The last thing I’m ready to do is admit that I miss George W. Bush. His administration violated privacy rights around the globe and inaugurated America’s war on Muslims, which, unbelievably, has only gotten worse! Bush bears responsibility for the Iraq Body Count, guilt that exceeds unforgivable. By no means am I trying to resurrect the man’s reputation. BUT– there’s one thing that I just can’t shake in the days after Trump’s dark, twisted fantasy of an inaugural address: at least Old Bushey took an optimistic view about the United States.
It occurred to me while making my way through the Netflix documentary series Untold History of the United States (2012) recently that I resent Oliver Stone’s filmmaking for the very same shortcoming: its pessimism. So instead of opening up about the horrible feelings I’m still processing about the new president – and the dark corners that it’s apparently taken me to – I’ve opted instead to use Mr. Stone’s films for a punching bag.
Let me start off by giving credit where it is due. Oliver Stone volunteered for Vietnam combat out of a sense of duty in 1967, and like many soldiers, experienced a loss of innocence regarding what unthinking patriotism entails. That’s the whole point of Platoon (1986), which I consider a great film. Platoon marvelously overturns the old axiom that it’s not possible to make an anti-war movie because war scenes are just too enjoyable to watch (h/t Roger Ebert). The film also brings to light very real issues that Vietnam War soldiers faced, including drugs, fragging, and having no clear sense of who their enemy was. But, as Peter Rollins and John O’Connor noted in Why We Fought: America’s Wars in Film and History (2008), if Platoon overwhelmingly succeeded in demonstrating that ‘war is hell,’ it told us precious little about what the war meant to the country’s history.
Stone has not made this mistake since Platoon, but that’s the problem. Unlike Platoon‘s focused portrayal of infantry life during wartime, Stone’s later work has been so preoccupied with signaling its broader political significance that it constantly reveals the director’s pessimistic — and dare I say, unpatriotic — vision of American history.
The example that immediately comes to mind is Stone’s 1991 film, JFK, which legitimized a conspiracy theory of the president’s assassination. One sure sign of a pessimist: martyring the assassinated Kennedy as a progressive icon. We get it: progressive America died with our hero. Sure, the comparison (and the film!) flagrantly ignores Kennedy’s opportunistic record on civil rights, his tax cuts for the rich and incorporated, and his general war hawkishness. But dammit was he young and vibrant.
Even more off-putting than hero-worship is Stone’s penchant for taking creative license to make political arguments. At one point in the 2008 film W., for example, Stone portrays the villainous Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Karl Rove plotting in the Situation Room to invade Iraq as part of a larger scheme to occupy Iran and control Middle Eastern oilfields. It’s the kind of exaggeration that makes you question the authenticity of everything you’ve ever seen on film. I mean, they literally cloak Rove in shadows the whole time.
Look, I’m all for denouncing the Bush Doctrine’s preemptive warfare clause, but let’s fight with facts not fantasies. The truth is, the Bush administration feared a conflict would break out with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, not its oilfields. Oh, and here is a list of other problems with W. The film is so wildly biased that I have avoided seeing any of Stone’s subsequent films, including Snowden (2016), out of fear that Stone would populate my left-leaning mind with false facts about a figure with conflicting attitudes about the United States—which sucks, because I really want to see Snowden!
Obviously, I lifted the ban temporarily to watch Untold History, reasoning that it was a documentary not a feature. To its credit, the series does a good job presenting the kind of alternative history that we at Yester love discussing. The show takes you through the international history of the United States in the twentieth century, Howard Zinn style. That is, Stone takes you through events you think you know — Truman’s decision to drop the atom bomb in Japan, the Big-Three gathering at Potsdam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc. — and he flips their significance around with other perspectives on them.
He contextualizes the atom bomb as just another big explosion in a much deadlier U.S. air campaign on the Pacific. He spends what seems like whole episodes bemoaning the Democrats’ betrayal of progressive icon Henry A. Wallace in favor of anti-Communist zealot Harry Truman. Wallace, he tells us, would have worked with the Soviets and avoided the Cold War if he had assumed the presidency instead of Truman (see the pattern?). Throughout the series, it’s always clear where Stone’s sympathies lie–with American and Soviet socialists who fought U.S. hegemony. Just listen to the film score!
Although I enjoyed Stone’s novel perspectives on the familiar stories of the American Century, I also found them dangerously misleading. As in W., Stone again asserts that the Bush-era Pentagon planned a five year campaign with seven targeted Middle Eastern countries: “A War to Remake the world–the neo-conservative way,” he claims. Ultimately, then, Untold History suffers from the same unsettling setback that Stone’s films do: it exaggerates the truth to validate a diabolical U.S.A. interpretation of history.
I know I promised to keep my unprocessed feelings at bay, but let’s psychoanalyze this post for just one moment. Clearly, I’m trying to figure out what to do with my own paralyzed sense of patriotism in the wake of Trump’s horrifying first week, capped-off by yesterday’s news that he had signed an anti-Muslim immigration order. Does patriotism have a place in politics, filmmaking, or historical analysis? No! But neither does unsubstantiated negativity. I guess what Trump’s inauguration and Stone’s films each make me realize is that I prefer optimistic delusions to pessimistic ones.
Photo Credit: Josh at Flickr Creative Commons