Tag Archive: Cold War

  1. American historical mythologies: Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick

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    Q: Untold Histories is both a documentary series and a book. Do you think these two media fulfill different functions in getting your story out?

    PK: I think it’s two ways of conveying the same message. There’s actually another way, too, if you listen to the audiotapes. When I listen to the audio book, even after having written it, it’s still very powerful to me. But film has a different emotional resonance than reading a book, and when you put together the history with the skills of a brilliant filmmaker, each documentary episode feels like a feature film. Oliver did a great job of taking his words and my words, getting the visuals, and putting that together with the narration.

    Q: Can you talk a little bit about your time at Yale, Mr. Stone? I know you started out here, and then finished at NYU.

    OS: I was over in the freshman dorm, McClellan? George Bush was in my class. I’ve been back a couple of times — my son almost came here but he went to Princeton instead … I was here for the 2000 celebration, which was disgusting. I was literally turned off. The President [Levin] had turned into a money-grubber. It was the richest turnout I’d ever seen. Bush the father gave a speech, and they were loving him, cheering him … It was a celebration of capitalism, the turn of the century, and I just felt so sick that week, just felt like it was such a surfeit of self-love.

    Q: When you guys are presenting a documentary with an angle, or an interpretation, how do you interweave objective facts and their interpretations?

    OS: He’s a history professor. He should answer that. It’s tricky.

    PK: Even facts themselves are interpretation. When you get down to it, there are certain hardcore things, and those are uninteresting for the most part. History is all about interpretation, which is why it’s so silly when people call us revisionists, because historians are all, by definition, ‘revisionists.’ When people label us ‘revisionist,’ they mean ‘left-wing revisionist.’ At the University level, [Yale Professor of History and Cold War expert] John Gaddis is just as much of a revisionist as we are, but he’s revising from a different perspective. So I think that you’ve got to present the facts honestly, and then you’ve got to give your interpretation of what it means. We’re trying to show patterns across history. We start in the 1890s, we accelerate with World War II and the aftermath. We have an interpretation that says that the world could have turned out very differently and we would have been much better off had it turned out differently, and that the Cold War was effectively avoidable.

    OS: There’s this very important issue of who did what, when. When you say ‘facts’: The American settlers arrived here in ‘date, fact.’ The Indians massacred them in ‘date, fact.’ If you omit everything in between, about what the settlers did to the Indians, then of course it’s a massacre; of course it’s a simple act of revenge. So you have to be very careful when you say things, because omitting facts is a lot of what historians do.

    PK: You have to be selective. All historians select facts that can reinforce their argument. It doesn’t mean we don’t see the other side; we know what Stalin did, we know how horrifically he treated people within his own country. But we can look at that and say, still, he was not imposing dictatorial regimes in the beginning. There was a window there of about two years, when the United States and the Soviets could have worked out a different relationship.

    Q: What are the differences in creating a feature documentary and creating a fictionalized feature film like JFK? Do you think one is more effective at getting a message across?

    OS: Two different mediums, enormous differences. Drama films require condensation: You have actors, you have makeup, you have sets, you have to recreate reality. With a documentary, presumably you already have a reality that you are interpreting, and realities exist in our archive footage. In order to do [curate archival footage in a compelling way], you’ve got to take a big-picture-look at what really matters; we omitted certain things, absolutely, but I think we got the right picture and the right spirit. For me it was very exciting — not dealing with actors was great. We are dealing with a script, we are writing a narrative line, and choice of words is crucial, as is fact-checking. In a feature film, nobody fact checks you. I enjoy [making both feature films and documentaries] enormously, because one requires an enormous amount of theatrical vantage and imagination and storytelling. Frankly, a documentary does too, but with a documentary I had the chance to be rigorous. I basically went back and got a post-graduate degree in history with Mr. Kuznick.

    PK: He got a B.

    OS: I learned a lot about American history, which I hadn’t known, even though I’d lived through it.

    PK: Okay, he got an A. I just raised it.

    Q: So, how do you think your experiences as a Vietnam War veteran influence how you look at things, like history and American politics?

    OS: You have to realize I grew up Republican. I might have been George Bush in 2000 had I not lived my life and [concluded] that a large part of what I learned in American history was mythology, and not true. Vietnam felt patriotic at the time, but everyone who actually went there saw something else. I think that’s true of every war we’ve fought so far. And it’s not just war; it’s also domestic policies, our actions and covert intelligence to overthrow regimes. The way we teach American history is part of that cover-up. So I reached this place where I was very uncomfortable with what was being done. I feel that our greatness has been wholly compromised.

    Q: It’s interesting that you use that word, ‘mythology’ in the context of war education. How else do you think that our history education today is a ‘mythology’?

    PK: A lot of the project was inspired by Oliver looking at his daughter’s high school history textbook, and being disappointed by what she was learning and what she wasn’t learning … You run into two problems: One, that people know almost no history, and secondly, that the little bit they do know is usually wrong.

    Q: You guys have called Obama a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Do you stand by that, and what would you like to see in the 2016 election?

    PK: I’d like to see “ABC,” Anybody But Clinton, on the Democratic side. She is just much too hawkish for my taste. Obama is a colossal disappointment. Maybe we should have known better. There was something so compelling, so attractive, after those years of Bush … just Obama’s intelligence, the fact that he was so articulate, that he had a vision, and he seemed to be a man of peace, and that he’s African American. That combination was very attractive to us. The only thing I like about Hillary is her gender. I think it’s time to have a woman President, but someone else, like Elizabeth Warren. Obama wasn’t as bad as he might have been, given the pressures he was under, but he wasn’t as strong. If Obama had been President in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he would have listened to the generals, we would have invaded Cuba.

    OS: I want to make one addendum, because I don’t want to seem wholly negative: I’m not saying ‘anybody but Hillary.’ I accept that it seems inevitable that it will be her. So how do you live with her? Obviously you hope for amelioration, you hope that her foreign policy might be more nuanced than it’s been in the past. The problem is [that there’s] a pattern in American history, starting in 1894 [that accelerated us into] a national security state and then a global security state. It’s not [Clinton’s] fault, it’s almost like she’s been brainwashed; she just has to go along with that line. You can’t get along on either party without increasing military superiority. The problem’s not Hillary — how does anyone come up against what this country has become?

  2. Cold War, Hot Cinema: The Popularity of Paranoia

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    During many academic introductions to the Cold War, teachers present clips of Cold War-era feature films. They show these clips, with their demonic Russian villains and eminent nuclear war, alongside videos that teach schoolchildren to hide under their desks in case of nuclear attack and brochures detailing the proper stockpile for a private bomb shelter. In this context, the films and their paranoid themes seem like relics of our past. They become artifacts that we use to dissect history; we watch them as symptoms of the paranoia rampant within Cold War America. Modern viewers may laugh at the dramatic nature of the films. Feeling that America has left the Cold War behind, we now tend to look back upon its cultural reflections with something verging on condescension.

    Recently, skimming blog posts about this spring’s upcoming films, I came across “White House Down,” which Sony plans to release in June. The plot follows a failed Secret Service applicant (Channing Tatum), who happens to be on a tour of the White House when a paramilitary troop invades the building. Eventually, Tatum saves both the day and the president.

    Sound familiar? It should. This weekend, Millennium Films released “Olympus Has Fallen,” an action flick following an ex-Secret Service agent (Gerard Butler) as he navigates a terrorist infiltration of the White House. Butler somehow manages to dispel the terrorists, rescue the president and restore general order.

    What can we learn from the similarities between these two films? Has Hollywood simply run out of ideas? People like movies such as “Die Hard” (1988) and “Independence Day” (1996). So why not combine them? Twice? But I think that there’s something more here.

    Film provides a particularly good barometer of cultural beliefs, fears, desires, etc., for two reasons. First, film is a collaborative art form. Unlike a painter or an author, who most often creates his or her work in solitude, a director works alongside producers, actors, cinematographers, editors and at times hundreds of others to craft a product. Although one contributor may drive the vision, such collaboration often implies some sort of compromise or agreed-upon principles within the work.

    Second, the studio system moderates most mainstream films. Studios look to create not only an artistic product, but also a lucrative one. Making a popular film often means reflecting popular attitudes or anxieties. Yes, some other art forms, like the modern novel, are also formed in part by the structures of industry. However, with today’s excess of film marketing, product placement and sequels, the film industry stands as an extreme in the transformation of art to commodity. Though all art can be interpreted as a reflection of society and culture, film might be the one most desperately trying to please and relate to the public.

    This model illuminates Cold War films as symptomatic of Cold War culture. In “My Son John” (1952), a family discovers that its beloved son has returned home from abroad as a Communist, reflecting a fear of Communist infiltration into the peace of American family life. In “Fail Safe” (1964), the U.S. accidentally drops an atomic bomb on Moscow, leading to the possibility of retaliation. Such a plot plays on Cold War viewers’ fears of a possible nuclear holocaust.

    In view of “White House Down” and “Olympus Has Fallen,” it is time to take another look at these seemingly antiquated Cold War films. Perhaps they should not be viewed as mere relics, but as relevant parallels. The portrayal of American paranoia through film has not faded, but remains strong. Not one studio, but two, believed that the story of a terrorist takeover of the White House would strike a chord with American viewers. And these are not the only two films to fit such a model. In Paramount’s “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” currently playing at the Criterion, a nuke-crazy villain impersonates the president. And general terrorist films have run rampant both before and after 9/11: “Die Hard” (1988) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) are merely a couple of the most popular manifestations.

    The antagonists have changed since the 1960s. In “Olympus Has Fallen” the terrorists are North Korean rather than Russian, reflecting a current fear of North Korean nuclear power; in “G.I. Joe”’s preview, the impostor expressly threatens North Korea, leaving a potential viewer wondering whether a “Fail-Safe”-like nuclear standoff awaits. Entire books, like Jack Shaheen’s “Reel Bad Arabs,” have been written on the vilification of Arabs in American films, especially after 9/11.

    Today’s box office implies that Cold War films ought not to be mocked as relics of our past. Our fears have not ended, but merely transferred their target. We remain both terrified and fascinated by threats from the outside. We’ll continue watching — especially when Channing Tatum’s the one who saves us.

  3. Yalies join forces to prank Gaddis’ ‘Cold War’ lecture

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    This afternoon, students attending Professor John Gaddis’ “Cold War” lecture witnessed history come to life. Literally.

    Dressed in costumes ranging from President Ronald Reagan to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the Yale Pundits, the Yale Precision Marching Band and the Yale Russian Chorus stormed Gaddis’ class this afternoon roughly 10 minutes into the Cold War historian’s lecture. After bursting onto the balcony and ground level of SSS 114, a Gorbachev impersonator delivered a grandiose speech in Russian while other students divided the room in half by stringing a curtain — representing the Berlin Wall — across the lecture hall.

    The Russian Chorus then entered the room on one side, while two students — one dressed as a U.S. Air Force pilot — yelled at each other from the other side of the room.

    “West Berlin is falling, we’re gonna need an air drop!” shouted the makeshift pilot as silver packets of Alpha Delta Pizza chips rained down from the balcony and onto the “free” side of the room.

    The chips had barely stopped falling when Alex Kramer ’13 called across the room to Gorbachev and began to deliver Reagan’s famous speech at Brandenburg Gate, in which Reagan famously asked Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”

    “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!” Kramer called from the balcony, just as the Yale Precision Marching Band burst into the room blaring “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Russian Chorus rushed down the wall.

    As the curtain came down, pranksters on both sides briefly hugged and celebrated their brief liberation, then fled the room almost as quickly as they had come.

    Gaddis, no doubt used to such disruptions — pranking his class has become an annual tradition — smiled as the dramatic scene unfolded.

    “It’s a good thing they didn’t get champagne on the computer, or there would’ve been no lecture,” he quipped.

    Correction: Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012

    An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed part of the above events to the Yale Slavic Chorus. In fact, the pranksters were members of the Yale Russian Chorus.