Watching Oliver Stone's new series is a bit like being trapped with a know-it-all in a pub. He's not exactly boring you to death, but he tends to drone on a bit. The Untold History he speaks of is basically a left-leaning re-write of the right-leaning history taught to Stone, and to the rest of the world back in school. Not so much America's greatest hits then, this is a collection of the bum notes, the bad times. America gets to wear the black hat.
"There have been some profound mistakes but we still have, I believe, the chance to correct them", says Stone, who's turned the gravitas knob up to 11 for this outing. He only appears at the beginning of the series, from then on in, it's just his voice. Weirdly his delivery is a strange staccato that makes it seem as if someone has blanked out every fourth word and he has to guess what it is.
That's not to say it's not worth a look, it has merits aplenty. For one thing it's rather refreshing to hear an American assert that WW2 wasn't won by the Red White and Blue, rather it was the Reds who nailed the Nazis. As Stone reminds us, the loses of the allies where "in the hundreds of thousands as opposed to some 27 million for the Soviets."
Visually it's a treat too. The archive - and apart from some graphics this is all archive - is top notch. Hitler has never looked so good.
Stone also gets points for telling us (well me at least) some things we didn't know. Many of these stories are, as promised on the pack, relatively, untold. I also like the way he lionises the "forgotten heroes" like Roosevelt, Gorbachov and Martin Luther King, while bad mouthing Churchill, Reagan and the Kennedys.
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Being but an amateur reader of history I was surprised to learn that "during WW2 there was more industrial unrest than at any other time in US history."
And while war waged in Europe, Detroit was ablaze with race riots. One anti-black protester is quoted as yelling, "I'd rather see Hitler a hero and win than work beside a nigger on the assembly line." Some 25 rioting blacks were killed by police in the city in 1943. But interesting riffs get lost as the drone sets in, partly because Stone doesn't break away to bring in other voices or other opinions. Like the guy in the bar or the first time caller, he doesn't need to. Nor does he have that sense of rhythm you find in the work of the great documentarians, like Ken Burns or Adam Curtis, or Simon Schama,
As a truth teller, Stone has always been a little problematic. His fictional film JKF has become a de facto 'truth' for an entire generation who view it as actual history. Actual historians have derided it as fantasy. The Guardian's Alex Van Tunselmann referred to it as "one of the most appalling travesties of history you're ever likely to see."
Still, that was a film, with Kevin Costner in horn rims. His new mission, to remix the history of America with a left leaning slant, is still an entertaining watch - if you're in the right mood. And it does right some wrongs, set some records straight. Of course, as with everything he does, there's no shortage of naysayers. Take for instance this interesting tiff between the director and the New York Review of Books over what Stone calls an "error-riddled review."
Far more truthful and way more telling is Louis CK, whose stand up special O My God plays this Wednesday on Soho. I think the most appealing aspect of his shtick is that way he cuts through bullshit like a hot knife through unpleasantly brown butter. During the introduction to the show, which was filmed in Arizona, he mentions that he is from New York. Obviously there are some other New Yorkers in attendance and as the usual cheer starts to form in the bowels of the audience he quickly shuts it down with a wave of the hand and by saying "there is no value in that."
It's a promising start to a show that delivers rather than overachieves. Louis is 45 now, so the act leans heavily on mid-life observational humour, with that trademark edge. I won't be too much of a spoil-sport but one of my favourite passages includes this ground-breaking mathematical formula: "Pussy plus time, over income squared."
Oliver Stone: Untold History of the United States: Tuesdays, 7.30pm, History
Louis CK - Oh My God: 9.30pm, Wednesday, May 8, Soho