DI­REC­TOR’S VER­DICT

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

NO sooner have I asked the movie di­rec­tor Oliver Stone and the his­tory pro­fes­sor Peter Kuznick about crit­i­cism of their book and TV se­ries, The Un­told His­tory of the United States, than Stone is shak­ing his head, tut­ting grandly and in­struct­ing Kuznick to ‘‘ show him, show him’’. Kuznick prof­fers, with a flour­ish, a full page of plau­dits, in­clud­ing one that makes them beam most: ‘‘ There is much here to re­flect upon’’ (Mikhail Gor­bachev).

Both book and TV se­ries — the lat­ter called Oliver Stone’s Un­told His­tory of the United States — an­a­lyse ‘‘ what Amer­ica has done wrong, in the hope it can change’’, says Stone, di­rec­tor of Pla­toon and JFK, in his husky voice, a vivid red scarf wrapped around his neck.

Two years ago Stone, a mag­net for con­tro­versy, apol­o­gised af­ter claim­ing a ‘‘ Jewish-dom­i­nated me­dia’’ fo­cused on the Holo­caust. Now he’s con­demn­ing the ra­pa­cious ‘‘ em­pire build­ing’’ of the US, which has war­mon­gered for power and profit, and — in the cause of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism — negated its po­ten­tial as a force for good. ‘‘ What is un­told for me — and I was born af­ter the atomic bomb was dropped, the Cold War was my youth — was the truth that the Rus­sians were the main vic­tors of World War II and paid the high­est price.’’

Stone means the 27 mil­lion dead that the pair at­tribute to the war, al­though one critic claimed that be­tween one and five mil­lion could be at­trib­uted to Stalin’s bru­tal­ity. Stone and Kuznick claim Tru­man was an ag­gres­sor and the Ja­panese were about to sur­ren­der be­fore the US dropped the Bomb. ‘‘ The US did that as a strong, bar­baric state­ment to the Rus­sians,’’ says Stone. ‘‘ You can’t f . . k with the United States. We con­trol the world and kill peo­ple.’’ His eyes glit­ter, the swag­ger­ing Stone re­places sober tu­tor: ‘‘ That’s just the f . . king first three episodes!’’

In the year of the tenth an­niver­sary of the start of the Iraq war, Stone is strong in his con­dem­na­tion: ‘‘ Its been a tremen­dous set­back for our coun­try, a national trauma. Obama has con­tin­ued the lie that this is Amer­i­can mil­i­tary ser­vice abroad with­out any self­ish mo­tive, that it has ev­ery­thing to do with 9/11.’’

What was Iraq about, for Stone? ‘‘ God knows,’’ he says with a laugh. ‘‘ It was a plan def­i­nitely with its eyes on the prize, be­gin­ning with [for­mer vice-pres­i­dent Dick] Cheney’s on Iraq’s oil and gas re­serves.’’ Iraq rep­re­sented ‘‘ a very danger­ous con­tin­u­a­tion of the neo­con plan to pen­e­trate the Mid­dle East’’.

In their most con­tentious chap­ter, Stone and Kuznick say that had the left-wing Henry Wal­lace, vice-pres­i­dent un­der Roo­sevelt, be­come pres­i­dent rather than Tru­man, ‘‘ the Cold War, Viet­nam, arms race, Iraq and Afghanistan’’ might not have un­folded; the book sweeps through Rea­gan’s con­sol­i­da­tion of the US mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial com­plex and Obama’s fail­ure to keep his prom­ise to ‘‘ change’’ Amer­ica. ‘‘ Obama’s a wolf in sheep’s cloth­ing,’’ Stone says.

He and Kuznick may have re­ceived praise from Gor­bachev and many oth­ers, but their re­vi­sion­ism has also been crit­i­cised. The big­gest firestorm has been played out on the pages of The New York Re­view of Books. The his­to­rian Sean Wi­lentz ac­cused them, in a lac­er­at­ing re­view, of dis­tort­ing his­tory and the ac­tions of Tru­man, Wal­lace and oth­ers, and ‘‘ cherry-pick­ing’’ sources. In re­sponse, Stone and Kuznick said Wi­lentz’s re­view was ‘‘ er­ror­rid­dled’’. Wi­lentz then blasted their ‘‘ dis­grace­ful’’ ver­sion of his­tory.

Has the pair made er­rors?

‘‘ There are some mis­takes but noth­ing ma­jor,’’ Stone claims. ‘‘ We could have spent more time at­tack­ing Stalin,’’ Kuznick con­cedes. ‘‘ There are no lim­its to the bad things you could say about Stalin,’’ Stone growls. ‘‘ He de­stroyed the true left­ist com­mu­nist move­ment in the 20s and 30s, for­ever. But I went to Rus­sia in the 80s. They loved Stalin, he was their wartime leader.’’

Stone praises Stalin’s ‘‘ cool­ness’’ in his deal­ings with the West. ‘‘ There are li­braries full of books that talk about his bru­tal­ity,’’ Kuznick says. ‘‘ We didn’t feel that was a story we needed to tell.’’ Stone: ‘‘ Ask the aver­age Amer­i­can who won World War II and they’ll say, ‘ We did’. But the Soviet strug­gle and sac­ri­fice was far greater.’’ Kuznick iden­ti­fies the ‘‘ mythic un­der­stand­ing of our past’’ at the root of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism: ‘‘ The cav­alry rid­ing in . . . that we’re God’s gift to hu­man­ity. It’s fan­ci­ful and de­struc­tive.’’

Was Amer­ica ever the good guy? ‘‘ In World War II,’’ Stone says. Kuznick: ‘‘ The Mar­shall Plan was a pos­i­tive way of us re­lat­ing to the world, re­build­ing it. If Amer­ica had reached out to the world we could have helped carve out a dif­fer­ent world. We’ve had that op­por­tu­nity time and time again.’’ For Stone, the great­est US pres­i­dents that never were in­clude Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy (had they not been shot) and Ge­orge McGovern.

‘‘ Some­thing was wrong’’ in the his­tory Stone im­bibed as a child. ‘‘ Up un­til the late 1970s I never ques­tioned the Bomb.’’ While his fa­ther, a Repub­li­can, hated Tru­man’s labour poli­cies, ‘‘ I was born and raised in an age of con­form­ity, we walked around in jack­ets and ties. I was more scared than rebel, grow­ing up in a cli­mate of fear of bomb tests and Rus­sians tak­ing over our coun­try.’’

Stone’s analy­ses, and some­times au­da­cious re­vi­sions of his­tory, are in­trin­sic to his movies, most con­tro­ver­sially in JFK, which posited a con­spir­acy the­ory of Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion.

Pla­toon was based on his ex­pe­ri­ences as an in­fantry sol­dier in Viet­nam, the ex­pe­ri­ence of which was ‘‘ an eye-opener, but not rad­i­cally so. I didn’t come back and be­come an an­ti­war pro­tester like Ron Kovic [the sub­ject of Stone’s Os­car-win­ning Born on the Fourth of July]. I went be­tween left and right. When I went to El Sal­vador in 1985 [to re­search his movie Sal­vador] I saw how the death squads and paramil­i­taries were linked to the US. I felt the same anger I felt about the con­flu­ence of shady con­trac­tors, mil­i­tary and ter­ror we brought to Viet­nam. You could tell you were tear­ing wounds into a coun­try. It was hor­ri­ble, fright­en­ing. But you couldn’t see the whole un­til you pulled back.

‘‘ In Pla­toon, when you see them shoot­ing at the feet of the Viet­namese in frus­tra­tion, that’s true. You saw rape and killing. We used semi-

Oliver Stone out­side the Capi­tol build­ing in Wash­ing­ton, DC, the seat of US leg­isla­tive power

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