The Untold History Of The United States

director: Oliver Stone

450 minutes (E) 2012
widescreen ratio 16:9
Fremantle DVD Region 2

RATING: 9/10
review by Christopher Geary

The Untold History Of The United States

This documentary series of ten chapters on three discs is largely composed of skilfully edited archive material from newsreels, photos, TV interviews, and voice-overs of the official records and private writings of political leaders (and other prominent figures) of the 20th century, all cemented together with Stone’s narration. The overall effect is impressive and engrossing and frequently entertaining in its ambitious viewpoints on the neglected or forgotten stories of modern history, from the global horrors of WW2, and Vietnam, to Nixon’s comeback, and Obama’s defective presidency.

At the heart – if not the always the forefront – of this epic tragedy is the lingering fever of Cold War paranoia, and the vainglorious traditions of empire building, despite the repetitive official insistence that America’s primal concerns are democratic freedoms. While Stone and his co-writers are mindful of the sometimes fathomless ambiguity of international events spanning decades, this engagingly studious and forthright effort of enlightened clarifications reinterprets optimistic visions and the darker chapters of American geopolitical schemes with admirable transparency.

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This is not just a history of black and white struggles, or murky grey-area issues of conspiracy theories and the obsession with finding enemies where none obviously exist, there’s a rare consistency to Stone’s finely tempered spectrum of arguments that finds the fixed point notions of good and evil quite ridiculous, and champions reason and humanitarian causes above capitalism and nationalism, and much else besides. This delivers delicately balanced and nuanced views of clearly misjudged events.

“Terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology.”

Stone gets pitilessly tough on arrogant stupidity, but he’s even harder on the causes of what he calls ‘American exceptionalism’, with its god-fearing message of unwarranted blessings that can divide so many people across the world. Unlike academically styled documentaries, Stone and his collaborators are bold in their use of movie clips, which adds a flavoursome twist of cultural commentary to bulk/ batch compilations of b&w newsreel footage and videos that are often quite fuzzy in its picture quality. Also, this provides a welcome distraction from any bouts of weary sermonising that history can so easily be prone to. For many, Vietnam was Apocalypse Now, while in Afghanistan, Rambo sequelitis unintentionally dramatised the foolishness of Russian or American military intervention.

Breath-taking in its scope and extraordinary in its depth of understanding, this series is, nonetheless, a mightily concise info-dump of tremendous scale that soon develops into an intense viewing experience. It’s a mind-stretching exercise to keep up with the pace of its multi-media references and philosophical analysis, but Stone’s reach never exceeds his grasp here. These are hard lessons of revisionism, from a cool-headed but warm-hearted authority, teaching us (once again!) to question everything we heard in school. Like Manufacturing Consent, and The Corporation, this is necessary viewing for those keen on intelligent and thought-provoking alternatives to the mass media’s stranglehold controls of the past, today’s news, and lively political debate in general.