January 12, 2010

Why Oliver Stone is wrong

Oliver Stone, director of JFK and Nixon, gave an interview to the historian Mark Carnes in the 1990s in which he argued that historians were not the appropriate guardians of historical truth. He rebuked the profession for not creating patterns between Kennedy's death, Luther King's death, Robert Kennedy's death and Nixon's fall, he rebuked the profession for not asking questions about suspicious looking moments on the Nixon tapes which might be tied, in his view to the Kennedy assacination, he rebuked historians for not attempting to put those facts into a larger pattern and seeing what he sees as truth. We should remember as we look at these ideas that Stone is in the business of making films and that everything he says might well be right if you are making an interesting three hour film and don't have to worry about the truth, but is it good history?

I am not sure that it is. Lets take the idea of patterns. Stone starts with patterns and declares that he fits facts into those patterns, he starts with what he knows- that Cuba might well have caused a military dictatorship in sixties america, and proceeds to intepret every fact in its light. That seems to me to be the wrong way round. It assumes a pattern which rests upon facts which themselves may be uncertain. One of the virtues of the way that we study history today is that most graduate students start by proving something small and move through their careers working on finite examples, and then write a general history once they have understood several small facts. Stone wants the big picture first: but of course that presumes two things. Firstly it presumes that the big picture is right: Stone's intuition may be incorrect. Secondly it assumes that every fact fits into a bigger picture- that Nixon must have been talking about Kennedy when he was talking about the 'bay of pigs thing' but of course he could have been talking about anything, we can't know that he was talking about Kennedy and we shouldn't automatically infer that he was.

Stone is right that there have been conspiracies in history- Julius Caesar was executed by a conspiracy of his former friends, Phillip of Macedon was killed in a similar way- but what is notable about all these conspiracies is how quickly they unravelled in chaos. Events, dear boy, events are always there to interrupt the best of human plans, Macmillan's logic goes for conspiracies as well as anything else. Politics is if it is nothing else complex- if John Kennedy had been killed by a vast conspiracy we would know about it by now. There may be secrets that have been taken to the grave- but we should be cautious about assuming there are just because the past is untidy. The last point to make against Stone is that history ultimately is fragmentary- people forget what they did yesterday (think of your own life, what were you doing at five o'clock this time last year?) and don't record everything they remember. A historical theory that does not have gaps is one that is probably not true- Stone's theories and patterns are too complete to work, history is always going to be imperfect, always going to be incomplete and it is best to be sceptical about grand designs.

Oliver Stone may be a good film maker, but as a historian he lacks scepticism and an awareness of that history ultimately fails to reconstruct the full story.