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Oliver Stone's The Untold History of the United States Blu-Ray Review



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#1 of 36 OFFLINE   mattCR

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Posted October 28 2013 - 06:18 PM

Oliver Stone's The Untold History of the United States Blu-Ray Review

Oliver Stone has made waves as a filmmaker for taking on controversial subjects matter and stating it in his own viewpoint. Films that include everything from Born on the Fourth of July to Wall Street and The Doors. Stone has dealt in providing a unique view of history for years in his films.

Stone, who narrates this series begins by saying: this is the history you haven't been told. Using an excellent level of sourcing, Stone provides a unique, if ocassionally skewed view of history from his perspective if this 10 part Showtime Series.


Cover Art


Studio: Warner Brothers

Distributed By: N/A

Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC

Aspect Ratio:

Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HDMA

Subtitles: English

Rating: Not Rated

Run Time: 12 Hr. 36 Minutes (Including Extras), 56 Min Per Episode

Package Includes: Blu-ray

Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)

Region:

Release Date: 10/15/2013

MSRP: $49.99




The Production Rating: 4/5

Long before I found myself working in information technology, and long before I found my love of home theater I was a college history geek. My college studies went toward a history degree. I enjoyed history and I still do. When Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States appeared on Showtime, I was immediately interested in what Stone's method for addressing history would be.

Stone's work for many will be dismissed before it even gets going due to a perceived (and at points, unfortunately accurate) bias in his recounting of historical events. There will also be a lot of those who will see the similarities between this work and the works of Howard Zinn, and there are a lot of great similarities.

The problem I have with Stone's work is that while it provides a lot of very accurate information that conveys a different view of the history of the US, it often finds itself bogged down in what historians think of as implied intent. Because many historical figures are dead, and because we have no idea of their actual thoughts at historical points there are some elements that are inferred. For historical narratives in film everything from conversations to behavior are implied. The audience for most of this accepts it as a way to get across the key points - especially true in biographies.

But for historians, these narrative flourishes can help change or alter the way in which we feel about events. Stone may view this as "the Untold History", but what makes this series either a provocative piece of film or a series you quickly reject is largely built on the intent that is implied of the historical figures.

I tended to find this most egregious in relation to certain figures, where not only was intent implied but it seemed as though Stone was inferring upon the actors a near prophetic vision that would enable them to see the outcomes of their decisions long before taking them.

The law of unintended consequences rarely exists within this work, as all of the consequences seem to be portrayed as either intended or fully foreseeable, and many of the historical figures are portrayed with intent that fits the narrative of events rather then a more hands off presentation of facts.

Stone's work will be hindered by this; I feel as though a large audience would have watched something like this and if presented with facts, photos and events he might have had some real impact in changing minds about a different way to look at history. But his narration and implied intent work as a disservice to a solid, well rendered effort.

I should add one piece to this: Stone's narration here is not very good. It may just be me, but his seeming monotone drive to tell the story quickly becomes a drone that is difficult to slog through; I found myself breaking this series up over more then a week to make sure that I had an adequate view of the episodes.

The Episodes are:


Chapter 1: World War II

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Chapter 2: Roosevelt, Truman & Wallace

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Chapter 3: The Bomb

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Chapter 4: The Cold War: 1945–1950

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Chapter 5: The 50s Eisenhower, the Bomb & the Third World.

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Chapter 6: JFK: To the Brink

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Chapter 7: Johnson, Nixon & Vietnam: Reversal of Fortune

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Chapter 8: Reagan, Gorbachev & Third World: Revival of Fortune

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Chapter 9: Bush & Clinton: Squandered Peace - New World Order

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Chapter 10: Bush & Obama: Age of Terror

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In the end, I found some of the episodes to be cut in a way that made his specific case; and a few that I thought didn't work as well as intended. Specifically, I found some episodes (Eisenhower, Kennedy and Carter) to be amongst the weakest and most problematic as far as intent and prophetic vision assigned. It's sometimes easy to imply that the outcome should be known, but historians have a duty to remember that most historical figures, unless myths, are humans and do not have the ability to see into the future. These episodes presented some real problems that I feel will probably cause many audience members to simply walk away.

Stone's work is interesting.. but it is not as good as it could be, and is not so much history as it is history as interpreted through a narrative constructed by the author. There is nothing wrong with that - as long as you take it for what it is, a viewpoint.



Video Rating: 4/5  3D Rating: NA

This is presented in 1080P AVC, and is mostly a Ken Burns style documentary. What works here is that photographic stills especially black and white are amazingly crisp and help sell the narrative stone wants to get across. Some archive footage however is in rather poor shape and being upscaled to 1080P does not improve in any way on the errors contained within.

Still, in a title that should be compared to something like Burn's Civil War it does an effective job of getting the content across.



Audio Rating: 2/5

The audio is presented in DTS-MA 5.1, but might as well have presented in Mono. The entire series is narrated by Stone, and it is a choice I wish that could have been changed. Stone's narration reminds me of several bad audio books I've had to suffer though; he stays mostly monotone and just drills right through it. In some ways, it reminds me of a college professor I had, though even in that class we took breaks for levity.



Special Features Rating: 4/5

A Conversation with History: Tariq Ali And Oliver Stone 1080P, MPEG4, 102 minutes: Executive producer Oliver Stone and author/political philosopher Tariq Ali have a wide reaching discussion about what society knows and doesn't know about history.


World War I, The Russian Revolution, & Woodrow Wilson: Roots of Empire 1080P, MPEG4: This is one of the bonus episodes which tells the story of the lead up to World War I and the rise of industry within the US.

1920–1940: Roosevelt, Hitler, and Stalin: The Battle Of Ideas 1080P, MPEG4, 56 minutes. While stating it only goes to 1940, this title actually seems to extend fairly deep into WWII, by my brief look a guess of 1942 would be more accurate as a title. This episode focuses on the Great Depression, New Deal, Economic standards, poverty, racism and other issues in America.



Overall Rating: 3.5/5

I have very mixed feelings about a series like Stone's Untold History. On one hand, a lot of the information presented on it's own is college level discussion of historical events that I wish far more people had. The series hits real strides in discussing events and activities and covering important events. What harms this series, in my view, is as I state above - we tend to spend too much time debating and inferring outcomes that were unknowable by the actors in the time frame they were in. A great history professor - a woman who taught Women's History - once reminded us that you couldn't judge a historical figure by today's standards. Lambasting say, Lincoln for not providing the Women's Right to Vote doesn't effectively address whether or not the culture would have been ready for such an event and if they had done so if their success or failure would have changed things in ways we can't imagine. Stone falls victim to this far too often in his Untold History, excoriating historical figures for failed action on social and economic issues that were probably not possible within the context of the time period.

Still, putting aside my disagreements on those levels, I wish more people would sit through something like Untold History in order to have a debate on the intent of the actors and the viability of Stone's opinion. Unfortunately, I feel as though Stone's reputation and monotone narration will drive away too many potential viewers.

Please Note: If you've seen the series and want to discuss different ways to look at some of these events and issues that I had more directly with intent, I'll handle that in responses to this review rather then within the text of this review.


Reviewed By: MattCR


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#2 of 36 OFFLINE   theonemacduff

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Posted October 28 2013 - 10:26 PM

If you imply intent (good phrase, btw), and ignore the idea of actions having unintended consequences, you end up with two things: a conspiratorial view of history, and, curiously, a concept of history as purely rational, as the working out of plans rather than just a concatenation of circumstances. I suspect many find the conspiratorial view of history deeply comforting precisely because it is founded on rationality, the notion that, could we but penetrate deeply enough, everything would, in the end, make sense. But it's only narratives that make sense, and history, though it can be shaped by narrative, is not, in itself, a narrative structure. History has meaning only in the sense that we can connect, sometimes, actions to consequences; but it is a logical error to suppose that because we can make those connections, therefore, reality must be driven by some purpose, that it is teleological. Stone's JFK is a perfect illustration of the fallacy, and of the conspiratorial view of history. I would expect pretty much the same thing of his Untold History, though if it is at all like JFK, it is probably compelling viewing, while you are immersed in it. 



#3 of 36 OFFLINE   Jack P

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Posted October 29 2013 - 04:43 AM

Filth is the only word that can describe Oliver Stone's many attempts to masquerade as a historian, from his garbage films like JFK that made a hero out of one of the worst abusers of prosecutorial power in the history of American jurisprudence in Jim Garrison to this so-called "documentary" that is notable for whitewashing Joseph Stalin, the 20th century's greatest mass murderer and attempting to rehabilitate the flake that was Henry Wallace (whose 1948 candidacy for President was supported only by idiots and Communists)



#4 of 36 OFFLINE   Sam Favate

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Posted October 29 2013 - 05:16 AM

Stone's movies that take place in history have been uniformly excellent (Platoon, Born on the 4th of July, JFK, the Doors, Nixon, W., - am I missing any?). I have Untold History sitting on my self, waiting for the time to dive in. Thanks for the review. I don't always agree with Stone (I probably do more often than not), but agree or not, his vision is always compelling viewing.



#5 of 36 OFFLINE   mattCR

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Posted October 29 2013 - 05:25 AM

There are a lot of issues like those that will get raised.  There are too many moments in this that, like I said.. defy intent.  There are moments where Stone makes implications in regards to WWII (like Chambelain sitting aside) that ignore the realities: Chambelain had less then 2 ready divisions.. if Chamberlain had acted quickly early, the UK might have been wiped out.

 

There are a few moments that struck me as truly laughable; one was a segment in which Stone excoriated Dwight Eisenhower for not doing more to handle gay & lesbian rights in the 1950s.   This gets into the area that goes by the stick of 'judging a historical figure by today's standards VS the time period they had lived in'.   Had Eisenhower acted aggressively on LGBT issues, it is just as likely that there would have been a serious backlash and those issues would not only not been helped but strongly hindered in continuous election of those who opposed said issues.   While there is a lot of open and thoughtful debate on Eisenhower's role in the civil rights movement by many historians, and whether or not he was too passive, there is also a viewpoint that his steady and slow action allowed him to make major decisions (national guard at Arkansas schools, integration in Boston, increases in African American standing in the military) because the public accepted his viewpoint as a reasonable one because he didn't act continuously and recklessly.  Is either way right?  We'll never know, but Stone sure thinks he knows with great certainty.

 

That's the biggest problem I have really with this work is that Stone spends too much time in the 'ifs & buts' category.   If this had happened differently, things would be so different.   But would they be different in a way that Stone would want?   That's hard to know.

 

 

If you imply intent (good phrase, btw), and ignore the idea of actions having unintended consequences, you end up with two things: a conspiratorial view of history, and, curiously, a concept of history as purely rational, as the working out of plans rather than just a concatenation of circumstances. I

 

This is my biggest problem with this work.  There are a lot of events, quotes, statements and great history within this.  But the overall implication that events were foreseeable creates a rather nasty narrative.  It also implies that every decision was calculated by someone as a desired outcome.  This does make a lot of historical events overly conspiratorial. 

 

In regards to the statement of Stalin, etc.  This feeds into his railing about Eisenhower's buildup of nuclear weapons.  He goes on how the US seemingly led a single-handed nuclear arms race.. there are a lot of problems with that analysis.  It seems to imply that only the president desired any of these actions - something Stone does throughout the entire series is overvalue the presidency and deny the political will of any others - and it also implies that while we were in the middle of this one handed arms race other nations sat and tried to get us to stop.   That makes for a good narrative, and you can find documents that support that.   The problem is, there are also documents that support the idea that there were many nations who were openly working with us to do this in fear of, as you note, Stalin and others.

 

The problem with history is that, unfortunately for someone like Stone, it isn't very black and white.   There are a lot of moments where unintended consequences have made the US the 'bad guy'.  There are lots of moments in history where the United States clearly did the 'wrong thing', and there are some moments where are overall policy was wrong. 

 

Dwelling on those moments and negating others; or implying there is no other reason to consider anything but through the narrow lens of the author gives us a rather skewed interpretation of events.  Interesting, but not wholly accurate.  

 

What hurts the series more are injections of beliefs, paranoia and at times raw numbers that simply aren't real.   Chernobyl didn't kill 8,000 people by any figure given to anyone I have ever found.  

 

Truman and Eisenhower get a truly rough treatment by Stone, at one point he implies that Truman "had no empathy".  This really isn't history; it's an unknowable assertion, and it is hard to imagine it isn't a bogus one. 

 

I think there should be an open discussion of historical events.  And I think most historians can point to serious errors made by almost every politician to get into elected office and say 'damn, if only we had known', and in a few cases 'this guy made a really poor decision because he wasn't very good/had bad motives/had bad advisers/etc... but Stone's view seems to put a negative spin on everyone who has ever been in elected office, save Kennedy who receives a weirdly fawning praise with Stone's view unstated here that 'this is why he was killed'. 


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#6 of 36 OFFLINE   mattCR

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Posted October 29 2013 - 05:28 AM

Stone's movies that take place in history have been uniformly excellent (Platoon, Born on the 4th of July, JFK, the Doors, Nixon, W., - am I missing any?). I have Untold History sitting on my self, waiting for the time to dive in. Thanks for the review. I don't always agree with Stone (I probably do more often than not), but agree or not, his vision is always compelling viewing.

 

I thought Born on the Fourth, Platoon, and the Doors were quite good.   JFK, Nixon, W I thought were lacking.. and in the case of JFK, too many historical events were.. let's just say 'embellished'.    Nixon was fair to pretty good.   W was not very good (IMHO) and shouldn't be viewed as a historical work of any kind.   Whether you love or hate W, most historians believe that you have to have a much greater distance from an event to determine much about it.. there are still too many things unknown, too many events that we don't know the outcome of, and too many people who have yet to speak.  This would be true of Obama as well, or even the history of say, the 2010 NFL season.   

 

You have to get away from an event to get a more unbiased view of it.


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#7 of 36 OFFLINE   Brett_M

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Posted October 29 2013 - 06:21 AM

Say what you will about JFK, the film is a marvel of performance, editing, score, and cinematography.  It also provokes thought and research.  i have read 10 books about the assassination (conspiracy and lone-gunman).  I have also read almost all of the Warren Report.  It's a movie, not a documentary.  It raises some very interesting questions.  I also really enjoy Nixon, The Doors and Platoon.  I have never liked Born on the Fourth of July or W.  That's just me, though.

 

I really enjoyed watching The Untold History.  I know it's biased.  I like looking at things through Stone's lens.


Edited by Brett_M, October 29 2013 - 06:22 AM.

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#8 of 36 OFFLINE   JoeDoakes

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Posted October 29 2013 - 06:22 AM

This "documentary" should have been been called The Retold History of the United States because it largely echoes what the Soviet propanda from the various decades.  They don't believe this crap in Russia anymore, but they do in Hollywood.


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#9 of 36 OFFLINE   Jack P

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Posted October 29 2013 - 08:49 AM

"JFK" raises 'questions' that weren't valid questions in the first place.   Would you call "it's only a movie" a legit defense if it put forth Holocaust Revisionism as its thesis?   Because that is the sum total of what Oliver Stone is, a Holocaust Revisionist applying the same methodological tricks used by Holocaust Revisionists only to different subjects (though it should be noted that the real-life "Colonel X" from JFK, was a flaky crackpot named L. Fletcher Prouty with a long history of association with Lyndon LaRouche organizations and who lent his support to actual Holocaust Revisionsism).     

 

And Joe's right, there isn't a dime's worth of difference between what Stone puts forth about the Cold War that wasn't already put forth in Pravda editorials during the days of Stalin, Khruschev and Brezhnev.    That this perspective keeps getting accorded a level of respect it doesn't deserve in light of the stark reality of the actual historical record is a testament to what happens when the axiom "Never Forget" isn't applied to certain Holocausts that reveal some truths that the likes of Stone never want to confront because they are wedded to a perpetual image of America/Evil, our enemies Good/Justified.    This is why Stone has a hang-up with the truth about the assassination, because it goes against his whole secular religion to believe that JFK could be murdered because of one man's fanatical committment to left-wing radicalism and Marxist-Leninist beliefs (though that would make Oswald no different from the last man to kill a President, the assassin of William McKinley who was a radical anarchist who got his inspiration from the works of Emma Goldman).



#10 of 36 OFFLINE   TravisR

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Posted October 29 2013 - 09:23 AM

Say what you will about JFK, the film is a marvel of performance, editing, score, and cinematography.

You're absolutely right. Over the years here, I've been screamed at by a handful of belligerent folks for making the same point so I can tell you that they don't care and it's futile to even try to say it. As a matter of fact, I expect to get yelled at just for agreeing with you (but since I've pointed it out, they'd look silly by proving my point).

 

The comments here have convinced me to pick this up. Mostly the negative ones.


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#11 of 36 OFFLINE   Jack P

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Posted October 29 2013 - 09:38 AM

If you want to lessen your knowledge of American history by seeing it instead of relying on accurate tellings of which there are plenty, that's your problem.     But I will just note that if "JFK" had posited that the assassination was a communist conspiracy or if a similar move with brilliant performance, editing, score and cinematography had been made that depicted Joe McCarthy as a hero, the director of said film would have been driven out of the business and we would have had a censorship campaign initiated.



#12 of 36 OFFLINE   Neil Middlemiss

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Posted October 29 2013 - 09:50 AM

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That's a broad and silly statement.

 

They don't believe this crap in Russia anymore, but they do in Hollywood.


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#13 of 36 OFFLINE   Neil Middlemiss

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Posted October 29 2013 - 09:53 AM

Well, I doubt that would have been the case from your first thought, but an attempt to portray McCarthy as a hero would have been met with an appropriate amount of repudiation.

 

But I will just note that if "JFK" had posited that the assassination was a communist conspiracy or if a similar move with brilliant performance, editing, score and cinematography had been made that depicted Joe McCarthy as a hero, the director of said film would have been driven out of the business and we would have had a censorship campaign initiated.

 

And for transparency, I like some of Stone's movies but have found his positions over the last number of years perpexing and have disagreed with a number of his assertions/proclamations.

 

Still a gifted filmmaker.


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#14 of 36 OFFLINE   mattCR

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Posted October 29 2013 - 10:28 AM

I think, as I said in my original review that a lot of people will dismiss it because of the source and because of how information is framed.   That said, the set also presents unique information in a different way.  If you go into it with a critical eye, you can gain something from it and also appreciate where it goes wrong.. just my opinion.

 

To me, I respect it as an interesting take on history, but by no means a definitive take and one that has problems.  I think that the fact that it is controversial benefits it, on the whole, because it reminds people who watch it that this is not, in fact History in the sense of dates, information and established thought.  This is history through the lens of a storyteller and how he sees it.

If you can respect that and realize that and deal with this on a critical level, you're OK.  My concern would be to those who go into this and think "this is definitive proof of X" which it simply is not.

 

In other words, like most things: take with a heavy grain of salt.  There are some great moments mixed in here that provide interesting facts and statistics. the framework has some issues in that it works to draw 

 

I do dislike the general title "untold history" because most of these events described have of course been covered, repeatedly over and over.  What he should say is: a different perspective on History rather then 'untold' which implies some sort of cover up of capital "T" truth.


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#15 of 36 OFFLINE   Jack P

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Posted October 29 2013 - 11:12 AM

Perspectives on history are always important, but Oliver Stone has no qualifications or credentials to be taken seriously as one offering a "perspective" on history.   That's a status that is to be earned as a result of digging deep through archival resources and citing them properly so they can be checked and cross-checked for validity (which as a filmmaker he is let off the hook from doing) and also taking into account the full picture of available data.    Instead, Stone has over the years decided that he can present himself as the equivalent of an academic historian offering "perspective" on recent events through his films but exempting himself from all the standards of academic integrity that would be expected if he were writing this down as a narrative.    Instead, he feels that slick packaging and cinematic tricks can carry the day for his argument instead, and on that score he is no different from Leni Reifenstahl who used brilliant cinematic techniques to offer a "perspective" on events that was 100% historically dishonest.   

 

I admit as a PhD who teaches history for a living, this is a sore subject for me for ways beyond simple ideological disagreement.



#16 of 36 OFFLINE   davidHartzog

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Posted October 29 2013 - 12:12 PM

As President Truman pointed out, the only thing new in the world is the history you don't know. Working with historian Peter Kuznick, Stone has done well in this DVD collection in doing just that, exploring the history people don't know or have forgotten. Having read and taught American history for over forty years, I found this to be a generally well-done and accurate account of 20th century American history, particularly of U.S. foreign policy. It is a vast improvement on propaganda efforts like JFK and Nixon, which were less concerned with accuracy than with sparking debate. I recommend this to anyone with an open mind and an interest in American history.

Edited by davidHartzog, October 29 2013 - 12:13 PM.

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#17 of 36 OFFLINE   Jack P

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Posted October 29 2013 - 12:22 PM

 

Well, I doubt that would have been the case from your first thought, but an attempt to portray McCarthy as a hero would have been met with an appropriate amount of repudiation.

 

 

The irony is that such an endeavor would be more historically accurate than anything Stone has ever done.    Insomuch as the image of McCarthy as demon and grand master of some American Inquisition bears no resemblance to reality.

 



#18 of 36 OFFLINE   Jack P

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Posted October 29 2013 - 12:25 PM

That's a broad and silly statement.

 

Not really considering it's former Soviet officials who have freely admitted that Reagan was right when he used the term "Evil Empire" to describe their regime.     OTOH, Hollywood still thinks of the Cold War as an unjust struggle that was only about actors being blacklisted and Americans being paranoid over nothing and has made more movies praising Communism than condemning it in the last several decades.



#19 of 36 OFFLINE   PaulDA

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Posted October 29 2013 - 12:29 PM

Stone wanted to call it the "Secret History" (until it was made clear to him that none of it was especially secret). 

 

I did my graduate work on the ways historical feature films influence public perceptions of history, so naturally, the films of Oliver Stone were a significant portion of the batch of films I watched (he, more than any other filmmaker, is overt in his desire to have his "perspective" given the same legitimacy as that of actual, practicing historians). There is a book edited by Robert Brent Toplin (among the best historians whose work examines feature films in ways similar to what I did in grad school) called Oliver Stone's USA: Film, History and Controversy. In it are essays by a number of historians who tackle several of his films and a portion given over to Stone as a chance to respond to his critics. No other commercial filmmaker has had such a work devoted to his films (and this is not the only material on the subject).

 

The above paragraph should not be interpreted as fanboyish adulation about Stone's importance. I am not a fan of Stone the would-be historian (for many years, I had to devote far too much time and effort debunking JFK's ridiculousness in the classroom, though it's an old enough film now that most of my current students have not seen it, so that task has subsided). However, I am a fan of Stone the technical filmmaker--had JFK been a completely fictional political thriller about a president known as PFD (Peter Francis David, or Patrick Franklin Davidson or...), I would have been quite entertained, minus all the headaches of coping with the fallout from Stone's "truth".

 

I do have to thank Stone, though, in part, for the contribution he made toward my graduate work--it was observing the influence of JFK, as well as other historical feature films, that led me to explore that influence in depth and devise teaching strategies for coping with such films. In the end, such films are out there, they find a persuasive audience and it is incumbent upon historians to do more than simply dismiss them. We need to recognize their influence and equip students with critical viewing skills akin to the critical reading skills that are so vital for the historical discipline. History "on film", whether a feature film, a documentary or a weekly television programme can offer much of value--either because it is good history in its own right (and that can be true even of feature films that are often otherwise dismissed--the work of Toplin, Natalie Zemon Davis, Gary W. Gallagher and Robert Rosenstone, among others, attests to this fact) or because its significant flaws can be very useful "teaching moments" (as has been the case with The Patriot whenever I have used excerpts from it in class).

 

As such, I will be watching this series (very likely with some Maalox on hand :lol: ) because when Stone tackles history, his views are heard by many--and it is important to be knowledgeable about the views of someone whose voice can be far-reaching.


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#20 of 36 OFFLINE   Neil Middlemiss

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  • Real Name:Neil Middlemiss

Posted October 29 2013 - 01:13 PM

Not really considering it's former Soviet officials who have freely admitted that Reagan was right when he used the term "Evil Empire" to describe their regime.     OTOH, Hollywood still thinks of the Cold War as an unjust struggle that was only about actors being blacklisted and Americans being paranoid over nothing and has made more movies praising Communism than condemning it in the last several decades.

 

I cannot fathom how such gross simplifications get made. I am fairly certain that 'Hollywood' doesn't reflect upon the cold war as only a period in time when members of the Hollywood establishment were blacklisted for participation or allegations of participating in communist groups. And I can't think of a single movie that 'praises' the communist movement, whatever that might look like.

 

I think some folk have filters on that they don't even see.


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