DVD Review: Oliver Stone plays it straight

Despite his three Oscars, Oliver Stone remains a divisive director, partly because he often reinterprets history as a form of melodrama (“JFK,” “Nixon,” “W.”). Thankfully, in his “Untold History of the United States,” he is restrained and straightforward. Originally airing on Showtime late last year, this 10-hour documentary series presents an outline of the nation's history from World War II to the present.

Textbooks always filter events through the lens of editorial bias, no matter how much they might strive for “balance.” Bias may not change the facts — though it frequently does — but it defines just where the fulcrum for the balance sits. Public school purchasing policy is determined by state and local education officials, whose decisions reflect their own politics. The Texas Board of Education is particularly notorious for favoring works that push an extreme evangelical reinterpretation.

Stone's view is forthrightly from a “progressive” position, but nowhere nearly as far outside of mainstream versions. It's designed as another way of understanding the events and functions as a counterbalance or supplement to the dominant conservative view.

The first three discs on the Blu-ray edition present the show as aired; the fourth disc adds two episodes that were presumably cut due to time constraints. They cover the U.S. from the turn of the 20th century to the beginnings of World War II, so they should really be watched first. In addition, the fourth disc has a nearly two-hour discussion between Stone and author Tariq Ali (“The Stalinist Legacy: Its Impact on Twentieth Century World Politics”), whose ideas clearly influenced the series. This isn't a simple “talking heads” presentation; Stone interpolates and illustrates with historical footage.

The film's positions can't be seen as a simple endorsement of Democratic politics. Stone is arguably harsher on Woodrow Wilson than Herbert Hoover. He certainly does no favors for Barack Obama, focusing on his war policies and scary expansion of the security state. The Bradley Manning/WikiLeaks story is used as a damning example.

Stone narrates throughout. His voice is pleasant and thankfully lacks the sort of emphatic tone a professional voice-over announcer might bring.

"The Untold History of the United States" (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, Blu-ray, 4 discs, $49.99; also available on digital download)


ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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