We all remember history class, whether we were bored to tears or completely enthralled, but what no one can argue is that the typical history class in the developed world is most certainly biased towards a Western narrative. Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States presents another, well-documented side of history that many people may no longer be familiar with because it does not necessarily coincide with the popular discourse. Stone takes a deeper look than what the typical history book has to offer, beginning from the cusp of the Second World War through post-9/11. He presents a broader picture of US-Russian relations as allies during WWII and as enemies during the Cold War. He highlights the dark underbelly of the United States, the side that America likes to forget.
Now, some people may question the validity of what Stone presents; however, this series is continuously praised on its historical accuracy. The accounts and events shown are well documented through media coverage of each era and validated by respected historians. The shots used are a mixture of archived videos, popular-yet-relevant movie clips, and other forms of visually appealing material that captures the viewer’s complete attention. Stone himself narrates the series. His voice remains steady and captivating, further keeping the viewer’s interest. He maintains a neutral (not to be confused with monotone) tonality for the most part, leaving viewers to work out their own feelings rather than embracing the narrator’s. The series has a classic “Ken Burns documentary” feel to it, but with a more intensive visual presentation of events.
One of the things that stands out most is how this miniseries brings to life the individual stories of influential people in history that are now generally forgotten. In particular, Stone presents a detailed character study of Henry Wallace, former Vice President to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Now, as Canadian viewers, we have never come across his name, despite the integral role he played in US politics. His time spent in the US government was fascinating to learn about, and raised many “what if” questions had he become president. It’s stories like Wallace’s that further immerses the viewer. It allows viewers to see other historical figures, such as Stalin, as both hero and antagonist depending on the angle one takes to history, but also calls into question the moral intentions of these people, especially considering that Stalin was the perpetrator of great atrocities in the USSR. Stone doesn’t cower from displaying positives and negatives of these people, regardless of their intentions.
On the negative side of this miniseries, we have a story that begins very detailed and specific in terms of what occurred during WWII. However, as we advance through this historical journey, we see an acceleration of the eras and less detail. This lessens the overall experience, considering how easy it is to immerse in the intricate details and individual stories that Stone is telling. The rapid succession of events with less detail later in the series becomes disjointed.
In Stone’s defence, he is trying to argue that the policies surrounding WWII have greatly impacted how contemporary foreign policy has been enacted. This, however, is arguably an arbitrary point. Is WWII really more vital to the US’s foreign policy than any other point in American history? What about the First World War? Doesn’t the Teddy Roosevelt era of foreign policy not have a cultural footprint that is similarly important? In the blu-ray release, two prologue episodes are included that examine WWI and the Russian Revolution up to the Second World War. Adding this historical context originally would be greatly welcome, especially as a part of another miniseries that dates back to the American Revolution, at the very least. Interesting tellings of history prior to what Stone examines would be a treat to watch, especially in the same style as Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States.
The title reminds us about the inaccuracies of history, and to not take these stories for granted, even the ones presented within the series. The biggest lesson is not who did what and who is to blame, but rather to always take a critical view on information presented to you. This is definitely a must see for anyone who is even remotely interested in advancing their knowledge in history and loves documentaries.