this event was supposed to happen at last years event but the show wasn't finished (and it still isn't done, Stone said he was still finishing episodes 9 and 10).

The series begins with the run up to World War Two.  Episode 1 is titled World War 2 and it begins with the Japanese expansion in Asia in the early 1930's and it follows the course of events up to 1943. The film Concentrates on how the story that the US was primarily responsible for the Allied victory isn't wholly true. The part also deals with the selection of  Henry Wallace as FDR's running mate in 1940. Wallace is a key figure in Stone's view of history.

Part 2 is called FDR, Truman and Wallace and it focuses on the course of the war and how Truman replaced Wallace as Vice President due to trickery and backroom deals. It also deals with how Truman was told early on about how the commies were coming and how this shaped what happened next.

Part 3 is The Bomb and it dealt with the hows and whys of Japan's surrender and the use of the bomb. It also makes clear that the bomb played less of a factor in the surrender of Japan than we think. The episode also paints a less than sparkling clean portrait of President Truman.

At the end of the third part it says that Part4 is The Cold War.

This is a heady mix of history that is almost too much to take in in such a concentrated form. The parts, each running an hour, were screened with ten minute breaks in between. There is a ton of material here and while little of it was anything new, the presentation in it's arrangement and  in such a high volume was over whelming. Both my friend Lou and myself wanted to take longer than the 10 minutes they gave us.

I have to applaud Stone for being willing to throw so much at his audience. There is a great deal to mull over and connections are made that I had never seen before. The trouble is that such a concentrated screening gave us very little time to process what we were seeing. It was a few minutes to catch our breath before boom on to the next thing.

On  the other hand I know that seeing the films in a slightly less concentrated manner, but more concentrated than as a weekly series they will play much better since we can both have time to reflect on what we are seeing as well as maintain the connections of who some of the people are.

The history, as far as I can tell is all dead on. This really is what happened and to some degree why. To be certain Stone is shading things to bring out certain facts, but there really isn't anything he's saying that isn't true.  His problem, if there is a real problem, is that he doesn't fully explain everything. Some events are simply too big (Poland) to explain simply. Other things are not fully relevant to a history of America. Stone said that this is American history and not so much world history
After the film Stone, his co writer Peter Kuznick,  historian Douglas Brinkley, Katrina vanden Heuvel the editor of The Nation and journalist Jonathan Schell went up on stage for a panel discussion.(It's projected half hour to forty five minute running time stretched to about seventy five)

After some reactions from Brinkley,  vanden Heuvel and Schell they got down to the nitty gritty. Much of the discussion focused on Henry Wallace, who is a hero of Stone's (though I still don't understand why- though in these episodes it seems more like he loves him for what he might have done). Wallace is portrayed as a the successor of FDR's plans for the world and his removal from the ticket in 1944 a source of great puzzlement. While  the series only deals with Wallace's ouster as Vice president as a great loss, the discussion went into more detail with speculation running from hatred of Wallace in many areas, to FDR figuring that he was going to live to the end of the war and thus making Truman a non-issue, to FDR simply being too tired to fight for Wallace who was also becoming a problem for FDR.
Stone and Kuznick talked of the making of the series (which they started to talk about in 1997). They said that the series was supposed to have been finished a couple of years ago but the complexity of it all slowed them down. They also said that there were two additional programs planned, one on World War 1 and another on the 1930' but because of budgetary reasons they couldn't include them in the series. They said that they hoped to include it in the eventual home video box set. (The material is included in the companion book which comes out October 30th.) They also hoped that the series might get people to start thinking Utopian again, and see that people can and do make differences, instead of being being cynical.

There was much discussion about how the less than positive viewing of Truman is going to shake up many people who hold him in high regard. Stone questions whether Truman should have been there since once elected no one seemed to inform him of any of what was going on until they had to after FDR died. Truman is viewed less of being his own man, rather as a man in the sway of others.

The Q&A with the audience was very brief since each question lead to much more discussion with the panel. The only thing that I think didn't refer back to one of the above subjects, was a question by a gentleman from I believe Pacifica Radio  who took Stone and Kuznick for task for not going into deeper discussion on Poland and for not going into greater discussions about some of the thoughts of the Japanese high command regarding the use of the atomic bomb. Stone took the comments in stride and pointed out that the series is both limited in scope by a set amount of time, and because some of the issues raised, such as the small military coup attempt by the Japanese near the end of the war, didn't affect the American story.

Both myself and my friend Lou had a blast. Based on what we've seen the series is going to do that which it intended to do, namely inform and to get a discussion going. The screening was one of the real treats of the Festival this year.

(And apologies to anyone looking for a deeper discussion of the series, but there were two obstacles, first there simply is too much to explain. And secondly, Stone has structured the series so each part builds on the last. Everything ties into everything else. How I reacted to part one changed with revelations in part 2 and 3 and so on. Based on comments made during the panel discussion further revelations are coming in the remaining 7 parts. I can't discuss the whole web of the series since I only saw part of it.)
(All photos via the courtesy of Lou Macaluso)

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