The Dark Side of History

Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States



I don’t often give movie reviews this degree of treatment, but Stone’s  story here is an ultra-long documentary, and it’s somewhat important for what it accomplishes. In the movie’s preamble Stone professes to be disturbed by what’s been left out of any commonly held history of the United States – school or otherwise. It’s a truism that every good thing has its dark side, and Stone wants us to have the benefit of such darkness in order to view our national legacy in perspective.

He begins with World War II and the development and use of the atomic and hydrogen bombs. Certainly Germany had a similar program, but they were unable to use it. The U.S. did use it, and Stone’s history has it as being unnecessary. As was the subsequent build-up of our nuclear arsenal and the fight we picked with the Soviet Union via the Cold War. Harry Truman is the culprit here in demonizing the Soviets while building up this arsenal, despite evidence that neither was necessary.  In counterpoint to Truman was his cabinet member Henry Wallace who cautioned against Truman’s posturing. Wallace was eventually fired and held up for scorn during the McCarthy era.

Then there was Korea – and Vietnam, which Stone knew from the ground up, having fought there as a soldier. His thesis here is that what U.S. leaders had us see as a monolithic Communism movement was in reality one severely tempered by the various nationalisms involved, beginning with Czechoslovakia, and eventually ending in the dissipation of the Soviet Union.

In modern times, Reagan spurned disarmament advances by Soviet leader Gorbachev. Cooperation in this regard may very well have resulted in a unique alliance of Russia and the U.S. Finally, Stone gives us G.W. Bush’s spurning of world opinion in using U.S. resources in unilateral war and empire advancement in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, leaving Obama to dismantle some of this and carry on the rest.

Stone’s bottom line here is that the several key, misfortunate decisions by U.S. leaders squandered a large chunk of our nation’s assets, hence its future. His facts are essentially true, I think, his opinionizing occasionally askew, but it clearly shows knowledge of our history and his concern and love for this country.  The documentary was apparently put together hurriedly, and the narration and piecing together of film segments suffered to some degree from it.


My rating: 17 of 20 stars.



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Balancing Opinion With Perspective

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Harper’s Magazine, September 2012 Issue


As a reader, my affection for Harper’s Magazine continues to grow. That’s not because of its leftward political cant, but because its articles usually contain explanatory substance behind most provocative statements made. That could be because with the U.S.'s current political malaise, the leftward leaners feel a need to explain every step they take, but then that’s an issue for at least a six-pak of someone’s lager. 

But even as I write this, I have to confess to occasional frustration with Harper’s reportage. My frustration is most evident in this month’s centerpiece articles on Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But some explanatory background:

As with the The Atlantic's reporting previously written about here, there’s a lot of hyperbole concerning what the Prez should have accomplished in his first term. In pursuit of this angst, David Samuels follows Obama from fund raiser to fund raiser, and he gives us as complete a picture of the man’s glaring complexities (the no doubt necessary complexities) anyone must have in order to compete in the Presidential sweepstakes.  

Regarding Romney, Dan Halpern  is less detailed but just as jaundiced in his examination of the challenger. Here, he portrays Romney, not through a personal microscope, but through the montage of perspectives within the wild and wooly Republican base, perspectives Romney must juggle (maybe to make everyone equally unhappy with him?) in order to keep his base corralled. Talk about herding cats – the Republicans are now having to learn how to manage intra-party diversity, as the Dems have always had to do.

What leaves me with a bad taste here is that both Samuels’ and Halpern’s dissatisfaction with their subjects isn’t supported with specific political weaknesses. Both writers are trying damned hard, it seems, to portray some depth, but their reportage is weighed down by their own biases. As a result, Harper’s gives us opinion pieces, not journalism we can use.

I’m also disappointed in a piece of fiction by Stephen King that I’d expected to like. The story, “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation,” concerns two elderly men who, in the midst of a living-in-the-past conversation and interactions with relatives, manage to get under one another’s skin. You would expect King’s writing to be taut, occasionally provocative with a tad of sentiment, and it is. My problem here is one of a genre novelist trying after all these years to write short literary fiction. He has all the writerly chops, but the story leaves me as cold as one by a mediocre MFA grad. Sorry, Stephen – I hate having to leave you with that.

Harper’s has always enthralled with their you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up snippets that speak volumes about life in the U.S. and within the modern world, and they don’t disappoint in this issue. Also, there’s a spectacular photo essay on Africa’s Niger Delta that will take your breath away.

You win some, and you lose some in taking on a magazine issue, but as I’ve written before, being an editor and trying to reach the complete spectrum of a magazine’s readership is a tough job. I’ll keep on reading. Things will be better next month.



Atlantic Monthly Gets It Right This Time

I've commented infrequently on Atlantic Monthly, a magazine I've read for many more years than I wish to countI've had my problems with Atlantic; the editors have often tackled important subjects in the magazine, but all too often they've done so with provocative articles that did too little to inform. But the March 2012 issue deserves mention.


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James Fallows presents a very balanced and insightful view of President Obama's first 3+ years as president. Christopher Hitchens in his final essay presents an equally insightful review of a pair of books on the complex life of G.K. Chesterton. And Megan McArdle, with whom I rarely agree, writes astutely on the difficulties inherent in changing organizational culture within corporations such as GM. 

One can hope that this isn't an anomaly; magazines such as Atlantic Monthly can do much to inform in an environment in which much that's written is inflammatory and just plain destructive.

Digging Deep with NEWSWEEK


Note: I first feel obliged to give my sketchy view on the metamorphosis of popular media. To skip to my bottom line, scroll down to the picture of Tina Brown, NEWSWEEK's editor. 

I've subscribed to several news weeklies over the years, but the one I've held onto the longest is NEWSWEEK. Since something like 1968, I've seen the magazine morph to fit the times. Back in the day, i.e., the 'sixties, NEWSWEEK – as with other such weeklies – maintained a stable of reporters searching out the stories of the day, gathering information on them, analyzing their data, and then reporting. Back then, we trusted the veracity of such reportage, much as we trusted Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, and others on TV.

Then, as life became more global, hence complex, readers seemed to ask for escape – hence a preoccupation with disco, Dennis Rodman, Donald Trump, and, even later, American Idol. NEWSWEEK and the other mags began to suffer losses in readership as magazine prices went up, corporate bean-counters ruled over journalism, and finally, the digital world of blogs and e-books began to threaten. For a while it became hard to tell NEWSWEEK from People or US.

By then, television had exploded from the three primary networks of the 'sixties to hundreds. That made it possible for news and politics junkies to select channels that fit their own biases, without much in the way of rational debate and analysis. NEWSWEEK had floundered into the world of FOX, MSNBC, CSPAN, Huffington Post, and CNN – and their separate variations on reality.


So where does this leave news weeklies – and news reportage in general? For the conscientious news consumer, it's possible now to graze from magazine to magazine, from channel to channel, blog to blog, sampling opinions. Now, it seems, readers and viewers must make up their own minds as to the truth of events – and that requires digging.

NEWSWEEK recently went through a radical change of structure and heart in order to escape going under financially. The magazine hired Tina Brown as its editor and merged with the blog-news entity, The Daily Beast. What has this meant to their reportage? They are now a microcosm of FOX, MSNBC, CSPAN, CNN, et. al. For example:

In the mag's March 28, 2011, issue, we have a personal essay on Japan and its recent catastrophe by Paul Theroux. Niall Ferguson is carving out the same sort of irascible territory as George Will, his essays lightly populated with facts obfuscated by opinion – the sort of column you read because you hate the man's playing fast and loose with facts.  An op-ed piece on Obama and No Child Left Behind. Perhaps the most incisive piece is on NPR's lack of political savvy in rescuing itself from congressional budget cuts. It's most intriguing piece is on a possible discovery on the ancient city of Atlantis. These, and a double handful of blog-like snippets, along with enough pop culture to hold the trendiest of us faithful, and NEWSWEEK is back in the game.

The common thread through these pieces is a marked lack of analysis. NEWSWEEK is now giving its readers a mosaic of the world, much as TV does. But unlike TV, where you can opt to say glued to FOX or MSNBC, a session with an issue of NEWSWEEK now requires the thoughtful reader to dig into these sometimes cranky, myopic pieces – and then to pan outward until the mosaic makes sense with the multitude of detail. 

This then is modern culture in a nutshell: seeing the big picture in the details. NEWSWEEK apparently understands this dynamic and, as such, has forced itself to be reborn from the ashes of the 'sixties.