BBC2 Wednesday

Television review: The Iraq War - It's the alternative history boys


Unsure of global politics since the war? Don't worry, Oliver Stone has it all sewn up

Is the CIA worried about my favourite Google searches? " Mr President, it's the 18th time this week the subject has searched on 'swingset + used + south London'. For the sake of the free world, we need to take him out now!" The news that America's National Security Agency is monitoring our digital communications is a conspiracy theorist's clammy dream come true. So much so, in fact, that there may be a forum out there debating whether this news is merely an ingenious front for a yet more devilish attack on our human rights.

And yet, as they say, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you (or, at least, mess around with your bin collection). So, the mainstream media has been forced to give some of the theorists their moment, and rightly so. It was less than helpful, then, to see Andrew Neil hand the megaphone to Alex Jones, the American "shock jock", on Neil's Sunday Politics show. Jones was talking about the secretive Bilderberg conference, and went from obedient sofa guest to full wingnut in the click of a mouse, barking about American government internment camps. Neil called him an "idiot". Well, tell us something we don't know, Andrew.

It was a week to lend an ear to the voices that dissent from the consensus. Any quick scan of the Radio Times, though, will tell you what a painfully balanced and reasonable tone the historical discourse tends to take on our airwaves. The final part of BBC2's series The Iraq War was a case in point. It had access to many of the big cheeses –Dick Cheney, Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – and it conducted interviews with them impeccably. This third episode dealt with the past seven years, from the descent, in 2006, to horrific sectarian violence in the country to the not‑at‑all sunnier news that 700 Iraqis were killed in April this year. But all was measured and calm on screen; it was up to us to infer from the polite but contrasting narratives that there had been quite a lot of "No, you're a back-stabbing bastard!".

The passage of time has given those concerned the chance to justify their actions, but it was still striking to see Jack Straw almost chuckling as he recalled how he and Condoleezza Rice had convinced the democratically elected Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to resign. Crazy days, eh, Jack! As regime change goes, it must have felt quite tame after the removal of Saddam. Nevertheless, it was engrossing television, and took for granted that the vexed truth of the matter lay somewhere between the major players in the conflict.

Oliver Stone would be rather sniffy about such an approach. For the film director, the truth is way out there, far beyond the ken of the mainstream media, in thrall as they are to the agendas of the great Western powers. On Friday, his series Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States (Sky Atlantic, Friday ***) also touched on the Iraq war. That title is overblown – it's an account of US foreign policy since the Second World War, directed, co-written and narrated by Stone. Stone believes that in electing Harry Truman, America dragged the world down a bloody geopolitical dead end. Episode nine dealt with the Nineties and early Noughties.

No doubt about it, here was the genuine voice of the conspiracy theorist: a deluge of information, wildly contextualised, and delivered with unwavering conviction. One moment George W Bush was being compared to a degenerate Roman emperor courtesy of clips from the film Gladiator, the next we were reminded of his grandfather's shady connections to Nazi Germany, to support Stone's explicit belief that his homeland is "a military juggernaut intent on world domination". This pronouncement, like all of his scattergun script, came at us in a halting monotone, as if he'd forgotten his bifocals. The result was a waking nightmare of Great Satan's misadventures, and much of it was intriguing. The problem was that this blizzard of supposition provoked in its audience the tuned-out attitude that Stone is trying to combat. But that was more cock-up than conspiracy.

Channel 4's promising new Sunday evening French drama import, The Returned (Sunday ****), proposed that all the young victims of a coach crash are returning from the dead to their families. The first episode worked this uncanny set-up stylishly. And of course, these being young Gallic zombies, they were neatly turned out, fussy about bath time and preferred home-cooking to live flesh. Plus ça change.

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