Taking the coincidence of his birth and the beginning of the nuclear age as his starting point, Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone has created a ten-hour epic history of the USA for television, examining the long shadow of The Bomb.
For Oliver Stone to call something his “life’s work”, it must be pretty special. Buy his latest project is quite an extraordinary feat, having taken five years of his energy and commitment to complete. Stone, 66, a triple Oscar-winning director and screenwriter is shining a light on the lesser-known aspects of American history in an epic ten-hour TV series, The Untold History Of The United States.
It’s a collaboration with professor of history Peter Kuznick, who has known the director for a decade and has co-authored the accompanying book. Spanning Stone’s lifetime, starting with the Second World War and first testing of the atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert in 1945, the series explores how events from the past have shaped the present, and how they still resonate today.
“This gave me a chance to get deeper into history and understand my own origins, because I come out of the Second World War,” says Stone, easily switching into storytelling mode, with a gentle voice that makes him the perfect narrator for the series. “My father was a soldier, my mother was French, he picked her up in Paris on the street and brought her back to New York, I was born in the dawn of the atomic age. The meaning of the bomb eluded me for fortysomething years, until I met Peter and he explained his view. It changes American history because it becomes a founding myth of our global security state and it starts when I was born.”
He and Kuznick decided on the project in 2008, “when Bush was in office, after eight years of nightmare,” Stone says. “One thing became another and it became this megalithic ten-hour series, which I’m glad we made because it’s a culmination of all my work efforts.”
Stone modelled the series on 1970s British documentary series The World At War, produced by Jeremy Isaacs and narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier. “I said, ‘Why can’t we do something like that? Epic!’ And for the record, we didn’t get the support Jeremy Isaacs did, we had a small staff and took five years, but we did it guerrilla-style. Because of new media and the way things have different generations of life, we really believe that it will be like a Howard Zinn book [Zinn wrote the bestselling A People’s History of the United States] that will keep growing around the world. Millions of people will have seen this within three years and over five, ten years, hopefully it will catch on and be in high schools.”
His passion for the project is clear – and he’s determined to set the record straight for future generations.
“It’s crucially important because unless we know our past, the future is uncertain. The education level of the American teenager is crucial now. If he doesn’t start to find out a little bit about how we’ve come to this place of being a paranoid global security state that sees enemies everywhere, he’s going to believe it and he’s going to go to war and that’s a big issue of our time, war and ecological damage.
“A new generation will not see a difference. In fact, they will have believed things like the mentality of George Bush, who after 9/11 said, ‘They hate us because we’re free.’ He made up these excuses of American exceptionalism, like ‘the Muslims attacked us because we’re American’, as opposed to ‘they attacked us because of blowback, because they were upset that we had done certain things in their country’. Americans don’t bother to understand what we did that was aggressive in the first place, whether it’s Iran in 1953 or Iraq in 2003.”
Stone’s especially concerned about a recent poll that apparently showed 51 per cent of the younger generation of Americans think the Vietnam war was a good thing rather than a terrible mistake. “High-school students know that six million Jews died, everyone can tell you that. What they don’t know is that almost four million Vietnamese died. I think there’s an outrageous disproportion.”
He fought in Vietnam himself, as a soldier in the United States Army, and has since made three films – Platoon, Born On The Fourth Of July and Heaven & Earth – about the war, which helped him process his feelings. “In 1968, when I returned, I was numbed out, alienated, I can’t say that I had a clear position. It took me years to absorb.
“I felt bad about it, I thought that we’d done many disgraceful things, but I couldn’t comment on the overall picture. I knew something was phoney, my dad used to call it a police action. Through the 1970s I evolved my views through Watergate, the Church Committee hearings about the CIA, black ops all over the world and by 1984, when I was almost 38, I went to Central America to do Salvador with [photojournalist] Richard Boyle.
“I saw Vietnam redux: in four countries, the US was all over the place. At this point, my conscience cried ‘enough’. I consider myself a slow learner, but I evolved and quickly moved towards the other side of the spectrum.”
With reports that North Korea is stepping up its nuclear weapons programme, it’s hard to ignore how that test back in 1945 has led to very real danger today, but Stone is characteristically forthright: “I’m more scared of the United States frankly than I am of North Korea or Syria or Iran. If they have a slingshot, it’s us, we have to watch ourselves, we’re the ones who are running nuclear exercises over North Korea.
“This is an old story. We’re the ones who started cyberwarfare against Iran [the Stuxnet worm designed to break its nuclear centrifuges], when you start to militarise these situations that are potentially resolvable … that’s our diplomacy now. I think we’ve given up on diplomacy and we go right to the, ‘Well, you want to see our might? You want to see what we got?’ That sets off this chain of events that detonate back in your face. We urge Americans to think about blowback and temper their behaviour in the world.”
Britain and Churchill don’t come out entirely unscathed either in Stone’s estimation. “The narrative can be shifted depending who’s telling it. British history is fascinating to me. I read Churchill’s version of it when I was young and I was a big empire believer. But when you read our book and watch the series, boy, the British empire is re-examined and it’s quite a Wizard of Oz game, that a small island is able to control so much wealth and perception.
“Churchill always spoke about the English-speaking union of the Anglo-Saxon race. And Henry Wallace, our anti-Churchill, as well as Roosevelt and Stalin, took him to task for saying he believed that only English-speaking people run the world. It doesn’t work that way, as we’re finding out now.”
However it’s received, he hopes the series will be a legacy for his grandchildren. “It’s really the climax of my dramatic life, to dramatise history well, it gives me great pleasure. I could go to my deathbed … I’d love to see my grandkids, if I ever get ’em, watching the television series and saying, ‘Grandpa did that.’ It’s corny, but I’m proud of it.”