Though I never saw Cameron Mackintosh’s original 1991 Broadway production, let alone the 1989 production in London where it debuted, I’ve wanted to see Miss Saigon. I attended the revised Miss Saigon, which debuted five years ago, at Hollywood’s Pantages theater. The U.S. touring show, directed by Laurence Connor, disappoints for the lack of characterization, absence of conflict and mediocrity in music.
Unlike their outstanding adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Miserables, main songwriters Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg wrote music as the plot instead of building music around the plot as was the case with Les Miserables.
Unfortunately, the music is mediocre — good at best — and never moving, so the light opera isn’t strong enough to fill in the numerous plot gaps. Chief among the gaps is an absence of what ought to have been the story’s source for a primary conflict: Communism. By avoiding the dictatorship of the proletariat imposed by North Vietnam, Miss Saigon dodges the question of why anyone would be terrified of remaining in Vietnam after Communist North Vietnam defeated nationalist South Vietnam in the Vietnam War.
This is an extremely important and fertile area for the theatrical work. The Vietnam War, which the official Miss Saigon website persuasively implies ought to be called the Second Indochina War, had a serious and devastating impact on the West in general and America in particular. To its credit, Miss Saigon dramatizes in light opera the agony faced by everyone who lost (and to a lesser extent “won”) the Vietnam War.
Miss Saigon is problematic. The leading man and the leading woman are too sketchy. There’s not enough definition, set-up or emotional power in Boublil’s book, Schonberg’s songs or its execution to sustain the show.
The American soldier and his South Vietnamese prostitute aren’t merely stereotypical. They’re generic. This proves to be deadly in spite of the better songs. For example, Chris (Anthony Festa), the American soldier, barely gets to be a soldier for most of the show. Worse, he has no apparent goals, motives or ambitions beyond being with the prostitute or, later, his wife. He’s traumatized by nightmares but he’s never shown in combat, let alone in sustained exposure to trauma during war. So his torment is fleeting.
Kim (Emily Bautista), the South Vietnamese prostitute with whom he falls in love after one night in Saigon, likewise never expresses interest in any other endeavor than being a wife, mother or daughter. This makes it difficult to see this pair as fully functional young adults making choices — including the sort of dark and serious choices the plot hinges on — in a war-torn or postwar-torn world.
Other characters have problems, too. The Engineer (Red Concepcion), which could’ve been given depth, nuance and pathos, is ultimately cartoonish. The character is basically Kim’s pimp. Like the Thenardier couple in Les Miserables, if not as evil, he provides a degree of comedy to the tragedy.
He gets a backstory in the second act and it’s very interesting. But it raises more questions than it answers including how he came to want the American dream which he sings about and became knowing, corrupt and worldly. The character, which is integral to Miss Saigon, spends three years in a Communist concentration camp and barely shows the effects.
The interracial character could’ve been — and, in a better show, would have been — given an origin story with meaningful exposition. Even his nickname, the Engineer, could’ve been developed as a play on the monstrous social engineering brought forth by Ho Chi Minh and the Communists in the wake of a war which ravaged this agrarian Southeast Asian nation during three decades. Instead, he’s a comical pimp.
Other characters also squander potential. For instance, Gigi, the hooker with a heart of gold (and the come-on to match) pairs with another American soldier but exhibits kindness for the sweeter, more innocent Kim. Gigi’s Yankee soldier, John, offers a similar contrast. It’s his idea to hire prostitutes. He introduces Chris to Kim. In a way, he engineers their relationship. But it never goes deeper than that. And his entire postwar career inexplicably relates to fostering the war’s interracial children. John’s character could’ve really meant something. Instead, it sort of drifts without impact or definition.
Then there’s Chris’s American wife, Ellen. She gets a new song in the revised production and it’s a good tune (“Maybe”). But, again, for a musical predicated on the idea of minding the life-changing meaning of epic romantic love, Ellen is without any evident interests, goals or principles beyond being a loyal and devoted wife.
Finally, there’s the closest Miss Saigon has to an explicit villain; Thuy.
Thuy goes from the South Vietnamese soldier to whom Kim is engaged to a commissar in Communist Vietnam. What becomes of him serves as an important catalyst to the climax of Miss Saigon. With the bitterness, rage and cruelty of Strelnikov in David Lean’s epic war romance Doctor Zhivago (1965) and the sense of inevitability an otherwise decent man must face under Communism of Taganov in We the Living (1936), Thuy could’ve been one of musical theater’s great dark, tragic characters.
Each character is wrapped in a convoluted plot resulting in vagueness and disorientation. Miss Saigon begins in 1975 with no real sense of Saigon’s swirling, mass panic, desperation and madness. The musical contains none of that sense of urgency. Historic moments of Saigon’s last hours before it fell to Communists and became Ho Chi Minh City are relegated in this new production to a downsized series of scenes and numbers that lack scope and intensity and therefore snatch from Miss Saigon deliverance of its proper juxtaposition of agony, doom and wonder.
Interestingly, Miss Saigon, the stage musical, is an adaptation of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Madama Butterfly (1904), according to the musical’s website. But the source of inspiration for Puccini’s opera is the novelette Madame Butterfly, by John Luther Long. The site describes the story as “an 1898 Asian American romance that was published in American Century Magazine.” The novelette was apparently dramatized as a one-act play by David Belasco, Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan. “After its 1900 premiere in New York,” Miss Saigon reports, “the play transferred to London, which is where Puccini saw it.”
The Vietnam War, a 10-part series for PBS which aired in 2017, is flawed, biased and incomplete. It is also a compelling and important examination of the Southeast Asia war America lost.
Written by Geoffrey C. Ward and directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, with key military guidance from certain war intellectuals and participants, this is a generally honest account of a terrible, impossible war.
I welcome feedback on this long, episodic review, which I’ve composed from my notes after watching the series on Apple TV. I apologize in advance for any errors or omissions, so please feel free to let me know if I’ve missed something important or misspelled the name of a soldier, a village or a battle. Know that I especially want to hear from the reader who served in Vietnam.
This war loomed over my childhood and life. It still does. Generations in America suffered irreparable harm and year after year, president after president, election after election, Americans make the same mistakes. I want my post to prompt the reader to think about the Vietnam War … or to think twice.
I’m giving this program the long, deep and detailed analysis I think the topic deserves, especially in an increasingly anti-intellectual culture in which the individual, the press and the government give asinine topics all their attention at the expense of topics that matter. Going to war without purpose and for the sake of helping others and the men who were forced to wage it matters and it matters very much to your daily life. I want you to learn from what I found in this series even if you never watch this series, which I hope you do.
Each episode, produced by Florentine Films for public television and presented without commercial interruption, is approximately 90 minutes.
Buy the DVD
Starting with the sound of a helicopter, the continuing symbol of the Vietnam War from its origins to its end to its aftermath in movies and Broadway musicals, The Vietnam War on PBS commences with its first installment, aptly titled “Deja Vu” marking the years 1858 through 1961.
Here, you will learn why the war was born of misguided conquest. Today, this would be reduced to the vulgar term clusterf**k. Vietnam’s agrarian society was primitive with multiple forces and influences, especially through mysticism and religions, none of which is delved into here.
But there’s enough material here to see that the mid-20th century precedes this major turning point with a worldwide war engulfing Asia, especially mystical, Imperial Japan, which allied the worst evil of the century, Communism, with the West.
This alliance happened under an American president who sought statism in America. The authoritarian war president, Franklin Roosevelt, previously studied by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns in his series The Roosevelts, set the course for an exotic jungle war in Vietnam. The Vietnam War does not make these observations. But it documents the evidence for the rational mind to make the connection.
Enter the monstrous Ho Chi Minh, a spindly figure who merges faith, nationalism, collectivism and pieces of civilization into a mongrel mixture that dazzles or sedates nearly everyone. Under dozens of pseudonyms, the charismatic leader travels the world in “Deja Vu”, from New York City and Paris to Boston and London from his native Vietnam. He studies America, writing to President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 pleading for Wilson to support Ho Chi Minh’s nationalism. He plans, goes to Soviet Russia and gains sponsors, returning to Vietnam in 1941.
By the time the sick, dying Ho Chi Minh was saved by the American government with Western medicine in 1945, the year the U.S. ended the war by dropping atomic bombs on Japan after the barbaric state refused to surrender, Minh had — like later Islamic terrorists — been nursed, trained and armed by the United States.
Roosevelt had wanted nations to be free to choose Communism.
This left Ho Chi Minh to look to the U.S. as some sort of egalitarian empire. The Vietnam War makes much of Minh’s quoting Thomas Jefferson, downplaying Minh’s other philosophical sources and influences, such as Josef Stalin, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, which tout Communism, nationalism and socialism. But it is clear that Ho Chi Minh’s interest in America was never based on individualism; it was filtered through his worship of the omnipotent state, a fact which this series evades or ignores,. Minh’s outreach to the U.S. is contingent upon his glorification of race, tribe and a people’s state. Ho Chi Minh was indoctrinated and funded by Soviet Russia.
After World War 2, Minh lived, Novick and Burns report with actor Peter Coyote’s narration, in a cave he named after Marx. He named a nearby stream after Lenin. Ho Chi Minh knew exactly his political philosophy. His brigade of Communists, the Vietnam Minh, killed their first American, a peace-making colonel named Peter Dewey, when they supposedly mistook him for a Frenchman when Col. Dewey was brokering a peace deal between the Communists and France.
So, at least this series lets it be known that the first American to die in Vietnam came in peace. Dewey was an innocent who was gunned down by Hi Chi Minh’s Communists. Soon afterward, Communist Mao Tse-Tung, responsible for mass murdering more innocents than perhaps anyone ever to exist on earth, takes over China. The series reports that Mao and the world’s other bloodiest dictator, Josef Stalin, funded the Communists in Vietnam.
In this sense, the first episode of The Vietnam War illustrates how Communist China and Soviet Russia poisoned this poor, farm country in Southeast Asia through a leader nursed, trained and armed by an American government with a socialist bent.
When Franklin Roosevelt died while in office, his vice-president, Harry Truman, became president. Having been accused of being the guilty party on the question of ‘Who lost China [to Communism]?’, President Truman promptly approved of $23 million in aid to France, which ruled Vietnam and Southeast Asia as a kind of colony.
The context is complicated. As Ho Chi Minh advanced against France in Vietnam, Truman was already drafting American men to fight a proxy war with China on the Korean peninsula after Chinese-backed North Koreans invaded South Korea.
All of this is more or less packed into the first episode of The Vietnam War. These are starting points. There’s more, pardon the advertising cliche, much more.
In the autumn of 1951, the culprit in starting the Vietnam War first appears on scene.
His name is Congressman John Kennedy. The series reports that the young war hero was visiting a rooftop bar when he heard guns across the Saigon River. Kennedy returned to his native Massachusetts and told constituents that, unless the U.S. could persuade the Vietnamese that Americans are as opposed to “inequality” as they are opposed to Communism, Truman’s aid to France would result in “foredoomed failure”.
Rep. Kennedy would continue Roosevelt’s statist legacy when he became President Kennedy. Vietnam would become a quagmire and it would chiefly be his doing. But, during the 1950s, U.S. policy on Vietnam was set by Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, whose vice-president, Richard Nixon, is seen in this first episode going over a map of Vietnam on television.
By 1953, France had gone though six commanders in trying to colonize Vietnam and France had failed at what it termed pacification, which then and now is a euphemism for winning the hearts and minds of the people. The French had also widely used a form of gelatinized petroleum called Napalm in its military efforts. This caused Parisian leftists to oppose the war in Vietnam, shown here and intercut with later footage of 1968 New Left American protests, and riot in the streets.
Then came the debacle between Vietnamese and French forces at Dien Bien Phu on March 13, 1954. As commentator Daniel Gregg puts it: “[Americans] should’ve seen the fall [at Dien Bien Phu] as the end of colonialism…instead we saw it as part of a Communist threat.” The 17th parallel split came after France’s devastating defeat, with French troops forced to retreat into the south, leaving the Vietnam Minh to control the north, separating Vietnam into two countries by a demilitarized zone (DMZ) until an election could be held to reunify north and south.
In the south, the French supported a Saigon crime syndicate which opposed the regime in South Vietnam. This regime was opposed by President Eisenhower, too, but Ike was pressured to support South Vietnam’s corrupt government when the regime was reelected.
President Kennedy, The Vietnam War shows, made support for South Vietnam’s corrupt government explicit — Kennedy was the first American president to do so, really — modeling South Vietnam on Roosevelt’s New Deal and Marshall plan with massive infrastructure rebuilding — after Ike ordered scores of Americans to South Vietnam to rebuild and win hearts and minds.
The moral premise of the Vietnam War had been established: helping others. If Truman and Eisenhower initially aided Vietnam as a hedge against Communism, they did so without a proper study of the people, the culture and the geopolitics of Vietnam. But it would be John Kennedy who would double down on the oversight, turning an error into a blunder.
On July 8, 1959, The Vietnam War shows that six Americans watching a movie in their mess hall in Bien Hoa, 20 miles northeast of Saigon, were attacked by Minh’s guerillas.
The terrorists had silently crept into the U.S. compound to fire their guns through the windows — a New York Times article refers to this act of war as “Communist terrorism” — and two top U.S. soldiers, Major Dale Buis and Master Sergeant Chester Ovnard, were killed. The men were the first American soldiers to die from enemy fire. Pictures of their names on the Vietnam Memorial — Dale R. Buis and Chester N. Ovnard — appear in this initial episode.
Before it concludes, “Deja Vu” shows a clip of a famous speech by President Kennedy — Kennedy vows that Americans “shall pay any price, bear any burden…” on January 20, 1961 — and it is at once striking that the president who undeservedly gets credit for putting an American on the moon never gets blamed for putting Americans in harm’s way, let alone for doing so with neither purpose nor end. Six weeks after Kennedy was elected president, the murderous Viet Minh became a southern Vietnam subversive terrorist force called the Viet Cong — Cong stands for Communist Traitors to the Vietnamese Nation — the military wing of the north’s National Liberation Front.
The title of The Vietnam War‘s second episode, “Riding the Tiger”, is taken from a line in President Kennedy’s inaugural speech. This covers the Vietnam War Kennedy started in earnest from the year 1961 through 1963.
American John Musgrave, a key military combatant interviewed throughout this extremely educational series, talks of a night light when describing the terror of war in the context of being the son of an Army pilot and a father to children. In doing so, Musgrave captures both the ghastly horror of Vietnam and the Kantian sense in which the American deployed there never possessed the power of knowledge to fight in war.
After this harrowing narrative, Jack Todd speaks of wanting to go to war becausePresident Kennedy was to him like a god.
So begins the deifying of the American president. This became worse with every presidency, from Johnson being adored for enacting his Great Society by force and the iconography of Reagan’s melodramatic bootleg romanticism toBill Clinton as the redeemable hillbilly, the repulsive vilifying or deifying ofBarack Obama for his race and the thick-headed cultishness of red-capping the current presidency. This ugly spectacle began with Theodore Roosevelt and spread to cousin Franklin. But the charismatic leader cult ballooned with the president who was a Kennedy.
The Ken Burns series is guilty of this, too, referencing the Berlin Wall as something Kennedy could not stop — it is now known that, at best, Kennedy, in fact, allowed the wall to be built and, at worst, he negotiated for its construction — and failing to account for Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco. Instead, the series equivocates and rationalizes that Kennedy “had to” act in Vietnam.
Lacking supporting evidence, this is a crucially dubious assertion.
Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, a former Ford Motor Co. systems analyst, is perhaps the first major American military figure to choose foreign policy based on statistics, numbers or “metrics”. It was McNamara who first tried to apply a business model to the most crucial role for government.
The results were a disaster. McNamara’s faith in numbers created the vast, “military-industrial complex” against which President Eisenhower had rightly warned. Watch McNamara for an early example of running the model that the government can be managed like a business; it won’t be hard to connect the dots to the appeal of an anti-capitalist authoritarian like Donald Trump.
Episode two’s lessons detail the faulty war foundation laid by the Kennedy administration. At least it leaves the impression that the men, such as John Musgrave, who were drafted to fight are superior communicators to those in previous generations; Vietnam War veterans who participate in this documentary demonstrate that they have the capacity to think and express themselves. Today’s Americans are the beneficiaries of their ability to communicate with objectivity.
The Vietnam War grants these men ample opportunity.
The 10-part program does so while documenting that President Kennedy, arguably an absent and deficient commander-in-chief, was vacationing when a cable came from South Vietnam regarding a coup — which the administration bungled like it botched everything — and the bloodshed essentially started the Vietnam War. To their credit, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson and McNamara argued against what Kennedy chose to do, which is to cede to the State Department, which steered the 20th Century’s worst American foreign policy blunders, especially Islamic dictatorship in Iran.
Kennedy’s fiasco ends on the eve of his assassination as Buddhist monks self-immolate in Saigon’s streets. Self-sacrifice is an ominous sign of the sacrificial holocaust to come.
Audio recording of President Lyndon Johnson expressing doubts (all vindicated) while cleaning up the mess Kennedy created dominates the third episode of The Vietnam War, “The River Styx”, which covers January 1964 through December 1965. Johnson’s self-doubt lead him to keep Kennedy’s team despite the evidence.
Johnson’s interest in the Vietnam War, however, was secondary to his interest in expanding the Kennedy administration’s legacy of plunging the nation deeper into the welfare state. The results, possibly against Johnson’s intentions, were a military, moral and philosophical disaster. Johnson’s ignorance and deceit in foreign and domestic affairs worsened the quagmire, the militarism and the New Left’s militancy.
Johnson’s lies about the Tonkin Gulf resolution fed distrust among the public, which, in turn, fed subversive factions seeking to overthrow the government. This, in turn, fed the government’s tendency to mislead the press and the public on the grounds that every turn of the war ought not to be shared with everyone.
In video footage of Vietnam War commanding Gen. William Westmoreland speaking to his men, he instructs troops that they must avoid hurting women and children and commands them to win Vietnamese hearts and minds. Thus begins the vicious cycle of waging war by public relations causing massive losses, bad optics and so on. While the enemy waged war by terrorism spawned from the Ho Chi Minh trail, infiltrating South Vietnam’s villages, farms and rice paddies, Americans were ordered to fight with disadvantageous rules of engagement.
Gradually, however, an approach of tit for tat by the U.S. military toward North Vietnam complicated the war. It didn’t help that Communist China sent a total of 320,000 troops — pitting American troops against Chinese troops for the second time in the 20th century — and that, with the first war on television in the freest nation on earth, every mistake could be reported in the free press and given absolute expression of freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Magnifying American blunders while the New Left mobilized for the enemy, eventually waving enemy flags in U.S. cities, complicated the Vietnam War.
Diplomat George Ball’s ominous warning and prediction loomed large by 1965.
“Resolve”, chronicling the war from January, 1966 to June, 1967, compounds the misery depicted in Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s documentary The Vietnam War.
With wrenching family memories, this film recalls those killed in action and the rippling, shocking impact on Americans back home. The series provides new audio-visual evidence of Lyndon Johnson’s conflicts. Unlike Johnson’s predecessor, he seems terribly frustrated, involved and affected by every facet of the Vietnam War.
This happens as Robert McNamara, the tactician who, like a social media programmer, reassured everyone by citing statistics and calculations to justify what turned out to be wildly off-track projections, is reported to meekly harbor his doubts.
Meanwhile, the government of South Vietnam lies in constant crisis near impending collapse, especially after a Buddhist general is fired. That the war was sanctioned while Johnson schemed what he termed a Great Society — having enacted socialized medicine for people over the age of 65, Medicare, on the false premise that the old were feebly desperate for medical care — is an unexplored abomination.
Gruesome Vietnam War battles are explored in graphic detail. Titles are indispensable in guiding the viewer to better understanding of the war. If ever America was to turn, counter and win this war, which never seems remotely possible during the entire 10-part series, it is in these crucial months. But there is never the will to win because there is never the purpose, drive or clarity, let alone national unity, and this is lacking because Johnson was spun into Kennedy’s quagmire from the start.
In retrospect, all Americans could’ve done in these years was to get out. Yet the moral grayness — war as moral duty for the sake of others; the altruism which infects American war policy to this day — was accepted by the Johnson administration, the American press and, to a large extent, by the American people. The fourth episode shows that altruism was grinding away at the optimistic American sense of life.
A Marine tells the tale of exacting moral duty in practice in a powerful midway installment of The Vietnam War. “This is what we do”, he shrugs with helplessness, pronouncing having to implement emergency ethics under orders from a government which abnegated its primary function. The poor Marine explains this amid opening footage of Johnson and riots in Newark and Detroit.
America was splitting part, this fifth episode reports, while punch card metrics at the Pentagon actually miscalculated that the United States won the Vietnam War in 1965. McNamara and his band of technologists who had been empowered and activated by Kennedy — and retained by Johnson — had executed their “war of attrition” in numbers and statistics with deadly and devastating failure.
Bean-counting bureaucrats were taking over. The surveillance and welfare state was getting its omnipotent place in power. All of this comes through for the discerning audience in The Vietnam War‘s fifth episode, “This Is What We Do”, detailing the bitter, cruel and monumentally unjust acts of war between July and December of 1967.
This is when anarchy seems to break out in both America and Vietnam. The late Sixties, a disgustingly romanticized period of time, begins. Here, one learns the origins of the terms gook, etc., however there is no explanation of their genesis into wider acceptance. One learns, too, that the enemy fired upon Americans from the DMZ — which Americans dubbed the Dead Marine Zone — while Americans were ordered to abide discarded rules of engagement.
Without proper leadership, without basic decency, honesty and functional supplies, is it any wonder they took their lives and missions into their own hands?
Marine Musgrave tells of not wanting to look in the mirror as a 63-year-old and see someone who had not done everything in support of what he believed — he didn’t want to leave the toughest job to other men. This is what leaves Musgrave psychologically crippled and physically delivered as young flesh for slaughter.
For example, he speaks of seeing humans as animals — viewing subjects as objects — to make himself ready to fight for his life. “This is what happens when you send children to fight war [without reason],” he tells The Vietnam War: racism.
His scathing analysis, among the most searing and important insights in the series, reminds me of what the late Nothing Less Than Victory author and Duke University war historianJohn David Lewis told and taught about rational motivation during war, including in the interview he granted before he died (read it here). Musgrave, showing restraint and impeccable powers of self-awareness and objective communication, discloses that his government reduced him and his comrades to raw hatred as a driving motivation for going to war.
“This Is What We Do” reports that 20 percent of U.S. troops, men such as John Musgrave, did most of the combat fighting — 80 percent of U.S. troops were in South Vietnam for support — and that one of the primary weapons, the M-16 rifle, malfunctioned, jammed and failed, killing many Americans. It’s sickening.
Four sectors of a South Vietnamese map offer a good breakdown, though the map should’ve come sooner in the series. Also, rock and folk songs incessantly overlap men’s voices, which is a constant irritant and distraction.
Other audio clips provide rare insights. Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen speaking with the president about the Vietnam quagmire includes a clip of Johnson telling the truth that what the anti-war protestors were demanding — that the U.S. stop bombing North Vietnam —would lead to more dead Americans.
Ho Chi Minh’s chief accomplice, Communist Le Duan, was preparing for the Tet Offensive during this time. So was the U.S. Tiger Force, accused of rape by an Army reporter, engaging in combat. And an antiwar radical named Jerry Rubin was giving a press conference threatening to seize the Pentagon. Look, too, for footage of the late Senator John McCain, captured when his Navy plane was shot down by the North Vietnamese and tortured by the Communists.
Some of these stories — of a Marine left for dead time and again by American medics — may never leave you. This episode features a CBS News report by journalist Walter Cronkite giving a detailed account with a large model re-creating the terrain in South Vietnam, explaining with markers and a pointer the battle of Dak To where U.S. Marines in three companies were pinned down.
Forty-two Americans were killed during the battle — by an American bomber.
The 1968 Tet Offensive, North Vietnam’s assault on South Vietnam named after an Asian new year date, begins with incredible combat footage. Tet marks a turning point in The Vietnam War. This episode, “Things Fell Apart”, ranges from events of January in 1968 to July of the same, awful year.
Memories by a black Marine from Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood and an American doctor captured by the enemy after his helicopter crashed into a mountain provide further background. The doctor, whose harrowing tale is a stark counterpoint to the New Left’s propaganda claims against America, summons strength in singing patriotic songs while the Communists force him into a brutal 30-day march on his bare feet while refusing to properly treat his severe bullet wound.
These reports and oral histories contextualize one of the worst years in Western history. It’s here; the Los Angeles assassination of Robert Kennedy after winning California’s presidential primary, the Memphis assassination of Martin Luther King, the pacifism of presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, whose candidacy was based on opposition to the war, and President Johnson’s address to the nation announcing that he would not run for re-election. And Tet.
In fact, press coverage of the Tet Offensive is as distorted as Johnson charged, as he expresses in audio shared here. A key foreign adviser’s advice to withdraw troops from the Vietnam War is included, though without the context that he’s the holdover from the Truman administration whose blunder arguably started the Korean War, another American quagmire which was a war America neither declared nor won.
That, too, like Vietnam and today’s quagmires in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, cost lives and treasure and wiped out American resolve. The Vietnam War never makes this historical connection but it presents the evidence from which to draw the conclusion.
Communist butchery during the Tet Offensive was apparently not filmed, or the evidence is unavailable to Novick and Burns. As is always the case, the freedom to express oneself in the press thanks to freedom of speech exhibits some of the most horrifying images. Rightly or wrongly, these pictures contributed to the war’s being opposed at home and arguably exacerbated the perceptual-based culture in which decent Americans now find themselves struggling to communicate complex ideas in words which are concepts, not pictures, looping videos and memes.
So, in this episode you see the famous picture of the South Vietnamese executing an insurrectionist who betrayed South Vietnam. You see that it “got play” and spread in the West where one is free to think, write, take pictures and associate with those who trade to distribute the picture across multiple platforms. However, you do not see evidence of the mass slaughter and suffering at the hands of the other side in war.
And no one asks you to make note of this distinction.
To its credit, the series correctly and repeatedly notes that the United States under Johnson’s leadership and South Vietnam defended against the historic Tet Offensive with success. In fact, Tet was a massive disaster for North Vietnam. The Communists lost. They failed to achieve their goal to spark Communist revolution in the South. They failed miserably and at great cost.
The perception, that America was being challenged and taken aback, was widespread. America lost the upper hand in terms of controlling the optics and public relations. Not without reason, the upshot moved the nation against the Vietnam War.
“The Veneer of Civilization” capably covers the dreadful 11 months from June of 1968 through May of 1969. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, for instance, was so chaotic that it almost made Chicago’s notoriously brutish mayor, Richard J. Daley, referred to as “boss” because he was like a mafia boss due to his authoritarianism, look reasonable.
Mayor Daley was one of many government officials in the horrendous late Sixties to be forced into a corner by New Left and other terrorists, anarchists and radicals. After watching Chicago’s terrorism, anarchism and assaults on TV, President Johnson considered traveling to Chicago to re-enter the 1968 presidential campaign.
The Vietnam War reports that Johnson did not attend because the Secret Service advised the president that his safety could not be assured.
This — a nation on the brink of anarchy, civil war and recklessness fed by Communists, racists and other collectivists amid mass death in an unwinnable war and total government compulsion of young men’s military service — is what the late 1960s meant in daily American life.
Dead soldiers are pictured. One American combatant who wanted to dodge the draft, addressed here as an existential fact, not as a nationwide policy or historical fact, expresses regret that he decided not to dodge the draft. Other soldiers, too, are forced by the moral ambiguity of the Vietnam War into an ethical crisis or dilemma.
Burns and Novick are respectful of the Vietnam War veteran. The American who served in Vietnam is given preferential treatment in interviews, though New Left radicals, such as Bill Zimmerman, are also interviewed and much or some of what they say is totally anti-American. The series rightly focuses on the war from the perspective of the men who were sent to fight it.
U.S. POWs are interviewed, including Maj. Kushner, who shares an absorbing story of bonding with fellow American POWs in Communist captivity, who, while emaciated and starving, conspire to kill a camp commander’s cat so they can consume food. He explains that they were caught by a guard and describes what came next.
Kushner details being united with POW comrades in an I am Spartacus moment when the POWs are forced to divulge who came up with the idea. He remembers one American being beaten to death. He recalls what his captors did to his body. The testament to Kushner being alive adds to the segment’s emotional power. Kushner’s account puts New Left protests, which include waving an enemy flag, in context.
It also clarifies North Vietnam’s brutality, which was not lost on their own soldiers and civilians, who never knew any political system but enslavement. “Saigon was freer,” one of several former North Vietnamese soldiers interviewed recalls, adding that, among families in Hanoi, there was no communication from Ho Chi Minh’s government about the war dead. Of course, there were no press reports — “I don’t recall reading about a lost battle,” someone says, even after Tet — in state-run media.
Among the people, there was no knowledge of the war in Vietnam in North Vietnam.
Accordingly, one gets a sense in these accounts of how Vietnam changed from a simple farm society to dictatorship. The U.S., too, is radically transformed, as presidential candidate Richard Nixon reportedly reached out to Hanoi during the war talks, which Johnson considered treasonous. Illicit drugs take a toll, as stories of the Harrison family — a tale of two brothers, one the draft dodger, the other a soldier — disclose the cost of an overdose in Hong Kong, foreshadowing 1978’s The Deer Hunter.
Savagery ruled. Civilians were killed, often, though this is not explained, partly because of the nature of the fighting; i.e., North Vietnam infiltrating South Vietnam with a stream of sleeper cells. South Vietnam’s corruption is rampant. It’s widespread or overlooked in the U.S. military, too. American contraband, supplies and machinery, from cigarettes to helicopters, sold on Vietnam’s black market via Saigon’s rotting corpse, cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars. The U.S. lost $2 billion in a single year.
No one paid attention to those numbers. “All these metrics,” someone recalls, “—[were] a waste of time.”
Some initiatives worked; projects Misty and Phoenix undermined the Viet Cong along the Ho Chi Minh trail, kept going by persistent North Vietnamese truck drivers. Soon after Nixon was inaugurated as president in 1969, he sought to make peace with Communist China, which had implications for South Vietnam. America’s new national security adviser, a pragmatic college professor named Henry Kissinger, geared secretly bombing Cambodia.
When the New York Times reported the bombing, in a preview of the coming surveillance state, the U.S. wiretapped 17 reporters.
Throughout The Vietnam War, titles condensing certain group, faction and agency names — including breaking down certain acronyms — are extremely helpful in understanding military jargon on both sides.
In the eighth episode, “The History of the World,” covering April, 1969 through May, 1970, the audience gets to experience President Nixon’s promised withdrawal from the Vietnam War.
This was not satisfying, however, for a terrorist group called the Weathermen.
Their terrorist attacks shocked the nation. With stoned hippies at Woodstock in upstate New York, the enemy flag flying above antiwar marches (which is downplayed in the series) and anarchy by Black Panthers (also minimized), Nixon delivers his stirring Silent Majority speech.
After telling combat stories, U.S. soldiers returning home explain reactions to their homecoming, including several choosing to become antiwar activists. John Musgrave, who settled in Kansas, is shocked at the hatred for his military service in the Vietnam War. In compelling interviews, Marine Musgrave talks about contemplating suicide.
Other Vietnam War flashpoints, from the My Lai massacre reported by Seymour Hersh to National Guard shootings at Kent State and Jackson State, get partial reporting. For example, while Peter Coyote’s narrative covers that antiwar radicals burned down the ROTC building at Kent State — physically preventing firemen from extinguishing the fire — there’s no apparent attempt to interview guardsmen, historians or those working with Ohio’s governor, James Rhodes, about the tragic events at Kent State.
Other imbalances or incomplete versions include a reference to Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy‘s opposition to the Vietnam War, with no mention of the death he caused, knew about and covered up at Chappaquiddick in the summer of 1969. While the crime may have had no bearing on his opposition to the war, the crime, cover-up and aftermath had direct relevance to Kennedy’s credibility on issues of life and death. In this context, the unmentioned historic event in 1969 is a glaring omission.
The depth of the nation’s division emerges in the time period covered from May, 1970 to March, 1973 in The Vietnam War‘s ninth episode, “A Disrespectful Loyalty”.
As Nixon attempts to apply the policy of what he called Vietnamization, ostensibly letting South Vietnam militarize its own war during a gradual and certain withdrawal of U.S. troops, construction workers in New York City rally to defend themselves against raging antiwar radicals. Vets returning from Vietnam are attacked, having their cars assaulted, rocked and pounded as they arrive home to America.
Soviet and Viet Cong flags fly over American protests — while Nixon, like his predecessor, Johnson, becomes convinced that Communists are actively infiltrating American society and instigating, sustaining and sponsoring the antiwar protests, an assertion which is certainly vindicated by post-Soviet archives and today’s reports of Russian and Chinese spying and propaganda campaigns to influence American life.
The drug culture also took root in the wake of the Vietnam War.
“Heroin was cheap, pure and everywhere”, someone reports, and the Pentagon would eventually admit that 40,000 American troops were addicted to heroin. This episode covers the so-called Pentagon Papers, later depicted in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, disclosed by Daniel Ellsberg in a 1971 article series published in the New York Times. The report, which shows that Presidents Kennedy and Johnson lied and misled the public about the Vietnam War, led to a key free speech ruling by the Supreme Court.
Also look for a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a naked South Vietnamese girl running with Napalm tearing off her skin after having been bombed by South Vietnam. The picture further fortified people’s war opposition with another example of South Vietnamese and U.S. inability to plan, wage and win a war against the aggressor.
South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, too, like the man he sought to replace in the White House, was caught meddling in the peace process, trying to cut a deal with North Vietnam, as POW Kushner‘s wife seconds his nomination at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami, Florida.
Miami’s also the site of the 1972 Republican National Convention. This is where Richard Nixon is nominated for his second and final term before winning a landslide victory over McGovern and resigning in August of 1974. The documentary includes nothing substantial, unfortunately, about Nixon eliminating the draft. I find it telling that such a historic act goes unaccounted for during the series. Nixon’s Watergate break-in is covered. But what is arguably his best achievement, abolition of the draft, made possible to abolish during the Vietnam War, is all but ignored.
Instead, the infamous, arguably treasonous, two-week visit to the enemy state by an accomplished if vacuous American actress in 1972 is rationalized. Jane Fonda, reduced to a sexual fantasy, shown nude with no commentary or defense of her actions, nor an attempt to account for whether she was approached for an interview, appears in a short segment consisting of a few minutes showing her collaboration with the enemy.
At least The Vietnam War reports for historical purposes that, in fact, Fonda called for the execution of American soldiers.
Fonda is not alone in collaborating with the enemy, however. Kissinger secretly negotiated with North Vietnam without the knowledge, consent or involvement of South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese president, a corrupt official like most South Vietnamese leaders, learned about the Nixon administration’s secret negotiations from a document found in a Communist bunker.
Other parts of this episode include the Christmas bombing of Hanoi after peace talks start in Paris and footage of President Nixon’s televised address to the nation the day after Lyndon Johnson died at his ranch in Texas in 1973.
The ninth episode ends after ABC News journalist Harry Reasonerannounces a climactic homecoming for American prisoners of war.
The Vietnam War comes to an end in the 10th episode, “The Weight of Memory”, which picks up in March of 1973.
To understand the Vietnam War, watch this series and episode. It covers essential facts from the date the last troops leave Vietnam, March 29, 1973, to the same date two years later when South Vietnam’s second largest city, Da Nang, falls to Communists. You will learn about the country where tens of thousands of Americans had been killed, tortured and wounded and glimpse history as Vietnam begins to fall under dictatorship. For this alone, the final episode ought to be seen.
Much of this comes as an afterword. President Nixon welcomes POWs at the White House. There goes John McCain in footage from May 24, 1973, limping in his naval uniform to the ceremony at the White House. Watch interviews with some of the few hundred United States Marines posted to guard American consulates and the embassy in Saigon. See the photograph of a man upside down flying through the air for a snapshot of the deadly frenzy that took place in South Vietnam’s final months. Contemplate the 2.5 million American troops who served in the Vietnam War.
South Vietnam attempted to reclaim itself with an army that had been unsuccessful in eradicating South Vietnam of its enemies even with the help of 600,000 American troops. When U.S. war funds halted on August 15, 1973, and supplies, spare parts and ammunition ceased, conditions in South Vietnam quickly deteriorated.
“Defeat was inevitable,” someone recalls. “Da Nang was not captured,” an American reporter remembered, “it disintegrated in its own terror.“
Remembers one who is South Vietnamese in words that ought to be taken seriously: “You have to lose a nation to feel that humiliation.” On April 27, 1975, rockets were landing in the heart of Saigon. Finally, at 7:53 AM on April 30, 1975, the last helicopter lifted off the U.S. embassy roof in Saigon with the United States Marines who had remained. Master Sergeant Juan Valdez was the last American to climb aboard.
Darkness fell. Mass executions, torture and worse followed. South Vietnam soon ceased to exist. The Americans and their press, cameras and attention were gone. Then, came the Communists’ re-education camps.
“Some believed they were going for a short time,” one South Vietnamese man remembers. With a deep sense of weary knowing and bitterness, he adds: “But not me.”
He goes on: “I was detained in a re-education camp for 17 and a half years. I was among the last 100 people to be released.” Today, one Communist North Vietnamese man admits, “the nation is more divided than ever.”
After the fall of Saigon, Le Duan sought to make Vietnam “an impregnable outpost of the socialist system”. Capitalism was abolished. Inflation rose 700 percent a year. People starved. Some 400,000 of the boat people made it to the United States and settled in America, many in Orange County and other areas of Southern California. Many among the boat people died. Refugees often drowned.
The Vietnam War leaves the ensuing mayhem, disorder and panic to one’s imagination. You can almost hear the screams. You may be haunted by the faces of those left behind.
What was ahead for departing Americans? What used to be called combat fatigue, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One Vietnam War veteran, Jan Scruggs, created a private charity in 1981 called the Vietnam War Memorial Fund.
His charity earned more than $8 million from voluntary, private gifts or donations from 650,000 Americans who sought to have a memorial. Though writer Tom Wolfe commented that he thought the memorial was a tribute to Jane Fonda, most of those interviewed who visit the two black walls of granite embedded into the ground in Washington, DC, are left sobbing, relieved or more understanding of the war in Vietnam. One antiwar radical apologizes to the Vietnam War veteran.
Pictures appear of President Clinton becoming the first American president to visit Vietnam in 2000. Barack Obama is also pictured visiting Communist Vietnam.
Major Kushner, whose valiant resistance to the enemy’s monstrosity is chronicled in earlier episodes, gets a postscript, too. The doctor remarried and became an ophthalmologist in Florida. The series closes with the Beatles song, “Let It Be”, which fits the documentary’s somber tone.
Despite the incompleteness, The Vietnam War skillfully reports part of an American experience that sheds light on a long war we lost through which America continues to divide, remain ignorant, lose confidence and evade reality. Over 40 years after Saigon fell, with innocents “yearning to breathe free” clinging to U.S. helicopters, Americans remain mired in unwinnable wars that never end.
America still sacrifices thousands of Americans. We remain plagued by doubt, shame and guilt. Ho Chi Minh’s political philosophy is taking root here, too, with nationalism, collectivism and socialism on the rise.
The Vietnam War does not document why we lost the Vietnam War. The series capably reports only that we withdrew from the mid-century war with everything less than victory. These ten parts are a shocking testimony which proves the hard and bleak truth that waging aimless war for the sake of others makes Americans stop wanting to win.
The opening shot of screenwriter and director Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter frames an industrial center nestled into the hills of Western Pennsylvania with an underpass as light shifts against its black walls. It’s an eerie and strangely evocative image for a movie about the Vietnam War, a war which is memorialized in the nation’s capital with two slabs of granite forming long, angled and descending black walls.
Buy the DVD
I had never seen The Deer Hunter, which won Oscar’s Best Picture for 1978. With that distinctive shot and gentle music by Stanley Myers over black-and-white opening credits, announcing that this was photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) with a story by the late Michael Cimino and three others, one of whom wrote the script, the scene is set.
Part of why the film made its mark is this unique focus on a certain place. I do not think The Deer Hunter is a great motion picture. But it depicts a company of characters that are men and women from the beleaguered American industrial middle class which, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, would never regain its status as the center of America’s culture. This is an untold story. And the epic downfall of the middle class is portrayed with grit.
But not with depth. The hot steel being poured and controlled by factory steelworkers dramatizes man molding metal for a higher purpose. This capitalist ideal comes full circle when The Deer Hunter later dramatizes at mid-point man reducing himself to the mercy of a piece of machinery for deadly risk without purpose, arguably the essence of the quagmire which was the American war in Vietnam. The Deer Hunter shows men being driven from the joyful exercise of forging the manmade to the abysmal duty of destroying human life for self-abnegation, not self-defense.
Yet even at their best, the excited and boisterous factory workers, who bound around in camaraderie with naked vitality, rarely seem more than aimless, mindless pawns. They cavort with equally mindless women before a wedding. They assemble in a cavernous church. The women are beaten by their men, who drink to excess in incessant displays of boorish profanity. The bride fusses in her wedding dress and veil with a crucifix on the wall. She never stops to think about the meaning.
Neither do the men, played here by a gaggle of young actors, including Robert De Niro (The Intern, New York, New York) and Christopher Walken (Hairspray) as best friends. Men recklessly go drag-racing between a classic car and a big rig, taunting a Green Beret and screaming and carousing while watching the Pittsburgh Steelers on TV. In the ethnic neighborhood in which they live, old women pull a wedding cake past a telephone booth and corner grocery market while bridesmaids (including one played by Meryl Streep before her role in Kramer Vs. Kramer) go gallivanting in the street.
These aren’t the best and brightest being dislodged from glorious lives and dispatched to a jungle. Their place of worship and ritual ceremony is meaningless. A banner proclaims that the young men being sent (by force of the draft) into an undeclared, unwinnable war are “serving God and country proudly.” But these young men and women are too drunk and disorderly to be proud, let alone have pride in themselves. The wedded couple drives off, tin cans and all, for a hillside jaunt of drunken driving.
They’re lushes and oafs, with De Niro’s leader running down the street in his underpants. They go deer hunting while drunk.
But their mindless lives are their own, and this is how The Deer Hunter leaves its tracks. Just as Cimino gets the audience ready for action in Vietnam’s swamps, rivers and rice paddies, with war movie cliches to match, the band quietly gathers for piano playing after their revelry. The men are dumbstruck. They bond in reflection of uncertainty to come.
Cut to the sound of a helicopter and explosions as they’re under siege somewhere in Vietnam. Some fight, some cower, some stay home. But all are changed, moved and torn. Scenes of gunplay on a river boat as Americans are held as prisoners of war by the Communists form the central theme of The Deer Hunter…that each soldier is hunted and haunted in war.
That this is unequivocal and that this is deeply, irreversibly painful and wicked comes as a matter of fact when one man returns. The deer hunting goes stale. The hills hold no hope. The emptiness of their lives can’t be ignored. The party’s over. The band of drunks are left to drink without the delusion that being alive doesn’t mean being aware of the dead or wounded.
Suicide, fatigue and the end of Saigon during its last days play out as the measure of a man brought by war to the brink comes around. A mindlessly sung version of “God Bless America” plays with neither vigor nor life and this, bookended by a drunken white wedding and a sober black funeral, captures the sad, vacant, elegiac essence of our emergent American nihilism which is the byproduct of the Vietnam War.
Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter might have filled the emptiness of these mid-American lives which might have elevated this tragic movie, a film which skillfully puts the anti-war movement offscreen. As it is, The Deer Hunter depicts a slice of empty lives, which informs and explains the deadly doubts and outcomes in chilling, frightening and grisly detail.
Having partly reviewed and previewed, I’ve now seen every episode of Hulu’s 10-episode microseries based on The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright. The program traces the rising threat of Islamic terrorism in the 1990s and the derailment of the FBI and CIA from preventing it. The title invokes the twin New York City skyscrapers destroyed in the 2001 attack on the United States. These buildings loom like giant ghosts.
Watch on Hulu
The Looming Tower dramatizes American appeasement, evasions and contradictions. This show is a docudrama, which is to say that it dramatizes key assertions, facts and documentary evidence of the federal government’s total corruption and incompetence, with the exception of the FBI’s John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels, Steve Jobs). As such, this is pure naturalism, so don’t expect any happy endings or silver linings as have been depicted in previous Islamic terrorism-themed productions. As any proper series or movie about Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany or the Holocaust must account for evil and maintain an appropriate tone matching mass murder, The Looming Tower projects the requisite seriousness for the subject matter. In every episode, the cumulative effect builds not on what will happen but how what will happen will be evaded by the U.S. government.
In this case, the fault lies chiefly with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which hoards its data collection, though the national security adviser Condoleezza Rice also bears culpability, as I already knew. The FBI and the rest of the Bush administration does, too, insofar as they deliberately acted with malice toward the very idea of national defense against Islamic terrorism. One of The Looming Tower‘s assets is its depiction of the entire government seeking to avoid, deny or ignore Islamic terrorism or, worse, use it to gain power. This problem has only gotten worse; they’ve dropped the ‘Islamic’ and thus avoid any admission of what moves the enemy.
Unfortunately, insidiously, this problem also infects The Looming Tower. By slowly but purposefully featuring dual tracks of religion in O’Neill’s conflicted Catholicism and his protégé’s occasional invocation of Islam — FBI agent Ali Soufan, portrayed by Tahar Rahim (Soufan also produced the series) — The Looming Tower minimizes the cause of 9/11: religious fundamentalism. The series would have been better off dropping the religious subplot, which adds nothing to the series, and sticking to the facts of what happened, what didn’t happen, and why. Observant Moslem agent Soufan’s using Islam and the Koran to send a terrorist on a guilt trip simply isn’t compelling. Even if, as portrayed, the terrorist Abu Jandal hung his head in shame at Soufan’s Islamic-themed lecture and inquisition, which I doubt, it’s beside the point. The more consistently preached and practiced version or interpretation of Islam is what motivated the hijackers to attack the Twin Towers. The Islamic jihad’s only spread farther since.
As depicted, the CIA’s Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard) tries to stop the catastrophic attack in advance, as does O’Neill, who was murdered in the Twin Towers. O’Neill had just taken a job as the World Trade Center’s security chief after being pushed out of the FBI. Why? He had offended the American ambassador to Yemen during an investigation of the bombing of the USS Cole. Schmidt’s power-drunk protégé, icily portrayed by Wrenn Schmidt, lied to Congress about her knowledge and actions pertaining to the hijackers. Certain FBI agents, too, are contaminated by evasion of Islamic terrorism and lust for getting status and prestige from concealing data.
The hero of this horror story, O’Neill, went down with the collapse of the World Trade Center, which should have been portrayed and isn’t. Like any dramatization of the National Socialist or Communist mass murder, any honest depiction of 9/11 ought to show the carnage, suffering and horror of what nearly 3,000 Americans, including the man who all but predicted the attack, faced on Black Tuesday. As O’Neill, Daniels is excellent. He’s never out of character. His idealistic cop is always hard driving and thinking ahead, until the end of his life. As Richard Clarke, the only government official decent enough to admit failure and apologize to the American people, which is more than Bush, Rice and Cheney ever did, Michael Stuhlbarg (The Shape of Water, Call Me By Your Name) is good.
But Clarke, Soufan and O’Neill, who by this account sought a proper and meaningful defense of America, are a contrast to most of those working for the government as portrayed in The Looming Tower. By and large, and this is the impact of Legendary Television’s 10-episode series, the women and men of the FBI, CIA and White House lust for power. They do not choose to think. They chose to evade thought at every turn, in every moment, at each crucial opportunity to defend the nation against attack. As the final scene ends in this gripping portrayal of American appeasement of Islamic terrorism, whatever its flaws, I was reminded of the gloomy truth that the U.S. has become less free since 9/11.
Ayn Rand once said: “The human characteristic required by statism is docility, which is the product of hopelessness and intellectual stagnation. Thinking men cannot be ruled; ambitious men do not stagnate.” The Looming Tower captures this sense of despair, loss and nothingness. The series affirms that America is doomed to statism, and that, unless we put more men like O’Neill in charge, Americans have every reason to expect more mass death. In its lazy, unfocused, range-of-the-moment, partying, self-congratulating and shuffling law enforcement and national security complex, America’s government reflects the people Americans have become. Today’s is the government the people, if not O’Neill and those who go against the status quo, deserve. The Looming Tower rightly dramatizes this docility in stark, ashen gray.
The newest movie directed by Clint Eastwood, The 15:17 to Paris, is as plain and perfunctory as its title. Screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal oversimplifies the heroes’ decency, mixing in clashing motivations (possibly taken from the heroes’ book upon which this film is based). Mr. Eastwood’s minimalist filmmaking and decision to cast the three American heroes whose story unfolds here puts 15:17 to Paris in a striking contrast to today’s overproduced movies, such as Marvel’s mangled Black Panther, though both movies have conflicted themes in common.
Similarities end there. For starters, unlike Marvel’s movies and like the heroic story of 12 Strong, the extraordinary events depicted in 15:17 to Paris happened. Three Americans chose to act upon their own judgment, tackling an Islamic terrorist rampaging with an arsenal through a train, capturing, detaining and hogtying the jihadist, securing the train and medically treating wounded passengers. The three Americans saying “Let’s go” recalls Flight 93’s American passengers saying “Let’s roll” on 9/11. In this case, saving everyone on board. 15:17 to Paris depicts the Islamic terrorist attack, which is unfortunately never branded as an Islamic terrorist attack, and what made three friends since childhood in California the type of men to shut it down.
That Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and, especially, Spencer Stone, who portray themselves, went from forgotten middle school students to European hostel heroes tracks back within each individual to mutually shared confidence in being a boy with the world as his to master. This exuberant boyhood is cultivated by the boys themselves, who play war with toy guns, study combat with maps and certain gaming scenarios and think of themselves as worthy in themselves, not as means to the ends of others. Raised by single mothers, except for Anthony, a charismatic black kid whose home life goes unseen, these boys struggle from 2005 to 2015 in today’s government-dominated educational system, which ignores or neglects boys. When switched to a religious school, problems persist and deepen. But Alek and Spencer also meet Anthony, who becomes their playmate and, in a way, mentor. Anthony, the least anxious of the trio, is the one who challenges Spencer, who’s the center of The 15:17 to Paris, which intersperses flashes leading up to the jihadist siege.
Anthony’s candor is his armor, as anyone who watched his breathtaking accounts of the attack knows. The white boys enlist in America’s military, Spencer seeking meaning in life and Alek, whose mother says she talks to God, driven by legacy. By the time they trek across Europe, they’ve been three decent, productive boys who seek to acquire knowledge, trade and play to live meaningful, enjoyable lives. Whatever fleeting notions and hunches anyone voices, and 15:17 to Paris sends mixed signals, these three move toward action with a sense of purpose. They expend effort. They practice. They fail. But, always, these boys prepare for life as men.
For instance, during an alert at Lackland Air Force Base, Spencer goes rogue. But, in doing so, Spencer shows strength and preparedness. Called out by his instructor, he knows exactly why he chose to disobey orders (and he has a point). Alek, deployed in Afghanistan, becomes the reason his fellow soldiers must divert from plans, endangering the team. But Alek, later visiting Germany, honors an ancestor’s military service, demonstrating a commitment to think, re-think, act and become his best. In a smaller way, brandishing a selfie stick while being a tourist with Spencer, Anthony, too, learns from his mistakes. Each superficially bounces like a rolling stone toward the unseen, the unknown, like many young Americans. But each acts like he knows that he’s taking charge of his life and that he likes and knows that he’ll earn it.
This may be Mr. Eastwood’s point, and movies he directs, such as Sully, American Sniper and Jersey Boys, reflect the idea that Western man is good, decent and honorable. Clint Eastwood is too journalistic and pragmatic to fully dramatize this theme but his movies tend to be good, sometimes excellent.
With the actors portraying themselves coming off as more self-conscious than natural, The 15:17 to Paris is less a docudrama than a stone-faced re-creation. It’s too scripted, stiff and staged. Yet 15:17 to Paris reconstructs their lives and re-creates their goodness, making the climactic terrorist attack by the religious fundamentalist (Roy Corasani) more tense and dramatic. Every encounter in Europe, especially boarding the Paris-bound train when they help an old man, is benevolent. Whether speaking in the foreign language of the land they visit, flirting with young women or trading while traveling, no one is the Ugly American, to use that hackneyed term. The men, as I previously wrote, represent the heroic American — each a kind of handsome, upright cowboy.
Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris contrasts these innocent, cheerful, peaceful Westerners, unashamed of their Americanism and wearing symbols of Adidas, Yosemite and Los Angeles basketball, with the barbaric religious terrorist, whose eye is evil and whose face is blank. The muffled sound of the siege on the train to Paris follows ramblings about God, destiny and determinism and Spencer, who more than anyone saved the 15:17 to Paris, says a prayer. But a French statesman calls these three men what they are: Americans (also a Brit) who “fight for liberty”…to “save humanity itself”. As with his movie about Mandela in Africa, Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s underproduced new movie is probably too muddled and plain to convey its theme that the essence of being American means reverence for life — and that it’s usually the American who achieves peace and harmony and fights to preserve both.
This is a good war movie with moments approaching greatness. If you’ve enjoyed Thank You for Your Service, 13 Hours, American Sniper and other movies about the nonstop, unending U.S. military response to the Islamic jihad slaughter on September 11, 2001, you’re likely to appreciate 12 Strong for its pointed depiction of American heroism.
I figured this would be a proper, which is to say relatively straightforward and unfiltered, dramatization from its setup scenes. 12 Strong rightly begins in 1993, when Moslem terrorists first attacked the Twin Towers. Then, to other acts of war on America in 1998 and 2000. So, right off, there’s at least an attempt to provide pretext to the story of 12 heroes who volunteered to deliver America’s first post-9/11 military retaliation, which is one of the few the U.S. got exactly right.
To underscore this unequivocal rightness, the Army team’s single-minded captain (Chris Hemsworth, Thor: Ragnarok) asks the helicopter pilot after the pilot tells him that the aircraft is descending over northern Afghanistan: “On purpose?!” The captain’s short, urgently repeated demand signals the caliber of soldier about to disembark and confront the guerrilla Islamic terrorist state. The band of men do not just listen, obey and follow orders: they make crucial distinctions, take command and act with swift thought and precision, leaving nothing to the aims — and sloth and errors — of others, including those in their own army.
The captain’s leadership is based on study, clarity and reason. From camping his men at an allied Afghan base 40 miles from their terrorist center target to leading the horse soldiers’ charge toward the enemy’s worst weapon, Hemsworth’s captain examines every angle, nuance and trajectory necessary to achieve his goal. Director Nicolai Fuglsig shows fidelity to the essential facts of this hard-fought, extraordinary and, yes, glorious military victory. He doesn’t adorn the movie or characters with frenzied or slow-motion moments of blood splattering and bombs exploding. There’s no showboating. There’s the hard work and grit of men fighting to avenge their country and defend their lives, fortunes and future.
The men include the silent loner (Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight) who becomes the fixation of an Afghan boy. And his opposite, an expressive fighter who once taught history (Michael Pena, Lions for Lambs, The Lucky Ones). Or the team’s chief warrant officer and voice of reason (Michael Shannon, Mud, The Shape of Water). Some of the 12 Strong have wives, some have kids, and most have gripes and doubts, though 12 Strong stays on track and avoids war movie cliches. They all trained for war in the Middle East and they all want nothing less than victory. 12 Strong does not deal with the fact that Bush, Obama (and, so far, Trump) equivocated, appeased and never came close to wiping out states that sponsor Islamic terrorists let alone declaring, waging and winning the war the enemy started.
The Jerry Bruckheimer (and scads of others) produced film, co-written by Peter Craig and Ted Tally and based on the book by Doug Stanton, does, however, allude to U.S. military incompetence. So-called smart bombs fall on the wrong coordinates. There’s an implication about friendly fire (remember Pat Tillman). And then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s bravado, which would thrust America into an unwinnable war in Iraq, gets an apparently and deservedly fact-based dig.
12 Strong focuses, though, mostly on what it takes to render the deadly counterstrike to 9/11. From the Northern Alliance faction leader skillfully portrayed by Navid Negahban to the sharp colonel incisively portrayed by William Fichtner, the team earns and keeps the support of superiors and natives alike to trudge through the passes and trails of the Taliban-run country. Without neutralizing moral judgment on Islam, the religion which motivates the enemy, 12 Strong puts the campaign in clear perspective. Females are slaughtered like American infidels, simply for seeking knowledge. “God is great!” goes the familiar death call as the U.S. first applies its antiquated rules of engagement (which got worse after this campaign). So don’t expect the now-incessant and tired evasion of any mention of what makes the enemy evil. A murderous mullah speaks the truth about his religion.
Also, don’t expect evasion of what makes Americans good. Though 12 Strong is a good, not great, war movie depicting soldiers in a particularly grueling combat, and I do wonder whether the team declined to wear helmets throughout the battles and trek, the two-hour film lets its heroes shine.
Thankfully lacking vulgarity, and with a stirring gallop to answer the Flight 93 passengers’ call to arms, “Let’s Roll”, 12 Strong is the inspiring tale of the twelve soldiers who rolled. They did it weeks after America was attacked in New York City and Washington, DC. They did in weeks what experts projected would take two years. This combat picture shows that twelve men rolled with the thunderous strength and purpose that America and Americans deserved. It pretty much ended there. It hasn’t happened since. 12 Strong demonstrates with power and skill that this victory did happen.