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?