TALK: Oliver Stone & Peter Kuznick
Date: A/W 2013
Oliver Stone & Peter Kuznick are the co-authors of the book and twelve-part documentary series The Untold History of the United States, which presents an alternative reading of twentieth century American history. Peter Kuznick is an author and political commentator, and the Professor of History and the Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, Washington D.C. Oliver Stone is an Academy Award-winning writer and film director. His films and documentaries include Natural Born Killers, Wall Street and Comandante.
When did the idea for The Untold History of the United States first appear?
PK: We have to trace it back to 1996 when I first met Oliver. I was teaching a class at American University, it was a new class called ‘Oliver Stone’s America’. A history class structured around Oliver’s films. Beginning with J.F.K., to what was his latest film at the time, Nixon. So there were the three films on Vietnam, The Doors, his film on Nixon, there was Wall Street in the ‘80s, Salvador opened up questions about Central America. Talk Radio and Natural Born Killers opened up questions about the media and violence. It compared Oliver’s interpretations with works by scholars on those topics, as well as participants.
OS: It turned out to be one of the most popular classes at the university!
PK: Oliver came in to speak to the class. We went out for dinner afterward and I proposed to Oliver the idea for a feature film that I thought he should make. We collaborated on that, this film that didn’t get made, but that begins with Henry Wallace and the origin of the Cold War.
OS: We discussed the atomic bomb and Peter explained Henry Wallace’s participation in the project. Peter thought it would make a great movie and wrote a screenplay, which I didn’t think was commercial. The idea of Wallace and the bomb, however, stayed with me. I would return regularly, with many other visitors, such as Robert McNamara and John Dean, to Peter’s class for several years.
PK: We stayed in touch and we saw each other regularly and the film was always on our minds so it never disappeared. In 2007 Oliver was in Washington scouting locations for the film Pinkville, about the My Lai massacre, and over dinner he said ‘Peter, let’s do it. Let’s do a documentary.’
OS: I proposed to Peter that we do a feature-length documentary on Wallace and the bomb. We saw each other two weeks later in New York and by then I had come to the conclusion to undertake U.S. history from 1900 – 2013 in twelve hours. The theme would be the rise of the American national security state, which then transforms into a global security state.
It’s ambitious just to talk about that.
OS: I didn’t understand what was coming. I thought the project could be completed in two and half years. It didn’t turn out that way. It took almost five years to complete, and the budget increased accordingly. Plus it had to be done in my spare time, in between making three movies: W, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Savages, and another documentary: South of the Border. I think in no doubt it was the most draining and ambitious project of my life, but it gives me a great satisfaction to have done it.
The series isn’t a polemic in any way, but it certainly has an urgency to it.
OS: By 2008 I had reached a place emotionally where I felt depressed over George Bush’s regime, and the idea of creating a comprehensive reason for this state of being for my children came to me.
PK: There have been shifting attitudes to government over the past thirty years and, in turn, government has been increasingly discredited. There are number of reasons for this. First of all, it goes back a lot longer than you might think. Our series goes back to the nineteenth century and unravels the extraordinary way the US government attempted to escape from the depression of 1893, not by raising consumption at home, but by their involvement in the Filipino insurrections. You have to realise that Americans do not focus a lot on other countries; sticking to the belief that the US is not just the centre of the universe but that it’s also God’s gift to humanity. John Winthrop’s statement of becoming a ‘city upon a hill’ in 1630 is one of the earliest examples of American exceptionalism. There’s a kind of ethnocentrism that defines how certain phrases and actions are repeated. That attitude has not abated and it really hasn’t even weakened. Then you have the bringing together of religion and the political state. Jimmy Carter was instrumental in fusing the two, but that was easily taken over by Reagan, who was not a religious man, but who very much exploited religion to give himself a certain legitimacy and appeal to certain people.
It’s a lot of information that The Untold History… deals with. More remarkable is it’s visual style. We’re used to a high-octane approach to narrative storytelling in your feature films. Here, it seems a similar approach has been made with regards to the form of the essay film.
OS: I tried to bring to it all of my filmmaking knowledge, using the concept from J.F.K., wherein a large body of information could be shared with interesting visuals. The same principle is in operation here – that we could deal with the density of history and make it gripping for audiences, as opposed to putting them to sleep, which is what most high school texts do. I wanted to reach children my daughter’s age. That was our denominator – making it accessible to a seventeen year old. We knew the material was thick. Cutting away to talking heads would have slowed each episode down considerably and, I think, would have been too wishy-washy. I felt it was better to lay out the mass of information and keep the excitement going in the sweep of it – even if it was not all able to be absorbed in one sitting. I think those who’d really be interested would go back and watch it a second time to sustain it.
Some of the footage that you use seems like contemporaneous news footage that was probably too severe for the time it was collected. It’s very precise to this broad and sprawling narrative, also.
OS: We concentrated in five different countries on archival footage that was as rare as we could find. Often, this footage is cut in a subjective style, as it would be in a feature film, like J.F.K.. Our montage is indeed an interpretation of events, but the facts that are being quoted in the narrative have all be fact-checked by Showtime, CBS Corporate and ourselves through an outside source. Producer Rob Wilson led a small team in acquiring this footage, and Alex Marquez was the key editor over the entire five years. In dealing with more than a hundred years of American history we had to omit many details, but our concentration was always on ‘The Big Picture’. We wanted to move the viewer. To let him and her see the patterns that were emerging–of American fear, paranoia, and an abnormal exceptionalism that would drive the country to being a global security state.
And what comes out of it now for you?
PK: In the US there’s a lot of wringing of hands over the fact that American students fare so poorly in maths and science. According to the 2011 American report card, only twelve per cent were rated to be proficient even in US history. We don’t have the long historical perspective that many other countries have. Oliver calls it ‘the tyranny of the now’. An attempt to hold back history may be the nature of empire, which is why we’re trying to show the historical contexts. It’s a constant repeat of history and mistake. We want to show the alternatives. We want to get out of the cycle of constant militarism and war. When Oliver and I began this project we certainly weren’t neutral in any sense, but when one looks at this world, one must be an activist. This shouldn’t cloud one’s objectivity or rationality, or even one’s history. Understanding multiple historical narratives is fundamental to the idea of change. We have to see through official narratives that are put forth in the textbooks in high schools. We’re fighting over narratives. We’re trying to get our book and documentary into as many schools as possible. They’re getting used increasingly in colleges and private schools, but there’s a struggle in public schools. We’re not saying you should only teach our perspective. Teach our perspective and teach the alternative and let there be a fight for the truth.
OS: Essentially, all my political and social views have changed. I grew up a conservative Republican at the dawn of the atomic era. My father was a Wall Street broker and Eisenhower supporter. I believed most everything I read in school. I went to Vietnam and I walked away significantly confused and alienated. It’s not that I knew what I thought, just that I had more questions.
I didn’t expect to escape criticism for The Untold History… and I certainly have received my fair share of it in the US. But this documentary is not going to be easily undone. It is truly built out of hard rock.