Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Oliver stone's untold history of the United States -DVD review

It’s a late night in 1984, and I’m waiting for jetlag to kick in.
I’ve buzzing from the first of many trips to the United States, and am watching The Hand, an early Oliver Stone movie that marked one of his first forays into the world of cinema.

Fast forward to January 1992, and like millions of film fans around the world, I’m sat in my local cinema absorbing JFK, Stone’s Oscar-winning movie which combines hard fact with some artistic license.

It’s the first time I’ve seen a film that successfully mixes a gripping drama with documentary footage, and tells a story so absorbing.

The standout for me is Donald Sutherland’s 20 minute monologue in which an array of facts via dramatisation and archive footage are presented to the audience.

It lingers with me for years, and the thought of presenting a history show as snappily paced and charismatically presented is enticing.

Which brings us up to date: another late night in the summer of 2013.
Not jet lag this time, but the same woozy feeling of unreality – this time because I get to ring Oliver Stone.

It’s late afternoon in Los Angeles, and the Oscar-winning film-maker has agreed to discuss his uber-ambitious TV series, The Untold History of the United States.

I’ve sat through the four 58 minute episodes (as requested), and if I’m honest, absorbed about half of it, while I managed to digest a chunk of the meticulously researched book before time ran out.

The latter is a cracking read, especially as a chaser to each episode. Like all fact-based TV/movie tie-in it enhances the material. I just wished the font was bigger.

My biggest fear is that Stone will catch me out, or put the phone down because I didn’t watch the other six episodes, but both he and collaborator Peter Kuznick turn out to be charm personified.

Let’s make no bones about it: The Untold History of the United States is one of the most ambitious documentaries ever attempted by a film-maker, and given the amount of material involved, there’s little wonder I feel like not all of it went in during the first sitting.

Imagine a snake trying to digest a small mammal, and you get the idea behind the enormousness of each episode. No unhinged jaws required for this but you will need an open mind and an equally strong stomach for some scenes.

All news reports these days are filtered versions of reality; violence edited for the sake of pre-watershed viewers, and even those after 9pm get a mostly sanitised version of events, so it’s shocking to see so many people shocked, executed, wounded, and generally hurt as Stone and Kuznick chart some of the darkest chapters of American history.

There are times when it make Game of Thrones look as cosy as a Disney movie by comparison. And like ‘Thrones’, Stone’s series is perhaps best seen as a box set of DVDs or Blu rays rather than as a weekly fix of facts and figures.

I sat through episode 10 a couple of times, and the second viewing was an enriching process. It reminded me of the time I saw Natural Born Killers at the cinema three times, and was absored by different elements of Stone’s controversial study of lethal young lovers lionised by the media.

Being a huge film fan, it’s hard not to ask him about his greatest works, and some of the lesser known projects he worked on, such as The Hand, Scarface, Conan the Barbarian and Salvador, as well as more obvious works.

He’s planning a revamped version of his flawed but fascinating Alexander, and JFK is getting a three US city re-release this year to tie in with the 50th anniversary of his assassination.
However, it’s clear that this series, which has dominated his life for years and absorbed a chunk of his own change, is the dominating force in his life.

The fact there are no talking heads, no computer-generated graphics (which dominated most docs these days but date like disco) means the shelf life should be a lot longer than many similar films.
One of the reasons is time; had Oliver and Peter added comments from assorted on screen contributors, there’s a chance it would have been a 20 hour show.

Part of me thinks that wouldn’t have been a bad thing, and I wouldn’t have minded Donald Sutherland popping up now and again lit by the great Robert Richardson, who worked on JFK and NBK, and with a John Williams score.
However, Blighty’s own Craig Armstrong does a fine job scoring the piece regardless.

* Oliver stone's untold history of the United States is out now on DVD

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