For history buffs — the sort with an appetite for the rarely mentioned, largely forgotten and seldom discussed facts of the past — much of what Oliver Stone shares with viewers of his ten-part miniseries 'Untold History of the United States' is actually nothing new or eye-opening. In fact, it probably doesn't even come close to provocative, revelatory, or the slightest bit radical. The information he discloses, thanks in part to the help of historian Peter J. Kuznick, author of fascinating reads Rethinking Cold War Culture and Beyond the Laboratory, is readily available to the public and has been debated for years. There's nothing secretive about it, no conspiracy to hide the facts. Only, it's hardly talked about and mostly disremembered.
However, Stone gives the impression that this is precisely the point for making the series: our willingness as a culture to forget certain details, our disposition to live in ignorance of the specifics in history which have shaped our present, even when the information is only a few clicks of the mouse away. In spite of finding his opening remarks a tad insulting and condescending, I must agree with Stone's disappointment that this is a sad truth of all people, and one which has infected our public education system. With that, I applaud his approach of slowly chipping away cultural knowledge and convenient myths with the truth as it actually occurred, good or bad, embarrassing or not. It's not about condemning our heroes or praising so-called villains; it's simply about remembering.
Although the title hints at starting with a much earlier era, Stone's program is focused primarily on the 20th Century and into the 21st. The first three episodes are incredibly detailed and exhaustive looks at the single most influential period of the last 100 years: the war against Nazi Germany. There's little denying the extent to which WWII has molded and guided a geopolitical climate that continues to be felt to this day. And Stone, who provides all the narration while various video clips play in the background, clearly demonstrates just how much Harry S. Truman played a significant role in all of it. The President's unneighborly, standoffish tact with Stalin and Churchill came with serious consequences, made all the worse when Truman decided against military wishes to use the Atomic bomb.
Almost immediately after the war ended, a bitter, cold relationship among the super powers was established and lasted for several decades, swaying hundreds more decisions into pointless conflicts over other nations. When looking back at this particular time, remembering that the U.S.S.R. had a great deal to do with victories over Germany and Japan, we are left wondering, as Stone rightly points out, what the world would look like today had the liberally progressive Vice President Henry A. Wallace not lost his seat to Truman. Going into episodes four and five, focused on the Cold War, we're left with this thought lingering in the back of our minds, as anti-Communist fears and racial hatred grips the nation, prompting the rise of Joseph McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities Committee.
Continuing with the rest of the series, we sense the ripple effect of Truman's actions after the war like some ghostly presence prompting the judgments and decisions of otherwise great Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. Despite being well-liked at home and abroad, the five-star general propagated the arms race to the point where his famous farewell speech almost sounds more like an apology than merely a warning. The stance for more diplomatic solutions and avoiding conflict whenever possible made several enemies for the first Catholic President, but his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, almost immediately changed the cabinet's policies with his approach to the war in Vietnam.
For the remainder of the series, Stone spotlights a similar Truman ripple effect created by Lyndon Johnson's and later Richard Nixon's administration. It's during these two terms we see the capitalist seeds of socio-economic interests by powerful corporations influencing foreign policy-making, leading to major decisions of involvement with other nations to which George W. Bush and Barack Obama are not immune. This makes 'Untold History' a fascinating watch, particularly as a means of understanding how history and the actions of the past have fashioned and continue to influence modern life. Unfortunately, Stone's emotionless and boringly monotone voice is the biggest drawback, at times making it difficult to pay attention and not doze off. Still, the ambitious documentary series is a surprising and rewarding watch for anyone wanting to learn more about the decisions which shaped the 20th Century.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video brings 'Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States' to Blu-ray as a four-disc set with a sturdy, lightly-textured cardboard slipcover. Inside the slightly thicker than normal blue case, all four Region Free, BD50 discs sit comfortably on two flipper panels and accompanied by 16-page booklet with photos and episode info. Each disc goes straight to a static menu with generic options along the bottom.
Stone's ambitious documentary series is made almost entirely of stock footage and news reports collected from either film or video that hasn't aged well over the years. Other sources include clips of classic movies and the most recent visual media, which look best and serve as reminders that viewers are in fact watching the program on Blu-ray. So, it goes without saying that properly gauging the overall quality of this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is somewhat of a challenge because a great deal of consideration must be given to a majority of the material. With that in mind, I pleased to report that the series actually looks excellent with much to enjoy, all things considered.
Presented in its original HDTV 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the documentary displays a crisp and very well-balanced contrast. Clean, bright whites fill the frame while the screen shows a variety of sharp details in both the color and black-and-white photography. Fine lines and objects are fairly distinct and nicely defined, depending on the quality of the footage, but understandably, the older news videos are softer with lots of visible damage. The same goes for the colors seen throughout where sometimes they appear faded and worn while at other times, primaries are bold and accurately rendered. Strong black levels are the most consistent aspect of the documentary with good delineation in the darker portions. All in all, it's a great looking series, considering the condition of the stock footage.
Accompanying the otherwise strong video presentation is this surprisingly good and engaging DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Although the design is meant more for television audiences with much of the activity taking place in the fronts, a few effects sneak into the rear speakers with good directionality and panning. The musical score, however, does the majority of the work, spreading into the surrounds and creating a very satisfying soundfield. Displaying excellent balance between the channels in the fronts, imaging feels expansive with detailed clarity in the mid-range and well-prioritized vocals in the center. Low bass is somewhat disappointing as it's practically non-existent, but otherwise, this lossless mix is in great shape for a documentary series.
Working closely with author and historian Peter J. Kuznick, Oliver Stone presents 'Untold History of the United States' with the idea of remembering the lesser known events which have influenced and shaped the 20th Century and modernity. Although Stone's monotone narration is a bit of a drag, the ten-part series is a fascinating watch, with a wealth of eye-opening information that history buffs will find entertaining. Considering the age and condition of various archival footage, the Blu-ray arrives with an excellent audio and video presentation. Bonus material appears light, but it's actually quite enlightening, shedding further light on the country's complicated history, making them outstanding companion pieces. Overall, this is a fantastic documentary series that history buffs will want to add to their collections. Highly recommended.