“Rethink your history, America, because you’re not the benevolent indispensable nation that we pretend to be,” said award-wining filmmaker Oliver Stone last Friday night. “We need an alternate history and more compassion for other histories, other points of view.”
Stone brought his new documentary “The Bomb” to Stanford for a two-hour screening and panel discussion in the Lane History Corner last week. The documentary, which focuses on the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, is the third of twelve one-hour episodes in the Showtime series “The Untold History of the United States,” based on a 750-page book by Stone and historian Peter J. Kuznick with the same title.
Stone is known for directing controversial political films including “JFK” (1991), “Nixon” (1995) and “W” (2008), and has produced several feature-length documentaries. According to Stone, this five-year project was by far his largest.
“It’s certainly the most ambitious thing I’ve ever attempted as a filmmaker,” Stone said. “To bring into the scope of one film…essentially the American experience since last century into this one, and why we became an empire, the rise, and I think the fall — I think we’re seeing the fall but may not know it.”
In both the film and book, Kuznick and Stone argue that dropping the atomic bomb did nothing to end World War II, and that the Cold War could have been avoided if Truman had decided not to take such extreme measures.
“What we argue is that what ended the war was not the atomic bombing — it was the Soviet invasion,” Kuznick said. “The atomic bombings were not only unnecessary and morally reprehensible, but they really fueled the Cold War.”
The hour-long film consists entirely of Stone’s narration, and relies heavily on archived footage and imagery, as well as animation and some news footage from more recent events.
“This is an unconventional documentary,” Stone said. “No talking heads, all narrative and archive footage with movie clips cut in. It’s a nice form of its own…I wanted to make it poetic, there’s a heavy concentration on flow.”
With the book and the documentary series, Stone and Kuznick aimed to have what Kuznick called a “one-two punch.”
“The book gives a lot of the evidence that we couldn’t put into the documentary, the book develops the ideas we put into the documentary much more fully,” Kuznick said. “Documentaries bring it to life, they’re moving, they’re compelling, they can reach a bigger audience.”
Stone said he hopes the film will initiate a new dialogue on American history among audiences, and estimated that over a million people have watched each installment so far on Showtime.
Following the screening of the film, Stone, Kuznick and Daniel Ellsberg, who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, participated in a discussion panel moderated by Barton Bernstein, professor emeritus of history.
Although Bernstein agreed with the film politically, he said he disagreed on a number of points as a historian, but declined to address those areas of dissent at the time. However, Bernstein praised the filmmakers’ effort to get people thinking and talking about such subjects.
“I think it’s a very effective work of drama by a very skilled filmmaker raising appropriate questions about history,” Bernstein said, adding that the film is “broadening the dialogue in a way that will encourage other people to talk about some of these matters in a way that they might not.”