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Stone re-interprets history in ‘Untold’ documentary series

DAVID WIEGAND, San Francisco Chronicle

Publication: The Day

Published November 11. 2012 4:00AM

History is a record of what happened and, perhaps, why. But, implicitly, it can also be about what could have happened but didn't. If Lincoln hadn't gone to the theater that night in April, for example, he might have died of old age.

Once events happen, they can't "unhappen," yet it is human nature for us to ask, "What if?" Oliver Stone has asked the question through much of his film work over the years, and asks it again in the first four films in his 10-part documentary series, "The Untold History of the United States," premiering on Showtime on Monday.

In fact, "What If" might have been a more accurate title for the series, at least on the basis of the first four films, because much of their content is isn't untold, per se, but, rather, re-told with Stone's interpretation and emphasis.

The first four chapters focus on American history from World War II, through the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, to the post-war Truman and Eisenhower years and the Cold War.

The primary points Stone makes in the first four episodes are:

The price of American aid to Britain in the early years of World War II was the end of British trade dominance after the war and a new and more powerful role for the United States in global economics.

Although the United States believes World War II was won by the Allies, Stone says the Soviet Union should get the credit for defeating the Germans.

Similarly, although popular thinking is that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war in the Pacific, Stone says the bombs had nothing to do with defeating Japan but, rather, it was the eastward push by the Soviets in China that forced Japan to surrender. This was Joseph Stalin upholding his pledge to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to attack Manchuria.

The "real" Harry Truman was a "far darker" figure than portrayed in David McCullough's Pulitzer-winning biography.

If FDR had backed his third-term vice president, Henry Wallace, for the fourth term, it would have prevented the Democratic convention from being manipulated by party bosses into nominating Truman. That would have made Wallace president after FDR's death, the atomic bombs never would have been dropped on Japan, the rise of the military-industrial complex would have been blocked, the United States and the Soviet Union might have forged a postwar working alliance, and the Cold War might never have occurred.

The films are at their best when they provide a panoramic view of our history in the middle part of the 20th century. Ably abetted by the superb editing work by Alex Marquez, "Untold Story" shows how the nation's international policies were shaped, refracted and, at times, undermined by internal politics.

That said, Stone's predictably narrow intensity sometimes works against him, frequently throwing the overall balance of each film off by leaving us with unanswered questions on some topics, and, in a way, too much information on others.

Stone has always displayed a provocative fascination with history, and it is valuable, to an extent, to consider how things could have been different. During the 1944 Democratic convention in Chicago, for example, Wallace was pretty much a shoo-in for renomination at first, but party bosses adjourned the proceedings before Florida's Sen. Claude Pepper, who was only a few feet away from the podium, could place Wallace's name in nomination. The delay gave the bosses a chance to bully, horse-trade and sway votes away from Wallace and to the seemingly unremarkable failed Missouri haberdasher -- Sen. Harry Truman.

The films are narrated by Stone, who must have taken elocution lessons from William Shatner: He has an unnerving habit of pausing every few words for no apparent reason other than dramatic effect, especially after the emphasized article "the." In other words, THE ... film would have benefited from ... someone other than THE ... director ... doing THE ... narration.

But, since they've already been made, there's no going back to correct that problem, is there?

The Untold History of the United States airs at 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12, on Showtime.

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