Judge Clark Douglas hopes his life is eventually summarized by a breathless montage.
A look back at the major events that have shaped the world as it is today.
Full disclosure: when I first realized that I had received Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States as a review assignment, I groaned aloud. I've admired plenty of Oliver Stone's films, but he's never really been regarded as an expert historian. Though JFK is a terrific piece of filmmaking, it has very little regard for sticking to historical facts. Over the course of his career, Stone has established himself as both a political extremist (getting cuddly with the likes of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in documentaries like Comandante and South of the Border) and a sensationalist. He's an interesting man, but he seemed an incredibly poor choice to helm a long-form documentary series on America's history. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Stone's latest work is actually a decent, level-headed examination of our nation's recent past.
To be sure, those averse to Stone will likely be turned off from the very beginning, as the filmmaker delivers a speech bemoaning the fact that America's children aren't being given an accurate version of history and that he's here to set the record straight. I braced myself for tales of Nixon's alleged involvement in the Kennedy assassination, but what I actually witnessed was an engaging and well-researched look at some overlooked chapters in American history. "Overlooked" is the key word here, as almost nothing in the documentary series is actually "untold" or unverified. Rather than uncovering a whole bunch of America's hidden secrets ala National Treasure, Stone contents himself with reminding us of a host of fascinating moments that have been swept under the rug over the years.
The ten-part series begins with World War II and ends in the present day (midway through the Obama administration), detailing a wide variety of crucial missteps our nation has made along the way. Stone's series doesn't ignore the more noble moments in American history, but it's far more interesting in the mistakes we've made. It's not a particularly uplifting approach, but it's a valid one that hasn't been explored often enough. It's a matter of shifting emphasis rather than shifting facts, and the end result is a series that illuminates some complicated, sobering matters. The ten episodes are broken up as follows:
World War II
It's a fairly quick trip through a rather lengthy period of time, and Stone's fast-paced editing style makes the whole thing a good deal more entertaining and addictive than it might have been in other hands. As usual, Stone isn't really capable of subtlety, but he's certainly capable of grabbing your attention—countless old movie clips and unusual pieces of archival footage are peppered throughout the journey, with the likes of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart delivering well-timed one-liners every step of the way. In some ways, the series feels like a ten-hour version of one of Stone's signature montages, with the director himself narrating every step of the way. The only real problem is that a few of the voice actors Stone has hired to recreate the voices of noted historical figures aren't exactly up to the task (the Roosevelt impersonator in particular sounds nothing like the real FDR). That quibble aside, it's a rather satisfying ride.
Untold History of the United States (Blu-ray) has received a solid 1080p/1.78:1 transfer, but given that we're dealing almost exclusively with archival footage, the quality of the image largely depends on the quality of the existing material. Still, the series looks sharp when it's able to. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is stellar as well, delivering the director's narration with clarity. Once again, however, much of what we hear is archival footage of varying quality. Supplements are generous and essential: two bonus episodes (detailing the events of the '20s and '30s—why weren't these included as part of the main series?) and a feature-length conversation between Stone and author Tariq Ali that essentially serves as a distillation of the series and an expansion on its core ideas.
Oliver Stone has always been fascinated with history, but not since the days of Platoon has he been such a fine historian. If you can shake off any built-in biases towards the series long enough to see for yourself what Stone is really up to, you'll discover a surprisingly compelling and insightful series.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Bonus Episodes
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