Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone was born in New York City on 15th September, 1946. He attended Yale University but dropped out and taught English at the Free Pacific Institute before working briefly as a merchant marine. Stone returned to university but dropped out for a second time.

Stone now joined the United States Army and served in Vietnam from April 1967 to November 1968 as a member of the 25th Infantry Regiment. He was wounded twice in action and was awarded the Bronze Star for "extraordinary acts of courage under fire."

In 1971 he directed a short film entitled, Last Year in Vietnam. Three years later he wrote and directed a horror film, Seizure. His breakthrough film was Midnight Express (1978) where he won an oscar for the best adapted screenplay.

Stone wrote and directed The Hand (1981). This was followed by Salvador (1986), Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), Talk Radio (1988), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and The Doors (1991). Stone won two Academy Awards for directing Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July.

In 1991 Oliver Stone, decided to make a movie on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The script for JFK, written by Stone and Zachary Sklar, is based on two different books, On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison and Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs. Stone took the view that Kennedy was killed because of his attempts to bring an end to the Cold War.

The movie was both a financial and artistic success earning over $205 million worldwide and being nominated for eight Academy Awards. However, the film was attacked by those journalists who had since 1963 had steadfastly defended the lone-gunman theory. Tom Wicker attacked Stone’s portrayal of Jim Garrison as a hero-figure and complained that he had ignored the claims that he was a corrupt political figure. He added that the film treats “matters that are highly speculative as fact and truth, in effect rewriting history”.

Bernard Weinraub argued in the New York Times that the studio should withdraw the movie: "At what point does a studio exercise its leverage and blunt the highly charged message of a film maker like Oliver Stone?" When veteran film critic, Pat Dowell, provided a good review for The Washingtonian, the editor, John Limpert, rejected it on the grounds that he did not want the magazine to be associated with this "preposterous" viewpoint. As a result Dowell resigned as the magazine’s film critic.

Jack Valenti, who at that time was president and chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America, but in the months following the assassination, was President Lyndon Johnson’s special advisor, denounced Stone's film in a seven-page statement. He wrote, "In much the same way, young German boys and girls in 1941 were mesmerized by Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will, in which Adolf Hitler was depicted as a newborn God. Both JFK and Triumph of the Will are equally a propaganda masterpiece and equally a hoax. Mr. Stone and Leni Reifenstahl have another genetic linkage: neither of them carried a disclaimer on their film that its contents were mostly pure fiction".

Oliver Stone appeared on the Larry King Show on 20th December 1991. King asked Stone: “Why do you think the Wickers, the Rathers, the Gerald Fords in an op-ed piece in a newspaper – in the Washington Post – why do you think they’re so mad?” Stone replied: “Well, they’re the official priesthood. They have a stake in their version of reality. Here I am – a film-maker, an artist – coming into their territory and I think that they resent that…. I think they blew it (the coverage of the Kennedy assassination) from day one.”

Oliver Stone hit back at his critics in a speech made at the National Press Club on 15th January, 1992. “When in the last twenty years, have we seen serious research from Tom Wicker, Dan Rather, Anthony Lewis?” Stone said they objected to “this settled version of history… lest one call down the venom of leading journalists from around the country.” He pointed out that the criticism of the film mainly came from “older journalists on the right and left” who had in 1963 supported the lone-gunman theory and claimed that their “objectivity is in question here.”

Dan Rather, another long-time lone-gunman advocate, hosted a CBS program on the JFK movie. Rather pointed out that he had reported the Kennedy assassination at the time. He went on to argue: “Long after Oliver Stone has gone onto his next movie and long after a lot of people who have been writing about this now have stopped, I’m going to keep coming on this one.” Rather suggested that a journalist was much more reliable than a film director for interpreting the past: “We do know a lot and there is much to support the Warren Commission’s conclusions, but unanswered questions also abound. Not all of the conspiracy theories are ridiculous… They explain the inexplicable, neatly tie up the loose ends, but a reporter should not, cannot find refuge there. Facts, hard evidence are the journalist’s guide.”

In the interview that Dan Rather carried out for the CBS documentary, he asked Stone: “I don’t understand why you include the press as either conspirators or accomplices to the conspiracy”. Stone replied: “Dan, when the House Report came out implying that there was a probable conspiracy in the murder of both Kennedy and King, why weren’t you running around trying to dig into the case again? I didn’t see you, you know, rush out there and look at some of these three dozen discrepancies that we present in our movie.” Stone added that “whether you accept my conclusion is not the point, we want people to examine this… subject”.

In the first few months after JFK was released, over 50 million people watched the movie. Robert Groden, who had worked as an advisor on the film, predicted that: “The movie will raise public consciousness. People who can’t take the time to read books will be able to see the movie, and in three hours they’ll be able to see what the issues are.”

Tom Wicker was well aware of the danger this film posed: “This movie… claims truth for itself. And among the many Americans likely to see it, particularly those who never accepted the Warren Commission’s theory of a single assassin, even more particularly those too young to remember November 22, 1963, JFK is all too likely to be taken as the final, unquestioned explanation.” This was confirmed by a NBC poll that indicated that 51% of the American public believed, as the movie had suggested, that the CIA was responsible for Kennedy’s death and that only 6% believed the Warren Commission’s lone gunman theory.

Oliver Stone called for the remaining CIA and FBI documents pertaining to the assassination of Kennedy to be released. Clifford Krauss, reported in the New York Times that members of the Kennedy family supported this move. The historian, Stephen Ambrose, argued that “the crime of the century is too important to be allowed to remain unsolved and too complex to be left in the hands of Hollywood movie makers.” Louis Stokes, who had chaired the House Select Committee on Assassinations, also called for the files to be unclassified.

The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, or the JFK Records Act, was passed by the United States Congress, and became effective on 26th October, 1992. The Act requires that each assassination record be publicly disclosed in full, and be available in the collection no later than the date that is 25 years after the date of enactment of the Act (October 26, 2017), unless the President of the United States certifies that: (1) continued postponement is made necessary by an identifiable harm to the military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or conduct of foreign relations; and (2) the identifiable harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure. There are currently over 50,000 pages of government documents relating to the assassination that have not been released.

Stone upset leading figures in the Republican Party with his film Nixon (1995). This film provided a critical portrait of Richard Nixon during the Watergate Scandal. Stone has also made two sympathetic documentaries about Fidel Castro: Comandante (2003) and Looking for Fidel (2004).

Other films by Stone include Heaven and Earth (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994), U-Turn (1997), Any Given Sunday (1999), Alexander (2004), World Trade Center (2006), W. (2008), South of the Border (2009) and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010).

Since 2008 Oliver Stone has been working with Peter J. Kuznick on a ten-part television series, The Untold History of the United States. The first episode appeared on Showtime in November 2012.

The death of Marilyn Monroe and the assassination of John F. Kennedy have engendered films, television programs, books, and articles. The Kennedy assassination has even produced study groups and an annual convention in Dallas. One of the most remarkable examples of conspiracy portrayed as entertainment, is the film JFK, directed by Oliver Stone (Warner Brothers, 1992). Our purpose is not to review the controversy concerning the circumstances surrounding President Kennedy's assassination (although we do reject the idea that the assassination was part of a conspiracy). Nor is our purpose to review the film (although we will evaluate the film within an aesthetic and literary tradition). Rather we intend to show how the paranoid theme added narrative power and commercial value to the film, to illuminate the part that the paranoid message plays in popular entertainment.

Films are not simply entertainment, they are also cultural, intellectual, and political influences. Research demonstrates the influence on beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and behavior of such films as the anti-nuclear The Day After, the anti-Soviet Amerika, Holocaust, and the multigenerational saga of a black family, Roots. The effect, however, is not so much to change people's minds as to solidify and exaggerate beliefs and attitudes already held. Films do not create cultural trends, but they do accelerate and exaggerate them. A survey and analysis of viewer reaction to JFK demonstrated that this film and others like it can produce "markedly altered emotional states, belief changes spread across specific political issues, and ... an impact on politically relevant behavioral changes. [JFK viewers] reported emotional changes, [became] significantly more angry and less hopeful...Those who had seen the movie were significantly more likely to believe [the various conspiracies depicted in the film]."

JFK is not a historical film in the way that William Makepeace Thackeray's Henry Esmond, Alexandre Dumas's Three Musketeers, and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind are historical novels. Stone does not take fictional characters and put them in an historical context, as the fictional Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler are placed in civil-war Georgia. Stone takes genuine historical characters - New Orleans District Attorney James Garrison and civic activist Clay Shaw, for example--and presents his version of what happened. Films of this sort are called docudramas because they dramatize historical events and historical characters and for the screen. A film like Gone with the Wind attempts to tell the viewer what things were like, what sorts of things happened in a past historical period. In contrast, a docudrama like JFK attempts to convey a particular version of history; the film does not simply lay out the director's version of history; it seeks to persuade the viewer that the version is the truth.

Film as media presents opportunities and limitations that are absent in a written work. These strengths and restrictions were first demonstrated in D. W. Griffith's seminal American film, The Birth of a Nation (Epic, 1915). This film, which set the "grammar and syntax" of cinema as narrative entertainment, carried a powerful racist message. It idealized the Old South, praised slavery, described Klansmen as heroic saviors of the white South from bestial blacks and their Northern white allies, and opposed racial "pollution." Financially it was very successful. Politically it facilitated the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Its racism was so simplistic and offensive that, even in an era tolerant of racism, it was banned in several cities and became the object of small riots. Griffith saw himself as the victim of the forces (blacks and their Northern sympathizers) that he "exposed" in the film.

From The Birth of a Nation's release in 1915 to the appearance of JFK in 1992 American historical films developed a cinematic pattern with the following characteristics:

* The story is presented in a filmic style of a seamless visual and aural pattern; the viewer seems to be looking directly at reality;

* The story has a strong moral message;

* The story is simple and definitive. Alternate versions are rarely suggested; if suggested, they are dismissed or mocked;

* The story is about individuals, usually heroic ones, fighting for good in the interest of humanity (that is, the audience);

* The story has a strong emotional tone.

JFK adds several other techniques. It seamlessly interweaves newsreel footage from the assassination with fictional material, so that the boundary between historical fact and the director's or writer's fictional elaborations are progressively blurred. It is crammed with information, presented in words and suggested in pictures. It contains not only many short speeches and several long orations but much dialogue. More important, it includes many scenes without dialog, some seemingly only one or two seconds long, which impart or suggest information. Not one locus of conspiracy is suggested but eight: the CIA, weapons manufacturers, the Dallas police, the armed forces, the White House, the establishment press, renegade anti-Castro Cubans, and the Mafia. The persuasive value of such an onslaught is to leave the viewer, if not convinced, at least believing that "there has to be something to it." One viewer said that she and her companion "walked out of the movie feeling like we had just undergone a powerful 'paranoia induction.'"

These facts, inventions, and insinuations do not necessarily come from the director's private beliefs. They are driven by the commercial and narrative needs of the form. Popular art requires continuity and order, elements generally lacking in genuine events. The film depiction of events must grab the viewer's attention, keep him fixed in his seat, make him identify with the action and principal characters, and induce him to tell his neighbors to buy a ticket for the next performance. The paranoid perspective advances these commercial and artistic ambitions:

* It too gives a simplified view of reality. Indeed, the paranoid world-view is one that demands coherence, even when such consistency is lacking.

* It too takes a moral stand: us against them, good against evil, openness against conspiracy.

* It too presents the "truth" as simple in essence but highly complex in details.

* It too describes a struggle, not between abstract forces, but between individuals and groups.

* It too brings powerful emotions to the narration. Thus, the paranoid message is uniquely suited to the form of a historical film drama, or docudrama. This message is seen most powerfully in JFK but also in other paranoid films: Silkwood, Missing, and The Parallax View.

The paranoid theme complements another influence: deconstruction, a prominent feature of late twentieth century criticism and art. The most important part of the deconstructive position for our purposes is its contention that "texts" (novels, films, poems) have no meaning apart from how they are perceived. If the audience receives the "true" story, then the "facts" in the text are true. Truth is itself a shifting concept whereby the political interests of the creator and the audience (generally expressed in terms of race, gender, and economic position) define what is true. If what is presented persuades people that it is true and if this truth is "politically progressive," then the events presented in the text are true.

When Oliver Stone made Jim Garrison the protagonist of his movie, JFK, the filmmaker scarcely could have imagined what the public's reaction would be. He did not have to wait long to find out, however. Even as filming was just beginning, the reactions began pouring in loud and clear.

"For those who have forgotten or are too young to remember," Dallas Morning News reporter Jon Margolis wrote in May 1991, "Garrison was the bizarre New Orleans district attorney who, in 1969, claimed that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a conspiracy by some officials of the Central Intelligence Agency." "Garrison even managed to put one hapless fellow on trial for his role in this alleged conspiracy," Margolis continued. "Having no case, Garrison lost in court."

Washington Post reporter George Lardner, Jr., who had covered Garrison's JFK probe in the late 1960s, received an early draft of the JFK screenplay and promptly weighed in with his opinion. ". Oliver Stone is chasing fiction," he wrote. "Garrison's investigation was a fraud."

In Time, Richard Zoglin called Garrison "a wide-eyed conspiracy buff," "somewhere near the far-out fringe of conspiracy theorists, but Stone seems to have bought his version (of the assassination) virtually wholesale."

Even movie critic Joe Bob Briggs got in on the act. "The main role in the movie JFK is not JFK," Briggs writes. "It's not LBJ. It's not Governor Connally or Jackie or Chief Justice Warren or Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby. The main role in the movie is this flake from Nawluns."

"Of course, if you asked Oliver," Briggs continues, "the only reason we think Jimbo Garrison is a flake is that he's been persecuted by the media conspiracy, the Cuban conspiracy, the FBI conspiracy, the CIA conspiracy, the conspiracy of the doctors at Parkland Hospital, the conspiracy of all the employees at the Texas School Book Depository, and now the conspiracy of all guilty Texans to whitewash what their state did to the President."

Well before the advent of the Hollywood pseudo documentary, Karl Marx suggested that all great events and personalities in world history happen twice: "the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." Oliver Stone's film "JFK" represents the second coming of Jim Garrison.

In 1969, when Jim Garrison's Conspiracy-To-Kill-Kennedy trial collapsed, his entire case that the accused, Clay Shaw, had participated in an assassination plot turned out to be based on nothing more than the hypnotized- induced story of a single witness. This witness, Perry Raymond Russo, had testified that he had had no conscious memory of his own conspiracy story before he had been drugged, hypnotized, and fed hypothetical circumstances about the plot he was supposed to have witnessed by the district attorney. To the dismay of his supporters-- and three of his Garrison's staff resigned-- this was the essence of Garrison's show trial: a witness who acknowledged he could not, after this bizarre treatment, separate fantasy from reality. After that, Garrison's meretricious prosecution of it was considered by the press to be, as the New York Times noted in an editorial, "one of the most disgraceful chapters in the history of American jurisprudence." In this debacle, Garrison himself was exposed as a man who had recklessly disregarded the truth when it suited his purposes.

Then, in 1991, a generation later, Garrison re-emerges phoenix-like from the debris as the truth-seeking prosecutor (played by Kevin Costner) in the film "JFK"-- and who brilliantly solves the mystery of the Kennedy Assassination. In this version, there is no hypnosis: the reborn Garrison resourcefully uncovers cogent evidence that Clay Shaw planned the Dallas ambush of President Kennedy in New Orleans with two confederates: David William Ferrie (played by Joe Persci), a homosexual soldier of fortune and Lee Harvey Oswald (played by Gary Oldman). He establishes that this trio, who also participate together in orgies, all worked for the CIA, and were recruited into a conspiracy to seize power in Washington.

Filmed in a grainy semi-documentary style, with newsreels as well as amateur footage incorporated into it, "JFK" purports to reveal the actual truth about the Kennedy Assassination. From the moment it was released, its director Oliver Stone has so passionately defended its factual accuracy that he became, for all practical purposes, the new Garrison. What could be more appropriate in the age of media than a crusading film-maker replacing a crusading District Attorney as the symbol of the truth-finder in society? In this capacity, Oliver Stone-Garrison played out his case on television news programs, talk shows, magazines and the op- ed pages of news papers. He held his own press conferences, with his attractive researcher at his side, met with Congressional leaders, and he, as the original Garrison had done a quarter of a century before, used this public platform to focus attention on the possibility that the government was hiding the truth about the Kennedy Assassination. In exploiting this torment of secrecy, Stone proved far more successful than his predecessor in rousing interest in releasing the classified files pertaining to the assassination.

But where Jim Garrison failed in building a plausible conspiracy case against Clay Shaw, how did Oliver Stone succeed? The answer is that whereas the original Garrison only attempted to coax, intimidate and hypnotize unable witnesses into providing him with incriminating evidence, the new Garrison, Oliver Stone, fabricated for his film the crucial evidence and witnesses that were missing in real life-- even when this license required deliberately falsifying reality and depicting events that never happened. Consider, for example, the way he fabricated Ferrie's dramatic confession to Garrison in a hotel room only hours before he died.

In reality, as well as in Jim Garrison's account of the case, David Ferrie steadfastly maintaining his innocence, insisting he did not know Lee Harvey Oswald, he was not in the CIA, and that he had no knowledge of any plot to kill Kennedy. The last known person to speak to Ferrie was George Lardner, Jr. of the Washington Post, who Ferrie had met with from midnight to 4 a.m. of February 22, 1967. During this interview, Ferrie described Garrison (who he hasn't seen for weeks) as "a joke". Several hours later, Ferrie died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

In "JFK", Oliver Stone invents, and falsifies, his own version of Ferrie's last night. Instead of being calmly interviewed by a reporter in his home, "JFK" shows a panicked Ferrie being doggedly interrogated by Jim Garrison in a hotel suite until he finally break down and confesses. Ferrie names his CIA controller an, in rapid-fire succession, Ferrie admits in the film everything he denied in real life. He acknowledges that he taught Oswald " everything". He then explains that no only does he know Clay Shaw but he is being blackmailed by him and controlled by him. He also admits that he works for the CIA-- along with Oswald, Shaw and "the Cubans", who were the "shooters" in Dallas. He displays intimate knowledge of the plot by explaining that the "shooters" were recruited without told whose orders they were carrying out. He tells a cool Garrison that the plot is "too big" to be investigated, implying that powerful figures are behind it, and that, because they know Ferrie is now talking, they have issued a "death warrant" for him.

After Ferrie leaves Garrison and returns to his apartment, he is shown being chased, held down, and murdered by a bald-headed man who forces pills down his throat. The murderer, who is shown in other fictional scenes as an associate of Shaw, Oswald, and the Anti-Castro Cuban shooters. When Garrison arrives at the murder scene and finds the empty bottle of pills, he concludes Ferrie was murdered which gives Ferrie's earlier revelations to Garrison the force of a death-bed confession. (In reality, the coroner ruled that Ferrie had died from "natural causes"--a verdict that Garrison, as the empowered authority, did not contest).

Oliver Stone's transformations in this scene involves more than some trivial cinematic contrivances. They provide the linkage for the conspiracy. Ferrie's confession connects the team of anonymous Cuban "shooters" in Dallas with Clay Shaw, David Ferrie and Lee Harvey Oswald in New Orleans and, at a higher level, the CIA "untouchables". Whereas in actuality Ferrie denied he was in the CIA, ever knew Oswald, or knew anything about a plot to kill JFK, in the film, Stone has Ferrie confess he was in the CIA, knew and trained Oswald and knew key details of the plot to shoot JFK. These fabricated admissions changes the entire story - just as it would change the story about the execution of Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg if film fabricated a fictional scene showing the Rosen bergs confessing to J. Edgar Hoover that they were part a Communist conspiracy to steal atomic secrets.

And Ferrie's false confessions is not an isolated bit of license. Throughout JFK, in dozens of scenes, Oliver Stone substitutes fiction for fact when it advances his case. He even blatantly contradicts the two books he represents as being the basis for "JFK" - Jim Garrison, " On The Trail of the Assassins" (Warners Books, 1988) and James Marrs, Cross Fire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy (Carroll and Graf, 1990). He makes especially effective use of this substitution technique when it comes to witnesses. Here, like all fictionalizers, he has an advantage over fact finders: he can artfully fashion his replacement witnesses to meet the audience's criteria for what is credible. His substitution of the fictive "Willie O'Keefe" to replace Garrison's flawed witness, Perry Raymond Russo, is a case in point.

In a hysterical stampede unusual even for the media herd, scores of journalists have taken time off from their regular occupations -- such as boosting the Democrats' most conservative presidential candidate, extolling free trade or judging other countries by their progress towards American-style oligopoly -- to launch an offensive against what is clearly perceived to be the major internal threat to the Republic: a movie-maker named Oliver Stone.

Stone, whose alleged crime was the production of a film called JFK, has been compared to Hitler and Goebbels and to David Duke and Louis Farrakhan. The movie's thesis has been declared akin to alleged conspiracies by the Freemasons, the Bavarian Illuminati, the League of Just Men and the Elders of Zion.

The film has been described as a "three hour lie from an intellectual sociopath." Newsweek ran a cover story headlined: "Why Oliver Stone's New Movie Can't Be Trusted." Another critic accused Stone of "contemptible citizenship," which is about as close to an accusation of treason as the libel laws will permit. Meanwhile, Leslie Gelb, with best New York Times pomposity, settled for declaring that the "torments" of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson over Vietnam "are not to be trifled with by Oliver Stone or anyone."

The attack began months before the movie even appeared, with the leaking of a first draft of the film. By last June, the film had been excoriated by the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and Time magazine. These critics, at least, had at least seen something; following the release of the film, NPR's Cokie Roberts took the remarkable journalistic stance of refusing to screen it at all because it was so awful.

Well, maybe not so remarkable, because the overwhelming sense one gets from the critical diatribes is one of denial, of defense of non-knowledge, of fierce clinging to a story that even some of the Stone's most vehement antagonists have to confess, deep in their articles, may not be correct.

Stephen Rosenfeld of the Washington Post, for example, states seven paragraphs into his commentary: "That the assassination probably encompassed more than a lone gunman now seems beyond cavil."

If there was more than one gunman, it follows that there was a conspiracy of some sort and it follows that the Warren Commission was incorrect. It should follow also that journalists writing about the Kennedy assassination should be more interested in what actually did happen than in dismissing every Warren Commission critic as a paranoid. Yet, from the start, the media has been a consistent promoter of the thesis that Rosenfeld now says is wrong beyond cavil.

In fact, not one of the journalistic attacks on the film that I have seen makes any effort to explain convincingly what did happen in Dallas that day. They either explicitly or implicitly defend the Warren Commission or dismiss its inaccuracy as a mere historic curiosity.

Of course, it is anything but. Americans, if not the Washington Post, want to know what happened. And after nearly thirty years of journalistic nonfeasance concerning one of the major stories of our era, a filmmaker has come forth with an alternative thesis and the country's establishment has gone berserk.

Right or wrong, you've got to hand it to the guy. Since the 1960s, those trying to stem the evil that has increasingly seeped into our political system have been not suppressed so much as ignored. Gary Sick's important new book on events surrounding the October Surprise, for example, has not been reviewed by many major publications. The dozens of books on the subject of the Kennedy assassination, in toto, have received nowhere near the attention of Stone's effort. For the first time in two decades, someone has finally caught the establishment's attention, with a movie that grossed $40 million in the first three or four weeks and will probably be seen by 50 million Americans by the time the videotape sales subside.

Further, by early January, Jim Garrison's own account of the case was at the top of the paperback bestseller list and Mark Lane's Plausible Denial had made it to number seven on the hard cover tally. Many of Stone's critics have accused him of an act of malicious propaganda. In fact, it is part of the sordid reality of our times that Hollywood is about the only institution left in our country big and powerful enough to challenge the influence of state propaganda that controls our lives with hardly a murmur from the same journalists so incensed by Stone. Where were these seekers of truth, for example, during the Gulf Massacre? Even if Stone's depiction were totally false, it would pale in comparison with the brutal consequences of the government's easy manipulation of the media during the Iraqi affair.

And, if movies are to be held to the standards set for JFK, where are the parallel critiques of Gone With the Wind and a horde of other cinemagraphic myths that are part of the American consciousness?

No, Stone's crime was not that his movie presents a myth, but that he had the audacity and power to challenge the myths of his critics. It is, in the critics' view, the job of the news media to determine the country's paradigm, to define our perceptions, to give broad interpretations to major events, to create the myths which guide our thought and action. It is, for example, Tom Brokaw and Cokie Roberts who are ordained to test Democratic candidates on their catechism, not mere members of the public or even the candidates themselves. It is for the media to determine which practitioners of violence, such as Henry Kissinger and Richard Helms, are to be statesmen and which, like Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray, are mere assassins. It is their privilege to determine which of our politicians have vision and which are fools, and which illegal or corrupt actions have been taken in the national interest and which to subvert that interest. And this right, as Leslie Gelb might put it, is not to be trifled with by Oliver Stone or anyone else.

Because he dared to step on the mythic turf of the news media, Stone has accomplished something truly remarkable that goes far beyond the specific facts of the Kennedy killing. For whatever errors in his recounting of that tale, his underlying story tells a grim truth. Stone has not only presented a detailed, if debatable, thesis for what happened in Dallas on one day, but a parable of the subsequent thirty years of America's democratic disintegration. For in these decades one finds repeated and indisputable evidence - Watergate, Iran-Contra, BCCI, the war on drugs, to name just a few - of major politicians and intelligence services working in unholy alliance with criminals and foreign partisans to malevolently affect national policy. And as late as the 1980s, we have documentation from the Continuity in Government program that at least some in the Reagan administration were preparing for a coup d'état under the most ill-defined conditions.

It is one of contemporary journalism's most disastrous conceits that truth can not exist in the absence of revealed evidence. By accepting the tyranny of the known, the media inevitably relies on the official version of the truth, seldom asking the government to prove its case, while demanding of critics of that official version the most exacting tests of evidence. Some of this, as in the case, say, of George Will, is simply ideological disingenuousness. Other is the unconscious influence of one's caste, well exemplified by Stone critic Chuck Freund, a onetime alternative journalist whose perceptions changed almost immediately upon landing a job with the Washington Post, and who now writes as though he was up for membership in the Metropolitan Club. But for many journalists it is simply a matter of a childish faith in known facts as the delimiter of our understanding.

If intelligence means anything, it means not only the collection of facts, but arranging them into some sort of pattern of probability so we can understand more than we actually know.

Thus the elementary school child is inundated with facts because that is considered all that can be handled at that point. Facts at this level are neatly arranged and function as rules to describe a comfortable, reliable world.

Beginning in high school, however, one starts to take these facts and interpret them and put them together in new orders and to consider what lots of facts, some of them contradictory, might mean. In school this is not called paranoia, nor conspiracy theory, but thought.

Along the way, it is discovered that some of the facts, a.k.a. rules, that we learned in elementary school weren't facts. I learned, for example, that despite what Mrs. Dunn said in 5th grade, Arkansas was not pronounced R-Kansas.

Finally, those who go to college learn that facts aren't anywhere as much help as we even thought in high school, for example when we attempt a major paper on what caused the Civil War.

To deny writers, ordinary citizens or even filmmakers the right to think beyond the perimeter of the known and verifiable is to send us back intellectually into a 5th grade world, precise but inaccurate, and - when applied to a democracy - highly dangerous. We have to vote, after all, without all the facts.

As Benjamin Franklin noted, one need not understand the law of gravity to know that if a plate falls on the floor it will break. Similarly, none of us have to know the full story of the JFK assassination to understand that the official story simply isn't true.

Oliver Stone has done nothing worse than to take the available knowledge and assemble it in a way that seems logical to him. Inevitably, because so many facts are unknown, the movie must be to some degree myth.

Thus, we are presented with two myths: Stone's and the official version so assiduously guarded by the media. One says Kennedy was the victim of forces that constituted a shadow government; the other says it was just a random event by an lone individual.

We need not accept either, but of the two, the Stone version clearly has the edge. The lone gunman theory, (the brainstorm of Arlen Specter, whose ethical standards were well displayed during the Thomas hearings) is so weak that even some of Stone's worst critics won't defend it in the face of facts such as the nature of the weapon allegedly used (so unreliable the Italians called it the humanitarian rifle), the exotic supposed path of the bullet, and Oswald's inexplicably easy return to the US after defecting to the Soviet Union.

In the end, David Ferrie in the movie probably said it right: "The f***king shooters don't even know" who killed JFK. In a well-planned operation it's like that.

I tend to believe that Stone is right about the involvement of the right-wing Cubans and the mobs, that intelligence officials participated at some level, that Jim Garrison was on to something but that his case failed primarily because several of his witnesses mysteriously ended up dead, and that a substantial cover-up took place. I suspect, however, that the primary motive for the killing was revenge - either for a perceived détente with Castro or for JFK's anti-Mafia moves, and that Stone's Vietnam thesis is overblown. The top level conspiracy depicted is possible but, at this point, only that because the case rests on too little - some strange troop movements, a telephone network failure and the account of Mr. X - who turns out albeit to be Fletcher Prouty, chief of special operations for the Joint Chiefs at the time.

But we should not begrudge Stone if he is wrong on any of these points, because he has shown us something even more important than the Kennedy assassination: an insight into repeated organized efforts by the few to manipulate for their own benefit a democracy made too trusting of its invulnerability by a media that refuses to see and tell what has been going on.

Just as the Soviets needed to confront the lies of their own history in order to build a new society, so America must confront the lies of the past thirty years to move ahead, Stone - to the fear of those who have participated in those lies and to the opportunity of all those who suffered because of them - has helped to make this possible.

Film has long been recognized as a powerful transmitter of culture because it transmits beliefs, values, and knowledge; serves as cultural memory; and offers social criticism. Consequently, the cinema remains a continual battleground in the cultural conflicts in America. The reform efforts of the Progressives in the early twentieth century and the HUAC investigations of Hollywood personnel in the late 1940s and '50s demonstrate one example of the enduring public concern over the "quasi-educational" role of film in American life.

Perhaps no film in recent history has captured more attention and generated more controversial debate about the persuasive power of a motion picture than writer/director Oliver Stone's JFK. Even before this three-hour $40 million Warner Brothers production reached theaters on 20 December 1991, veteran journalists, determined to protect their own coverage of the events in 1963, attacked the picture as a polemic distortion of history, a propagandistic blend of fact and fiction, evidence and speculation. While the film was running in theaters, former Warren Commission staff defended the conclusions of their investigation in the 1960s; the Navy pathologists confirmed the findings of their autopsy on Kennedy as well. In the end, JFK became the catalyst for direct political action. On 27 October 1992, former President Bush signed into law a resolution establishing an independent, five-member board appointed by the president to review and release files accumulated by the Warren Commission and two later congressional investigations, as well as FBI and CIA materials.

The most publicized debates over JFK were directed at the film's claim to historical truth and the legitimacy of the commercial filmmaker, and especially toward Oliver Stone, as a reteller of the past. There were other films made prior to JFK, both commercial and documentary, that challenged the Warren Commission's findings, but none created the controversy that surrounded Oliver Stone's production. This is in part because JFK entered the cultural dialogue in the early 1990s, a time of tremendous conflict over the meaning and destiny of America; interpretations of the past were charged with greater significance in the struggle over national identity than ever before.

By examining how Stone constructed his narrative about the assassination, we can observe the complexity of turning historical subject matter into a commercially successful film in the classic Hollywood narrative style, while also uncovering Stone's version of the assassination. Moreover, the box office success of the movie and the concurrent debate indicated more than mere fascination with the Kennedy assassination. The whole affair demonstrated how effective a motion picture can be as a transmitter of knowledge, history, and culture. As a result, the debate about the validity of JFK extended much further into the war-torn cultural landscape of America in the 1990s than most observers have noted. The JFK controversy was a telling incident demonstrating the larger cultural conflict over values and meaning in America and the competition to define national identity. Though largely neglected by most critics, the response of religious conservatives to JFK, in particular, showed how the cultural war over the future of America was in part waged through interpretations of the past, even those of a commercial filmmaker.

No other medium can approximate the realism of film, regarding its ability to allow the viewer to experience, i.e., "hear" and "see" the course of events taking shape in a certain way. By putting even seemingly unrelated actions together into a coherent narrative form, a film can juxtapose people, events, and circumstances in such a way as to offer an interpretation of their meaning and significance. As film historian David A. Cook explained, in distinction from a literary narrative, "film constructs its fictions through the deliberate manipulation of photographed reality itself, so that in cinema artifice and reality become quite literally indistinguishable" (93-4). The realism of the cinema, then, charges the artist's interpretation with authenticity, especially for an uninformed audience.

In this manner, JFK became a seamless montage of possibilities, blending historical evidence and speculation. The film overwhelmed the viewer with information presented in the quick-editing style of MTV music videos. "It is like splinters to the brain," Stone said of the MTV-styled imagery in JFK. "We were assaulting the senses in a kind of new-wave technique". Stone exploited the images and icons captured by the extraordinary television coverage of the events surrounding the assassination and seared into the collective memory. The combination of re-shot documentary footage with the original, simulations, and reenactments staged and shot on the actual location contributed to the film's claim of authenticity while also playing with audience expectations. The result was a heightening of the film's realism, a fantastic cinematography that, as critics maintained, was also a propagandistic technique: selective storytelling blending fact and fiction. By employing historical images in a different context of meaning, i.e., a narrative giving an alternative interpretation of the events surrounding the assassination, Stone intensified his demythologizing of the Warren Commission's lone gunman theory.

Los Angeles Times film critic Jack Mathews made the statement, "Filmmakers have a tacit responsibility not to lie or distort truth when truth is the very thing they claim to present". Regarding the Kennedy assassination, however, Stone's co-scriptor Zachary Sklar argued, "Since nobody agrees on anything, nobody is distorting history. The only official history is the Warren Commission report, and that nobody believes". Consistently since 1966, public opinion polls have shown that a majority of Americans believe there was a conspiracy involved in the assassination. More recently, U.S. News and World Report said that only 10 percent of Americans believed the Warren Commission's conclusion that Oswald acted alone. Opinion polls and the media debate showed the lack of consensus concerning the historical truth about Kennedy's assassination. The wide range of disagreement, in general and over so many particulars, demonstrated both the absence of shared public knowledge and just how much of the account remains obscured in controversy and confusion.

This state of affairs made it all the more difficult to conceive of a film (or any other kind of project for that matter) on the assassination that would not be disputatious. Apart from Warren Commission apologists (considered by Stone "a dying breed"), the assassination remains an unresolved event. But even among the independent conspiracy researchers, who became Stone's primary source for information about the assassination, there was considerable dispute about what constituted reliable historical evidence and what was purely speculation.


Season 1 Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States

By opting to have your ticket verified for this movie, you are allowing us to check the email address associated with your Rotten Tomatoes account against an email address associated with a Fandango ticket purchase for the same movie.

You're almost there! Just confirm how you got your ticket.

It’s good – I’d recommend it.

So Fresh: Absolute Must See!

What did you think of this tv season? (optional)

How did you buy your ticket?

By opting to have your ticket verified for this movie, you are allowing us to check the email address associated with your Rotten Tomatoes account against an email address associated with a Fandango ticket purchase for the same movie.

You haven’t finished your review yet, want to submit as-is?

You can always edit your review after.

Are you sure?

Verified reviews are considered more trustworthy by fellow moviegoers.

Want to submit changes to your review before closing?


Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States – box set review

R eactions to film director Oliver Stone's ambitious attempt to reinterpret America's postwar history tended to divide along strictly ideological lines. The left welcomed it – the Guardian's wave-making correspondent Glenn Greenwald tweeted: "You may not agree with all, but the series is provocative and worthwhile." The right despised it – neocon historian Ronald Radosh said it was "mendacious" and a "mindless regurgitation of Stalin's propaganda".

Stone, in his folksy introduction to the series that was shown on CBS's Showtime channel in the US in autumn 2012 and on Sky Atlantic in the UK in spring 2013, says he made it for his children. They were getting as one-sided a view of American history as he got – "We were the centre of the world, there was a manifest destiny, we were the good guys" – and he wanted to correct that. According to Stone, President Roosevelt's anti-imperialistic ideals were corrupted by his successors: from being the hammer of empire under Roosevelt and his vice-president Henry Wallace, the hero and great might-have-been in Stone's tale, the US became the most powerful and malign empire of all, virulently opposed to communism, fighting unjust wars, propping up dictators everywhere.

The series, which cost $5m (Stone stumped up $1m himself) and took four years to make, is superbly put together (editor Alex Márquez take a bow). It relies almost exclusively on archive footage and clips from Hollywood movies – there are no talking heads to slow the pace – plus a splendid soundtrack, with lashings of symphonic Beethoven at key moments. It is densely textured and closely argued: Stone, who narrates in a deep, soothing voice, generally avoids bashing the viewer over the head with polemic, instead allowing the facts to accrete into a powerful, if occasionally repetitive, thesis.

There are some fascinating details: for instance, that Harry Truman, controversially chosen instead of Wallace to be Roosevelt's Democratic running mate in the 1944 election, had only met the president twice while in office before Roosevelt died on 12 April 1945 and Truman succeeded him. The latter knew nothing about the atomic programme. Four months later, Truman (the villain to Wallace's hero in Stone's worldview) would authorise the bomb to be dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the moment, Stone believes, when the US lost its moral authority. Truman said it was to save the lives of US soldiers Stone and his historical adviser Peter Kuznick, who supplied much of the analytical apparatus for the series, insist it was to cow the Soviet Union, who had in effect won the war against Nazism and was now getting far too uppity.

The 10-part series has been transferred to three DVDs, with each part running to about an hour. It is well structured, mirroring the hefty book which accompanied the TV series, though the recaps of previous episodes become otiose on DVD. Mostly, Kuznick's solidly researched facts are laid out carefully, though Stone can't resist the occasional rhetorical gesture. "What might this country have become had Wallace succeeded Roosevelt in April '45 instead of Truman? Would no atomic bombs have been used in World War II? Could we have avoided the nuclear arms race and the cold war? Would civil rights and women's rights have triumphed in the immediate postwar world?" We will, as he is forced to admit, never know.

What we got instead of the Wallace dream world was the cold war, America as self-elected global policeman and all manner of chicanery by politicians forever proclaiming the US as the "shining city on the hill". That much is undeniable – the series is in many ways less iconoclastic than it makes out. But some of Stone's more dubious conspiracy theories remain, especially his belief that President Kennedy was killed not by a deranged loner but by the mysterious military-industrial complex which, he alleges, has run the US for the past 70 years. Echoing his film JFK, though here stated more circumspectly, Stone argues that Kennedy was eliminated because he was too progressive for this cabal, just as Wallace had been ousted (admittedly less bloodily) in 1944.

Such conspiracy theories make Stone an easy target for critics on the right, but that should not detract from a series that sets out to be a counterweight to the patriotic cheerleading and myth-making that characterised the US under President Reagan and the younger, more bellicose Bush. Its preoccupation with high politics is a limitation – it seems to assume that all change depends on presidential whim – and it lacks the intellectual complexity and true iconoclasm of Adam Curtis's documentaries. But it is solid, highly watchable (thanks to all the terrific archive material), thought-provoking, necessary and in the end, when Stone offers a peroration of hope played out against soaring music and touching visuals (those dispossessed but eternally hopeful people on the hill at the conclusion of the great 1936 disaster movie San Francisco), rather moving.


November 14, 2012

Subscribe to The Nation

Get The Nation’s Weekly Newsletter

By signing up, you confirm that you are over the age of 16 and agree to receive occasional promotional offers for programs that support The Nation’s journalism. You can read our Privacy Policy here.

Join the Books & the Arts Newsletter

By signing up, you confirm that you are over the age of 16 and agree to receive occasional promotional offers for programs that support The Nation’s journalism. You can read our Privacy Policy here.

Subscribe to The Nation

Support Progressive Journalism

Sign up for our Wine Club today.

If you thought Oliver Stone&rsquos Untold History of the United States&mdasha ten-part documentary series premiering November 12 on Showtime&mdashwould offer a series of conspiracy theories concerning the American past, you would be wrong. Despite Stone&rsquos 1991 film JFK, there&rsquos no JFK assassination conspiracy here&mdashjust a statement that the public found &ldquounconvincing&rdquo the Warren Commission&rsquos conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. There&rsquos no 9/11 conspiracy, and no allegations that Franklin Roosevelt schemed in secret to get the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor as a backdoor way to force the United States into World War II. The series&rsquo massive, 750-page companion volume, co-written with historian Peter Kuznick, also shuns conspiracy theories.

The &ldquountold history&rdquo here, which starts with World War II and ends with Obama, will not be unknown to readers of The Nation. Many of them already know that the Soviet Union defeated Hitler&rsquos armies, not the United States that Japan would have surrendered in August 1945 without the use of atomic bombs that the United States has a long history of backing right-wing dictators around the world rather than supporting democratic movements. But many TV viewers are not Nation subscribers&mdashat least that&rsquos what I&rsquove been told&mdashand even longtime readers of America&rsquos oldest weekly will find plenty of provocative ideas here. Stone is quick to acknowledge that he is hardly the first to present this kind of alternative, critical view&mdashhis illustrious predecessors include, of course, Howard Zinn&rsquos A People&rsquos History of the United States, and also the bestselling Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen. But neither of those historians ever had a ten-part series on cable television. Only Oliver Stone has the power to pull that off.

If there are no conspiracy theories here, Stone also eschews another line of argument that many might expect from him: that the ruling class is all-powerful, that Wall Street&mdashthe subject of one of his most memorable films&mdashcontrols everything, along with bankers and the corporate elite, leaving ordinary people helpless. The thesis of the Showtime series, as well as its companion volume, is different: that history is not an iron cage, the keys to which are held by the ruling class. At many pivotal moments, Stone argues, history could have taken a radically different course. The missed opportunities, the roads not taken&mdashthese are Stone&rsquos central themes, which he argues with energy, passion and a mountain of evidence (the companion volume has eighty-nine pages of footnotes).

Case number one: if Henry Wallace had won the vice presidential nomination in 1944, he would have become president when Roosevelt died in 1945, and we probably would not have bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and could have avoided the cold war as well. It&rsquos a startling and intriguing argument. Usually we teach about Wallace as the hopeless, left-wing third-party candidate of 1948, when he split from the Democrats and ran on the Progressive Party ticket. McCarthyism had already taken hold of American politics, and Wallace was redbaited into a crushing defeat.

Four years earlier, however, the situation was very different: Wallace was Roosevelt&rsquos incumbent vice president, and the Soviets were our allies. A Gallup poll in July 1944 asked likely Democratic voters whom they wanted on the ticket as veep. Sixty-five percent said Wallace, while Truman came in eighth, with just 2 percent. Roosevelt announced that, were he a delegate, he would vote for Wallace. Claude Pepper, a Democratic senator from Florida, tried to nominate Wallace at the convention, but the conservative party bosses, who opposed him, adjourned the proceedings. &ldquoHad Pepper made it five more feet [to the microphone] and nominated Wallace,&rdquo Stone argues, &ldquoWallace would have become president in 1945 and&hellipthere might have been no atomic bombings, no nuclear arms race, and no Cold War.&rdquo

Case number two: even with Truman as president in 1945, it was not a foregone conclusion that the United States would drop the bomb. Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur both opposed it, along with most of the other top generals and admirals&mdashand they were joined by many of the scientists who had developed the bomb. If only President Truman had listened to them&hellip

Case number three: if JFK had not been shot in 1963, Stone is convinced he would have pulled US forces out of Vietnam and negotiated an end to the cold war.

Case number four: if George W. Bush had listened to his intelligence agencies in 2001, the 9/11 attacks would not have taken place.

None of these hypotheticals, Stone claims, were impossible long shots or hopeless causes every one of them could have happened. There&rsquos plenty here to argue about&mdashI debated with colleagues about the Wallace scenario for days&mdashbut that&rsquos one of the things that make Stone&rsquos work so engaging and rewarding.

Historical documentaries are familiar fare on TV. Of course, we have Ken Burns on PBS and the endless hours of World War II on the History Channel. But these are celebratory stories of American heroism and virtue&mdashprecisely what Stone rejects. He has achieved something quite different, something closer to what Jeremy Isaacs accomplished in his two monumental documentaries: The World at War, a twenty-six-hour series on World War II produced by Britain&rsquos Thames Television and broadcast in the United States on PBS in 1975, and Cold War, a twenty-four-part series conceived by Ted Turner and shown on CNN in 1998. These are magnificent works that tell their stories from different viewpoints and avoid American exceptionalism.

Stone&rsquos style of documentary filmmaking, however, departs radically from the conventions. Ken Burns, Jeremy Isaacs and the History Channel all follow the same timeworn format: a series of talking heads&mdashexperts and &ldquowitnesses&rdquo&mdashappear onscreen to tell viewers what to think, and when they are finished, illustrative footage is presented. Stone has eliminated all the talking heads, on the grounds that they disrupt the flow of images. Indeed, a parade of different people, with their different ways of speaking, can be distracting. In Stone&rsquos series, he is the sole narrator, calm but forceful, and aside from a brief appearance at the start of the first episode, we never see him onscreen&mdashwe see only the newsreel footage, the headlines, the maps, the historical documents. The resulting programs have an undeniable visual power, even though the black-and-white newsreel footage may not engage younger generations raised on high-definition color.

When I asked Stone at a recent book event in West Hollywood why he decided to take up TV documentaries, he said one man was responsible: Peter Kuznick, a professor of history and the director of the award-winning Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. Kuznick is the author of Beyond the Laboratory: Scientists as Political Activists in 1930s America, and the co-editor of Rethinking Cold War Culture. He also provides a valuable service every summer: he takes an American history class on a field trip to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (He calls it &ldquoeducation abroad.&rdquo)

For years, Kuznick taught a course at American University titled &ldquoOliver Stone&rsquos America.&rdquo Stone finally accepted an invitation to come to the class, and at a dinner afterward, he says, Kuznick told him the story of how close Wallace came to getting renominated as vice president in 1944. Stone says that&rsquos what convinced him to do a history documentary for TV, and to ask Kuznick to be his co-author and partner on what would become a four-year project. There&rsquos never been anything like it on television the prevailing notions of American &ldquoaltruism, benevolence, and self-sacrifice&rdquo have never been challenged quite so effectively for such a wide audience.

In our November 19 issue, Eric Alterman punctured enduring myths about the Cuban missile crisis.


Oliver Stone

    YMMV Awesome ) Laconic

Oliver Stone (born 1946) is an American screenwriter, director, and producer best known for his films about controversial social and political issues. After wetting his feet in Hollywood with the screenplays for Scarface and Midnight Express, Stone was finally able to direct his legendary war film Platoon, which drew largely on his own experiences as an infantryman in Vietnam, and earned him Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. He would follow this film with the critically acclaimed Wall Street, Born On the Fourth of July (another Oscar winner for Best Director) before making headlines with his ultra-controversial (due to its liberal use of Artistic License in portraying historical events) 1991 film JFK, which took a look at the assassination of John F Kennedy. He followed the success of JFK up with the Biopic Nixon, which faced equally harsh criticism (though unlike JFK, it acknowledged its artistic license up front) and was a financial flop. The one-two punch of JFK and Nixon has led to the depiction of Stone as a Conspiracy Theorist filmmaker.

In 2004, Stone was finally able to make his passion project, the historical epic Alexander, about the life of Alexander the Great. It ended up being a critical and commercial failure in the United States, though it made tons of money overseas and was a success on home video. Stone was never fully satisfied with the theatrical release of the film, and released a pair of ReCuts on DVD which were considerably more well-recieved than the theatrical release. Following Alexander, Stone make a film about 9/11 titled Conspiracy Theory film, but rather a hopeful tribute to those who worked to save the lives of the victims of the WTC attacks. Similarly, his George W. Bush Biopic W., released in 2008, surprised many by being very sympathetic to the man (though it must be said many people had similar reactions to Stone's portrayal of Nixon). He later released a long-gestating sequel to Wall Street entitled Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps which, while a financial success, had mixed reviews. He is currently working on another crime movie, the drug thriller Savages.

Despite the tendancies of his films to be less than subtle, Stone is a very talented director whose movies always have a sense of audacity and a dynamic visual style. He's also great at getting fantastic performances from his cast, even (some would argue especially) when they seem to have come from the WTH? Casting Agency. Also, due to the fact that many of the subjects that his films cover are Flame Bait, Stone himself is often subject to hyperbole and criticism, so be aware of this before you talk to someone about him.


The Heat Podcast

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. Planned by the CIA, it was a plot to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The mission ended in a humiliating defeat for a group of U.S.-trained Cuban exiles who invaded the island’s southern shore.

As Cubans mark that anniversary, Anand Naidoo had an indepth discussion with acclaimed film-maker Oliver Stone on U.S. foreign policy over the past 60 years.

Related


'The Untold History' review: Oliver Stone

The Untold History of the United States: Documentary series. By Oliver Stone. 8 p.m. Monday on Showtime.

History is a record of what happened and, perhaps, why. But, implicitly, it can also be about what could have happened but didn't. If Lincoln hadn't gone to the theater that night in April, for example, he might have died of old age.

Once events happen, they can't "unhappen," yet it is human nature for us to ask, "What if?" Oliver Stone has asked the question through much of his film work over the years, and asks it again in the first four films in his 10-part documentary series, "The Untold History of the United States," premiering on Showtime on Monday.

In fact, "What If" might have been a more accurate title for the series, at least on the basis of the first four films, because much of their content isn't untold, per se, but, rather, retold with Stone's interpretation and emphasis.

The first four chapters focus on American history from World War II, through the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, to the postwar Truman and Eisenhower years and the Cold War.

The primary points Stone makes in the first four episodes are:

-- The price of American aid to Britain in the early years of World War II was the end of British trade dominance after the war and a new and more powerful role for the United States in global economics.

-- Although the United States believes World War II was won by the Allies, Stone says the Soviet Union should get the credit for defeating the Germans.

-- Similarly, although popular thinking is that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war in the Pacific, Stone says the bombs had nothing to do with defeating Japan but, rather, it was the eastward push by the Soviets in China that forced Japan to surrender. This was Joseph Stalin upholding his pledge to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to attack Manchuria.

-- The "real" Harry Truman was a "far darker" figure than portrayed in David McCullough's Pulitzer-winning biography.

-- If FDR had backed his third-term vice president, Henry Wallace, for the fourth term, it would have prevented the Democratic convention from being manipulated by party bosses into nominating Truman. That would have made Wallace president after FDR's death, the atomic bombs never would have been dropped on Japan, the rise of the military-industrial complex would have been blocked, the United States and the Soviet Union might have forged a postwar working alliance, and the Cold War might never have occurred.

The films are at their best when they provide a panoramic view of our history in the middle part of the 20th century. Ably abetted by the superb editing work by Alex Marquez, "Untold Story" shows how the nation's international policies were shaped, refracted and, at times, undermined by internal politics.

That said, Stone's predictably narrow intensity sometimes works against him, frequently throwing the overall balance of each film off by leaving us with unanswered questions on some topics, and, in a way, too much information on others.

Stone has always displayed a provocative fascination with history, and it is valuable, to an extent, to consider how things could have been different. During the 1944 Democratic convention in Chicago, for example, Wallace was pretty much a shoo-in for renomination at first, but party bosses adjourned the proceedings before Florida's Sen. Claude Pepper, who was only a few feet away from the podium, could place Wallace's name in nomination. The delay gave the bosses a chance to bully, horse-trade and sway votes away from Wallace and to the seemingly unremarkable failed Missouri haberdasher - Sen. Harry Truman.

The films are narrated by Stone, who must have taken elocution lessons from William Shatner: He has an unnerving habit of pausing every few words for no apparent reason other than dramatic effect, especially after the emphasized article "the." In other words, the . film would have benefited from . someone other than the . director . doing the . narration.

But, since they've already been made, there's no going back to correct that problem, is there?


Oliver Stone

    YMMV Awesome ) Laconic

Oliver Stone (born 1946) is an American screenwriter, director, and producer best known for his films about controversial social and political issues. After wetting his feet in Hollywood with the screenplays for Scarface and Midnight Express, Stone was finally able to direct his legendary war film Platoon, which drew largely on his own experiences as an infantryman in Vietnam, and earned him Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. He would follow this film with the critically acclaimed Wall Street, Born On the Fourth of July (another Oscar winner for Best Director) before making headlines with his ultra-controversial (due to its liberal use of Artistic License in portraying historical events) 1991 film JFK, which took a look at the assassination of John F Kennedy. He followed the success of JFK up with the Biopic Nixon, which faced equally harsh criticism (though unlike JFK, it acknowledged its artistic license up front) and was a financial flop. The one-two punch of JFK and Nixon has led to the depiction of Stone as a Conspiracy Theorist filmmaker.

In 2004, Stone was finally able to make his passion project, the historical epic Alexander, about the life of Alexander the Great. It ended up being a critical and commercial failure in the United States, though it made tons of money overseas and was a success on home video. Stone was never fully satisfied with the theatrical release of the film, and released a pair of ReCuts on DVD which were considerably more well-recieved than the theatrical release. Following Alexander, Stone make a film about 9/11 titled Conspiracy Theory film, but rather a hopeful tribute to those who worked to save the lives of the victims of the WTC attacks. Similarly, his George W. Bush Biopic W., released in 2008, surprised many by being very sympathetic to the man (though it must be said many people had similar reactions to Stone's portrayal of Nixon). He later released a long-gestating sequel to Wall Street entitled Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps which, while a financial success, had mixed reviews. He is currently working on another crime movie, the drug thriller Savages.

Despite the tendancies of his films to be less than subtle, Stone is a very talented director whose movies always have a sense of audacity and a dynamic visual style. He's also great at getting fantastic performances from his cast, even (some would argue especially) when they seem to have come from the WTH? Casting Agency. Also, due to the fact that many of the subjects that his films cover are Flame Bait, Stone himself is often subject to hyperbole and criticism, so be aware of this before you talk to someone about him.


Oliver Stone’s Untold History Is Neither Good History Nor Quite Untold

Would we even recognize an Oliver Stone production if it didn’t kick up the usual fuss? He has a TV series now, so we could expect the usual recipe in response: one part excessive praise, one part eye-rolling, one part outrage. In New York, Matt Zoller Seitz proclaimed Stone’s new Untold History of the United States “remarkable, if dense and often difficult” just a few paragraphs before calling it “fresh, even cheeky.” The Daily Beast, meanwhile, sent Michael Moynihan into the breach and—surprise! In the book that accompanies the show, there are factual errors. Is this unexpected? We are a talking about a man who has for so long played fast and loose with the facts that it has become an intrinsic element of his brand. It’s a symptom of the megalomania that is the real downfall of his work. “Quit complaining,” he remarkably told Slate critic June Thomas when she interviewed him last week and dared to ask about his pacing.

Since JFK (1991), Stone has occupied the crooked intersection of “public intellectual” and “conspiracy-minded hack.” (Note that these two roles are not mutually exclusive.) His suggestion in that film that Lyndon Johnson might have had something to do with the Kennedy assassination was so completely contrary to fact—not just in its ideas about Johnson, but in its presumption that Kennedy would never have taken the country deeper into Vietnam—that even his admirers had to pause for a bit. His career has never entirely recovered. In a piece about the Hollywood marketing machine that took the PR effort for Stone’s W. (2008) as its fulcrum, Tad Friend quoted an executive who cut to the chase: “Who wants to see an evenhanded editorial think piece from Oliver Stone?”

But Stone has had powerful defenders even during his greatest overreaches. No less than Nora Ephron and Norman Mailer appeared to defend him at New York City’s Town Hall in 1992. Mailer’s justification was typical: Stone, he said, had the “the integrity of a brute.” Ephron, nursing an old wound over the reception of her based-on-a-true-story movie Silkwood, gave voice to the now common idea that in order to “impose a narrative,” certain real-life facts must be altered. Most academic historians accept that historians’ own circumstances demand that they tell the story in a particular way, of course. While people wring their hands about “revisionist” historians, on some level the correction and amplification of various parts of the past is not “revisionism” as it is simply the process of any historical writing.

If Stone himself showed any awareness of this, his series might be better than it is. But he’s never been a very deep thinker. In the sternly voiced yet hilarious opening to his documentary, Stone bravely sets his sights on the history curricula of public schools. (Spoiler alert: They’re overly simplistic.) “We live much of our lives in a fog, all of us,” he intones, before droning wearily about “the tyranny of now.” But he doesn’t mean the same thing a historiographer might—he isn’t concerned in the least that his view of history might be limited by his own circumstances. He’s referring to the “media” noise machine—a pretty rich claim for a big-studio, picture-a-year director to make. Pauline Kael once called Stone a “pounder,” for his heavy-handedness, and damned if he hasn’t spent his entire career proving her right. He might want to turn his own bass line down a touch before he gets on about noise.

Untold History claims to debunk some other story of history, but it never tells us beyond generalities what that supposedly official story might be. Stone refers vaguely to uncritical beliefs that America was “great,” and generously assumes that it all ends there for everyone. He is, once again, underestimating his audience’s intelligence.

Indeed, Stone’s “new” telling of American history is far more familiar than he thinks. The first two episodes go through oft-trod ground on the geopolitics of World War II and post-war anti-Soviet policy. Stone thinks Truman was too hard on the Soviets. So firm is he in this conviction that he whips out—no kidding—a dictionary definition of empathy, suggesting that Truman lacked it. And then he quotes a Kennedy speech from 1963 which sympathizes with Soviet sacrifices, leaving the viewer bewildered. Is it told or untold, Stone? Pick a side.

Stone’s lionizing of Kennedy points to another problem: The cast of The Untold History is made up of the usual suspects, powerful and established politicians all. His idea of an unsung hero is Henry Wallace, a man who got to be Vice President the greatest injustice of post-war America in Stone’s eyes seems to be the replacement of Wallace in that office by Harry S. Truman. Stone is imagined as some radical leftist, but every hero in his work turns out to be a white man, usually a quite successful one of good education and breeding. Which is what makes all the comparisons between this show and the People’s History of the United States so misplaced. While the author of that book, Howard Zinn, said nice things about Stone, he himself was less interested in the machinations of elite men than he was in giving voice to the disaffected. Stone’s approach is nothing like this.

When Truman defeats Henry Wallace, the tragedy is dramatized by a long clip from another fantasia of righteous white guys in Congress, Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Which just proves that Ronald Steel had Stone’s number years ago, in The New Republic, when he wrote of JFK:

Stone, in other words, doesn’t belong in the company of the Old American Left so much as in the pages of the cheaper men’s magazines and old Boys’ Own serials. Just days after an election that suggested the Age of the Angry White Man might be fading, if not over, he’s the guy on the airwaves unapologetically explaining why this or that other Great White Man could have made it all turn out differently. And for some reason, some of us are still listening.


Oliver Stone’s Untold History Is Neither Good History Nor Quite Untold

Would we even recognize an Oliver Stone production if it didn’t kick up the usual fuss? He has a TV series now, so we could expect the usual recipe in response: one part excessive praise, one part eye-rolling, one part outrage. In New York, Matt Zoller Seitz proclaimed Stone’s new Untold History of the United States “remarkable, if dense and often difficult” just a few paragraphs before calling it “fresh, even cheeky.” The Daily Beast, meanwhile, sent Michael Moynihan into the breach and—surprise! In the book that accompanies the show, there are factual errors. Is this unexpected? We are a talking about a man who has for so long played fast and loose with the facts that it has become an intrinsic element of his brand. It’s a symptom of the megalomania that is the real downfall of his work. “Quit complaining,” he remarkably told Slate critic June Thomas when she interviewed him last week and dared to ask about his pacing.

Since JFK (1991), Stone has occupied the crooked intersection of “public intellectual” and “conspiracy-minded hack.” (Note that these two roles are not mutually exclusive.) His suggestion in that film that Lyndon Johnson might have had something to do with the Kennedy assassination was so completely contrary to fact—not just in its ideas about Johnson, but in its presumption that Kennedy would never have taken the country deeper into Vietnam—that even his admirers had to pause for a bit. His career has never entirely recovered. In a piece about the Hollywood marketing machine that took the PR effort for Stone’s W. (2008) as its fulcrum, Tad Friend quoted an executive who cut to the chase: “Who wants to see an evenhanded editorial think piece from Oliver Stone?”

But Stone has had powerful defenders even during his greatest overreaches. No less than Nora Ephron and Norman Mailer appeared to defend him at New York City’s Town Hall in 1992. Mailer’s justification was typical: Stone, he said, had the “the integrity of a brute.” Ephron, nursing an old wound over the reception of her based-on-a-true-story movie Silkwood, gave voice to the now common idea that in order to “impose a narrative,” certain real-life facts must be altered. Most academic historians accept that historians’ own circumstances demand that they tell the story in a particular way, of course. While people wring their hands about “revisionist” historians, on some level the correction and amplification of various parts of the past is not “revisionism” as it is simply the process of any historical writing.

If Stone himself showed any awareness of this, his series might be better than it is. But he’s never been a very deep thinker. In the sternly voiced yet hilarious opening to his documentary, Stone bravely sets his sights on the history curricula of public schools. (Spoiler alert: They’re overly simplistic.) “We live much of our lives in a fog, all of us,” he intones, before droning wearily about “the tyranny of now.” But he doesn’t mean the same thing a historiographer might—he isn’t concerned in the least that his view of history might be limited by his own circumstances. He’s referring to the “media” noise machine—a pretty rich claim for a big-studio, picture-a-year director to make. Pauline Kael once called Stone a “pounder,” for his heavy-handedness, and damned if he hasn’t spent his entire career proving her right. He might want to turn his own bass line down a touch before he gets on about noise.

Untold History claims to debunk some other story of history, but it never tells us beyond generalities what that supposedly official story might be. Stone refers vaguely to uncritical beliefs that America was “great,” and generously assumes that it all ends there for everyone. He is, once again, underestimating his audience’s intelligence.

Indeed, Stone’s “new” telling of American history is far more familiar than he thinks. The first two episodes go through oft-trod ground on the geopolitics of World War II and post-war anti-Soviet policy. Stone thinks Truman was too hard on the Soviets. So firm is he in this conviction that he whips out—no kidding—a dictionary definition of empathy, suggesting that Truman lacked it. And then he quotes a Kennedy speech from 1963 which sympathizes with Soviet sacrifices, leaving the viewer bewildered. Is it told or untold, Stone? Pick a side.

Stone’s lionizing of Kennedy points to another problem: The cast of The Untold History is made up of the usual suspects, powerful and established politicians all. His idea of an unsung hero is Henry Wallace, a man who got to be Vice President the greatest injustice of post-war America in Stone’s eyes seems to be the replacement of Wallace in that office by Harry S. Truman. Stone is imagined as some radical leftist, but every hero in his work turns out to be a white man, usually a quite successful one of good education and breeding. Which is what makes all the comparisons between this show and the People’s History of the United States so misplaced. While the author of that book, Howard Zinn, said nice things about Stone, he himself was less interested in the machinations of elite men than he was in giving voice to the disaffected. Stone’s approach is nothing like this.

When Truman defeats Henry Wallace, the tragedy is dramatized by a long clip from another fantasia of righteous white guys in Congress, Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Which just proves that Ronald Steel had Stone’s number years ago, in The New Republic, when he wrote of JFK:

Stone, in other words, doesn’t belong in the company of the Old American Left so much as in the pages of the cheaper men’s magazines and old Boys’ Own serials. Just days after an election that suggested the Age of the Angry White Man might be fading, if not over, he’s the guy on the airwaves unapologetically explaining why this or that other Great White Man could have made it all turn out differently. And for some reason, some of us are still listening.


Watch the video: Oliver Tree - Life Goes On Lyric Video