Oliver Stone Tears Apart Official US History

The remarkable “The Forging of a Rebel,”* directed by Mario Camus, was rescreened on Televisión Española’s Channel 2 (La 2), as if by stealth, in the middle of August. The series, filmed in 1989 under the PSOE,** was based on an autobiographical trilogy by Arturo Barea, which was banned from publication for the duration of Franco’s dictatorship. I devoted a column to it two years ago when the series was last broadcast, so it only remains to wonder at the decision to broadcast a series whose content runs so completely counter to the state-owned broadcaster’s current party line, at a time of year when Channel 2’s already meager ratings are at their lowest. Last Sunday’s episode dealt with the February 1936 election, preparations for the military coup, and the inevitable outbreak of the civil war.

The same progressive gremlin apparently infiltrating the program scheduling at La 2 seems to have taken advantage of the intense August heat to go one step further and sneak in a showing of the 10-hour documentary in which Oliver Stone takes apart his country’s official history, from World War II to the Obama administration. In “The Untold History of the United States,” the director of “Platoon,” “JFK,” “Nixon” and “Comandante” breaks away from the patriotism stifling American filmmaking to offer an alternative, transgressive vision, which has drawn ferocious attacks from the right-wing factions in control of the Republican party.

“Mindless regurgitation of Stalin’s propaganda” is not the worst criticism the filmmaker has received in response to a work whose ambitious goal is to dismantle the web of lies used to create the image of the United States in the eyes of a large part of the world, as well as those of the vast majority of Americans. That received image implies that America, as God’s chosen nation, has a manifest and inescapable destiny, a moral duty to spread democracy and provide soft power in the service of just causes, an unshakeable vocation for humanitarian intervention, and an army that guarantees world peace and stability. It further purports that, not only did America’s altruistic anti-communist crusade do away with the evil Soviet empire, but that the U.S. aspires, disinterestedly and with missionary fervor, to share part of its wealth with developing countries.

So great is the power of the propaganda apparatus of the great superpower that this irresistibly prevalent “official truth” — created by means of manipulation, money and even talent — almost always gets the better of that other truth, which, though it contradicts the official version, is almost always grounded in irrefutable fact. That other United States, much more accurately depicted, is the one that has waged unjust wars, propped up dictators, supported fascist military coups, made brutal decisions like the one to use the atomic bomb, contributed to the further impoverishment of the most disadvantaged and based its foreign policy on imperialist objectives which serve its own unilateral economic and ideological interests. In short, it is a power that has no qualms about acting as global policeman in its own self-interest.

“The Untold History of the United States,” with Stone as director, narrator and co-writer with Peter Kuznick, is a riveting documentary that exudes good filmmaking. With barely a talking head in sight, the film is a skillful montage of impactful archive footage and an appropriate selection of Hollywood movie clips. It is not a political tract, though it makes no effort to conceal the ideological payload that runs counter to the current climate in the United States. The most conservative factions have understandably been angered by Stone’s placing of the blame for the Cold War and the catastrophic arms race squarely on the shoulders of successive U.S. presidents who, determined to weaken the Soviet Union at any price, failed to take advantage of opportunities for peace and merely served the interests of the all-powerful military-industrial complex.

Stone is perhaps being ingenuous when he suggests that things might have been different if the left-wing ex-Vice President Henry Wallace, and not Harry Truman, had been the one to succeed to the presidency after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945. Wallace, who was accused of being a communist and a KGB agent for his recognition of the vital role played by the USSR in the defeat of Nazism, was a champion of the setting up of a public health care system. His radical opposition to racial segregation led him to refuse to speak at campaign rally venues where segregation was practiced. Three years after Roosevelt’s death, Wallace suffered a crushing defeat when he ran for president as the Progressive Party candidate. Maybe if he had won, muses Stone, the postwar period would have been different, with no nuclear arms race, no Cuban Missile Crisis, no Vietnam, Korea, Chile, Guatemala, Berlin Wall, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq …

Stone is no cynic. Rather, he is an idealist who dares to dream of utopias. And he does so using hard-to-refute facts to show how exploitation has left his country’s politicians, military and large industrial conglomerates with blood on their hands.

“The Untold History of the United States” is also a verification of failure. Image by image, word by word, the film documents the decisive role played by the United States in the tormented history of the planet since World War II: the brutal death of millions of people in unjust imperialist wars; the impotence of mass protests; the damaging increase in income inequality, even at the heart of the empire; the inability and lack of resolve to learn from the mistakes of the past; and the feelings of frustration that always follow rare moments of hope, exemplified most recently by Obama’s arrival at the White House.

Stone’s creation, perfect in its composition, is a flawless piece of cinema which is destined to serve as a benchmark for good filmmaking. He illustrates what can be achieved with barely $5 million ($1 million of which was chipped in by Stone himself), a mere fraction of the cost of the average Hollywood mediocrity. Though its content is ultimately more historical than political, its diffusion is likely to remain restricted, as in Spain, to low-ratings periods on channels favored by movie buffs and documentary lovers.

* La forja de un rebelde .

** The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party.

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