Narrating the Nation: Past and Present

by Guest Contributor Josh Glick, Yale University

The 10-part Showtime documentary series, The Untold History of the United States (2012), and the theatrically released documentary feature, Citizenfour (2014), are interesting for the ways they give shape to recent and more distant events and for how they push conventional boundaries of collaboration.


[caption id="attachment_4175" align="alignleft" width="205"] Image from IceFilms. Used under Fair Use.[/caption]

In Untold History, Academy-Award winning filmmaker Oliver Stone teamed up with American University history professor Peter Kuznick to examine America’s place in the post-World War II geopolitical landscape and the world America helped influence. The arc of the series is geared towards critique, challenging the notion of American exceptionalism, investigating the social consequences of U.S. military action abroad, and taking aim at how mainstream media institutions often package information into easily digestible sound bites.

The series’ extraordinary accumulation of archival newsreels and television footage, animated maps, photographs, and a constant stream of voice-over narration concentrate our attention on the decisions and decision making processes that led to the foreign policies of major presidential administrations. Beginning with the U.S. involvement in WWII, the series moves through the flash points of the Cold War and continues through more recent military conflicts and interventions in Latin America and the Middle East in the late 20th and into the 21st century. The entire series has recently been made available for purchase and Episode 3: The Bomb is streaming for free on the series’ official website.

Untold History does not so much invent a new nonfiction form, but revises the repertoire of cinematic tropes (and the political message) of famed Hollywood director Frank Capra’s boosterist Why We Fight series from WWII. In addition to increasing the volume of images and sounds, Untold History is a far faster film, with cuts between shots moving at a blistering speed. In essence, the documentary embraces a pace and a flow that suits today’s multi-tasking, stimulation-desiring viewers. The series engages the language of contemporary new media towards contemplative ends.

While this nonfiction format constitutes a new terrain for Stone and Kuznick, the project draws on their respective backgrounds and passions. Stone served in the 25th Infantry Division near the Cambodian border during the Vietnam War. A highly decorated soldier, he returned to the U.S. in 1971 and studied at New York University film school with New Hollywood director Martin Scorsese. It would be Stone’s Academy award-winning Platoon (1986) about the traumatic and grueling daily experiences of a young American soldier fighting in Vietnam that really propelled him into the public spotlight. The director is widely known for the compelling and controversial ways he dramatizes the past, giving audiences a sense of the feeling and social complexity of a defined period through a strong and often conflicted protagonist.

Kuznick had a different professional trajectory, but like Stone is interested in how cultural objects shape people’s understanding of the world around them. Kuznick actively publishes and teaches on the origins and evolution of the Cold War and the uses of technology and scientific knowledge in American society. He founded and runs the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University and pioneered a study abroad class where students travel each summer to Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

[caption id="attachment_4176" align="alignright" width="300"] Director Oliver Stone (Left) and Professor Peter Kuznick (Right) talking about their project for the Television Critics Association tour. Image from Zimbio. Used under Fair Use.[/caption]

The filmmaker and scholar first met in 1996 when Kuznick invited Stone as a guest speaker into his course on 20th century America as seen through the prism of the director’s films. It was out of their many meetings and discussions that the idea for a documentary emerged. Complementing the series is a 750 page-book co-authored by Stone and Kuznick that provides a long-form account (complete with footnotes) of the events the series covers. Several shorter versions of the book were recently created with the goal of targeting younger audiences. The Untold History Education Project applies these companion media to classroom environments through lesson plans and study guides.

After Untold History’s Showtime premier, Stone and Kuznick have been tirelessly giving presentations, interviews, and roundtable discussions around the world. While some scholars and journalists have volleyed spirited critiques of the series (see the back and forth with historian Sean Wilentz following his New York Times review) the documentary has its many enthusiastic defenders and advocates.

[caption id="attachment_4177" align="alignleft" width="199"] Citizenfour (2014) Poster, image from IMDB website. Used under Fair Use.[/caption]

Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour explores post-9/11 American surveillance culture through an intimate look at National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden. Poitras was not just a passive chronicler but integrally involved in the way Snowden, an IT analyst contracted from Booz Allen Hamilton, downloaded and leaked thousands of NSA documents concerning global surveillance programs as well as made himself known to a global public.

A prolific filmmaker, artist, journalist, and teacher, Poitras was midway through what was to be her third film in a documentary trilogy when she got encrypted email messages from “Citizenfour” (Snowden’s handle). Poitras recounts one of these messages she received towards the beginning of the film: “For now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit and subject line you type is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.”

Poitras was familiar with being watched to say the least. She found herself on the Department of Homeland Security’s “watch list” after the release of her trilogy’s first installment, My Country, My Country (2006). The Oscar-nominated film focused on Sunni political candidate and doctor Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh living with his family under U.S. occupation during the Iraq War. Her second installment, The Oath (2010), examined legal and military aspects of the War on Terror through following the lives of two men: the Sana’a taxi driver and former Osama bin Laden bodyguard Abu Jandal, and Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a former bin Laden driver who after spending time in Guantanamo Bay, was tried in a U.S. military tribunal.

After heightened difficulties with traveling in and out of the U.S., Poitras relocated to Berlin, where she made Citizenfour. Contact with Snowden altered what was initially going to be a more wandering and expansive third installment featuring case studies related to U.S. surveillance and civil liberties, a project that was funded in part by the MacArthur Genius Grant she was awarded in 2012. But the prospective film’s focus drifted towards the young analyst. He had heard about Poitras through her New York Times Op-Doc (also from 2012) titled The Program, a short eight-minute profile on NSA dissident and former Cold War code breaker William Binney. Poitras then flew to Hong Kong with Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald to meet with Snowden at the Mira Hotel. The film sketches this backstory in broad but poignant brushstrokes, integrates us into the high energy hotel room conversations for about an hour, and tracks the aftermath of Snowden’s public emergence as well as his flight out of the hotel with civil rights lawyers on route to his seeking asylum in Russia. The shots of abstract tunnel interiors, streetscapes, and pensive faces, have an elegant yet tightly wrought feel, aided by the electronic sounds massed into the chilling score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

[caption id="attachment_4178" align="alignright" width="201"] Director Laura Poitras, image from Frieze blog. Used under Fair Use.[/caption]

Following Citizenfour’s premiere at the 2014 New York Film Festival, praise for the film as both riveting and topical has given way to sustained Oscar buzz. It's a film for film lovers but also has attracted attention from a much broader audience. Still, Citizenfour has had its share of detractors. Some critics have claimed that the documentary did not reveal anything about data collecting of citizens and the U.S. government collaboration with telecommunications conglomerates that was not already known. Critics have also faulted Poitras for not presenting a more holistic and “balanced” view of Snowden and providing a more in-depth and nuanced perspective concerning the implications of his actions.

But for Poitras, the heart of the film is not about crafting a new stage for cogent political debate or learning about Snowden from a variety of ideological perspectives. It’s the depiction of Snowden’s disclosure, the culmination of a series of decisions both personal and political where we see him making the conscious choice to place the government’s investment in an ever-widening surveillance infrastructure on the minds of millions. While we get the sense that important events are unfolding when we visit Senate hearings in the European Parliament, the Guardian offices in London, and Greenwald’s home in Rio de Janeiro, the most riveting scenes include the extended time and space we share with Snowden in the confines of the hotel.

At a moment when observational documentary is the default form of film and television, a form that inflects everything from reality TV, to home films, to prestige festival documentaries, Poitras poetically captures the gravity of a historically charged moment in a way that is fresh and innovative. We witness the creation of Snowden’s globally circulated 12-minute “coming out” film as well as him watching his own mass-mediated image on the nightly news. We see him both vulnerable and confident and know that something fragile and important is indeed being documented.

The effect that the film will have on Snowden as well as other potential whistleblowers is something we’ll have to see. As for Poitras, the Academy Awards Ceremony’s red carpet is familiar territory, but given the level of controversy surrounding her subject, it is hard to imagine the film winning “Best Documentary Feature.” She has been continuing to work on multiple fronts. Stay tuned for more public appearances, short-form videos, a solo show of documentary art photography at the Whitney in NYC, and continued work with Greenwald and colleague Jeremy Scahill for the foreign affairs online investigative journalism organization, The Intercept.




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