It’s somehow appropriate that Oliver Stone has chosen a hotel just a few blocks from the Agriculture Department to talk about his new project. “Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States,” a documentary series that debuts Monday on Showtime, focuses on Henry A. Wallace — former agriculture and commerce secretary, as well as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president — as its protagonist over the first three installments, which suggest that the Midwestern statesman would have put America on a radically different trajectory had his path to the presidency not been blocked by Democratic Party leaders in 1944.
Stone’s interest in Wallace was sparked during a 1996 visit to American University, where history professor and “Untold History” co-writer Peter Kuznick was teaching a course called “Oliver Stone’s America.” At dinner that night, Kuznick “was talking about the atomic bomb and how it got started and the scientists and Henry Wallace,” Stone recalled Friday, “but I wasn’t in the mood to take on the establishment again, because ‘Nixon’ had not done as well commercially as I had hoped. That was a big effort, it had wiped me out. But [the Wallace episode] was a dark and difficult story, really good. It stayed with me.” Ten years later, Stone visited Kuznick’s class again. “I said, ‘Look, I can’t get that story out of my mind. Let’s do a documentary, an hour or an hour and a half.’ And unfortunately, my eyes were bigger than my stomach.”
“Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States” runs over 10 one-hour episodes, beginning in World War II and continuing through the Obama administration. With newsreel footage, copious research and Stone’s own understated narration, “Untold History” revisits familiar events, but through an unapologetically leftist lens. While “Untold History” is grounded in indisputable fact, some of its contentions will certainly give conservatives and even moderate liberals pause, including its championing of Wallace, who has been castigated in recent years for what critics see as an appeasing attitude toward Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and surrounding himself with communists.
Stone grows visibly frustrated when considering these naysayers. “Do you want to deal with it academically?” he asks Kuznick. “I would deal with it emotionally. You go first.”
Kuznick jumps in. “There are times you can say he’s a little naive about Stalin — like most Americans, he didn’t realize the depth of Stalin’s brutality, and I think that’s a fair criticism,” he says. “But . . . in terms of his view of the world, and in terms of trying to change the world for the better, I think he was absolutely a visionary. What makes him different is that he could see what was happening in the world through Russian eyes, through Chinese eyes, where most Americans can only see the world through U.S. eyes.”
If “Untold History” makes a plea, it’s for American viewers to reassess that point of view and to question some of our most cherished assumptions, from how World War II was won (hint: the Soviets deserve far more credit than the A-bomb) to the notion of American exceptionalism itself. Stone, who was born in 1946 and fought in Vietnam, noted that “Untold History” spans his own lifetime, during which his personal changes largely mirrored those taking place in the country around him.