Stone talked to HBO, for whom he had made a documentary about Fidel Castro, but the network balked at the idea of 10 episodes. “And this was a different kind of idea anyway,” Stone says. “A dissident idea, I call it. Showtime was more open to it. They’re No. 2, they try harder, like the old Avis ad used to say.”
Two years late
Not that there weren’t some bumpy spots down the Showtime road. Even after abandoning episodes on World War I and the Depression, Stone was two years late delivering the series. And Showtime and corporate parent CBS maintained a stony silence when Stone came under harsh attack for a 2010 press conference in London where he boasted that Untold History would “show empathy” for Hitler and Stalin and present them “in context.” Added Stone: “Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than the Jewish people.”
The resulting firestorm abated only after Stone apologized, saying he had just been “trying to make a broader historical point about the range of atrocities the Germans committed against many people,” and had blundered into “a clumsy association about the Holocaust.”
The scars from that controversy seem not to have entirely healed and are even faintly visible in the show itself, in which Stalin’s brutality is mentioned several times even as his conduct of the war is praised. And a reporter’s suggestion that the documentary characterizes Stalin and the Soviet Union as the war’s “good guy” and Western leaders as something less drew a forceful response.
“There’s nothing about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the film,” Stone says. “We don’t use those words. We talk about power politics. We talk about how beleaguered the Russians were. How empathetic toward the Soviet Union Roosevelt was, and how there was antipathy [toward the Soviets] from Churchill ... .
“Good and bad, those are huge words, and these are huge countries. America contains so much; Russia, too. There was much bad with Stalin, and much good, too. The Russians sacrificed enormously to win the war. That cannot be ignored. Please be careful about this, be careful about using words like good and bad. We went to years and lengths to make each chapter complex, with layers and nuances. What we’re trying to show are systems that exist, the process that exists. It’s not about egos so much as it is about the system, the concept of empire in the national security state — the gigantic beast, if you will.
“We screened some of the episodes at the New York Film Festival. And the best reaction of anybody there was from this young woman who said, ‘It made me rethink World War II.’ That’s what we hope for. It should make you think on another level.”