As a teenager at boarding school in Pennsylvania, Oliver Stone learned that the United States of America was a beacon of democracy, destined since its founding to be an inspiration to the oppressed. He was taught that communism was a grave threat to humanity, that American soldiers had saved the world from tyranny twice and may soon have to do so again. He accepted this to be true. Three years after graduating, he enlisted in the US Army and asked to be assigned to the infantry, knowing this meant combat in Vietnam.
His new television series, Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, is the culmination of an awakening that began in the jungles of Tay Ninh. It opens with him addressing the camera: “I thought I received a good education… We were the good guys.” Although this is the last we see of his Clark Gable moustache, Stone barely stops talking for the next ten hours. Over stunning archive images he presents the USA as an imperial power that has provoked needless wars, backed murderous regimes and trodden on the poor. Stone’s researchers have apparently found every frame ever shot of bombs falling from the sky.
“We’re always on the side of dictators, always on the side of repression,” he says, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “Once we dropped the atom bomb and called it the right thing to do to end the war, we equated force with right. Now we’ve subverted so many third world countries, all in the name of fighting communism, drug wars and terrorism, we have invested so much into this programme that we cannot stop ourselves.” When he discovered that his daughter’s history textbooks contained the same distortions he once swallowed whole, he decided to write his own.
Stone’s acclaimed movie about the Vietnam war, Platoon, ends with his alter ego returning home with “to build again, to teach to others what we know.” Stone himself came back addicted to drugs and directionless. His scripts for Scarface and Midnight Express were turned into successful movies, but most others were rejected. It wasn’t until he made Salvador in 1985, about a photojournalist shaken from his cynicism when he discovers that the CIA is funding death squads, that Stone found his vocation as an auteur prepared to confront unpalatable truths about his own country.
He has been working on his Untold History for five years, with American University professor Peter Kuznick. “I did this with the idea that my three children and their children would see it,” he says. “The Disney version of America is boring to most kids. They know that it’s sanitised in the way that America always wins.” The series and accompanying book is a legacy project, an alternative to a memoir. Fans eager to read Stone’s account of snorting cocaine in an electric chair, punching James Woods on set or slipping LSD into his father’s drink will have to wait.
The caricature of Stone – a womanising hedonist with a mouth like a pistol with no safety catch – is not as accurate as it was. He is married for the third time, meditates daily and can’t drink or pursue women like he used to. But he is still radical by the comfortably liberal standards of Hollywood: he mourned Hugo Chavez as a “great hero” and is an outspoken supporter of Julian Assange.
Stone has often been accused of rewriting history, a charge he deflects by pleading “dramatic licence,” and invoking Sophocles, Euripedes and Shakespeare. This criticism peaked with his conspiracy thriller, JFK, intended as a “counter-myth” to the Warren Commission’s improbable official account of President Kennedy’s assassination. Jack Valenti, chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America, compared the movie to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda.
The director’s response was to put out an annotated screenplay and “stir the shitstorm” at every opportunity. In a graduation address at his old school, he warned students never to trust the press: “Greed reigns, greed fights wars, greed kills. The news media for the most part is silenced by that money. You will not get the truth in Time, Newsweek or on CBS.” A year later, stung by polls showing that few Americans believed Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, Congress released millions of pages of confidential documents about the assassination.
Untold History frequently indulges in speculation about what might have been. Stone and Kuznick argue that having stood up to the CIA by refusing to sanction an invasion of Cuba, Kennedy would not have sent ground troops to Vietnam, illustrating their point with extracts from his correspondence. They state that Japan was ready to surrender before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated, and that President Harry Truman and his military advisers dropped the bombs to cow the Soviet Union, killing more than 200,000 civilians as a show of force.
The series came under fire before it was even made, when Stone wondered out loud whether the Holocaust’s victims are remembered more than tens of millions of Soviets who died during the Second World War because of “Jewish domination of the media.” Billionaire entertainment mogul Haim Saban wrote to the president of CBS, demanding that the series be pulled. “They wanted to blacklist me from work, to end my career,” Stone says.
Conservative historians have accused Untold History of regurgitating Soviet propaganda, downplaying Stalinist atrocities and taking dramatic liberties unbefitting a serious work of scholarship. Stone insists that every source has been rigorously checked. “People can argue about our interpretations of these facts, but at least they’re getting a different vision of America,” he says. “The beauty of watching it is to see where the United States is now and understand the kind of empire it was. Even if you criticise us for perhaps not showing one episode wholly correctly, all you have to do is see the repeat of the mistake.”
The last episode of the series is an indictment of the Bush and Obama presidencies, detailing torture, targeted killings and war for its own sake. “We talk about fear, the paranoia that can grow in America and how that leads to militarism,” Stone says. “It’s like the Salem witch trials, a sort of mass hysteria. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it.”
Stone “detested” Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, thinking it no more morally ambiguous than Rambo. His own film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden died in development, joining Pinkville, his movie about the My Lai massacre, on his list of unrealised scripts.
There’s a pivotal scene in JFK, in which a retired intelligence agent played by Donald Sutherland meets Kevin Costner’s district attorney, Jim Garrison, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The conspiracy to kill Kennedy that he describes, between the political establishment, the military-industrial complex, the mafia and the security services, is a microcosm of the malevolent forces at work in Stone’s United States. “Don’t take my word for it,” he tells Garrison. “Don’t believe me – do your own work, your own thinking.”
Stone hopes the book will one day be offered in classrooms as an alternative to standard texts. “Obviously we’re not going to be institutional history for a long time, but I’d like to get there,” he says.