Apocalypse not

The losers in Vietnam have had 25 years to rewrite history in their search for redemption at the movies


Friday, April 28, 2000

Once again, anniversary journalism consults its shared calendar, spots a signal date, and then bursts forth in multipart harmony. Yes, it's been 25 years since "the fall of Saigon." Of course, that very phrase, with its obvious point of view, is a telling comment on both the Vietnam War and its aftermath. A quarter-century ago, American military might went down to defeat. But American cultural might eventually came out with its global guns blazing, understandably determined to illuminate that defeat in ways that reflected its own needs and its own interests. So, in a war fraught with anomalies, none is more ironic than the denouement: This is a case where history is being written by the losers.

Naturally, the movies writ that history large, although not while the issue was still in doubt. It took a long time before the first televised war made the leap from the small to the big screen. Other than the occasional documentary (such as the provocative Hearts and Minds), features of that era stayed far away from Vietnam itself, never venturing directly into the quagmire. The Green Berets (1968) was a crude exception, marching in full support of U.S. involvement and led by none other than Duke Wayne himself. Nice try, but the picture simply proved that the war was indeed unique: It just didn't lend itself to laughably earnest propaganda.

At that point, however, the movies were starting to reflect the Vietnam debacle indirectly, and no more clearly than in 1970, when M*A*S*H contended with Patton for top laurels at the Oscars. Although one was an antiwar comedy set in Korea, and the other a relatively chauvinistic biopic about a Second World War general, the films' contrasting styles and attitudes mirrored the domestic debate then raging over Vietnam. The war's protesters adored M*A*S*H, its supporters embraced Patton. In that battle, waged in the gentrified hills of Hollywood, Patton won, and the old guard scored its final victory.

Then came silence. For much of the seventies -- through the incremental withdrawal of U.S. troops, through the chaos of the last chopper lurching off the embassy roof, through the subsequent "fall" of the Southern allies to the Northern enemy -- the film world stayed mute on the subject, as the American people struggled to swallow defeat and assess its impact. For the beleaguered public, the wounds were still raw; consequently, for nervous producers, Vietnam was a taboo topic. And suddenly it wasn't.

The silence broke in 1978 and 79, when Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now exploded onto the screen. Despite their many differences, they shared a common cathartic strategy: To elevate the war to the heady status of myth. A dark myth, certainly, but transcendent nonetheless -- not the great American dream but an equally grandiose American nightmare, all played out to the rock 'n' roll beat of the devil's own music. But in their eagerness to strike an epic tone, the films set an unfortunate precedent that stands even now: Neither had anything cogent to say about the political and strategic roots of the war, or about the Vietnamese people themselves. In that sense, American film is still waiting for its Fire in the Lake or its The Best and the Brightest, something that dramatizes the conflict through a wide historical and cultural lens.

Instead, Cimino carved out an emotionally loaded yet essentially absurd metaphor -- Vietnam as a game of Russian roulette contested against Asian sickos. And Coppola clambered up to truly operatic heights -- Vietnam as nothing less than the Book of Revelation, featuring guest appearances by everyone from the ghost of Jim Morrison to the spectre of Joseph Conrad. A hyperbolic nightmare, befitting a hyerbolic nation.

During the same period, other smaller yet worthy pictures made their debut -- such as Who'll Stop the Rain and Go Tell the Spartans -- but they tended to get lost in the epic din. Instead, a more sentimental film had a more substantial impact. Coming Home (1978) relocated the battle stateside, doing for Vietnam what The Best Years of Our Lives had done for the Second World War -- examining the psychic state of the returning soldier, the scarred and traumatized veteran. Here, the floodgates quickly opened. In the decade after Coming Home, the Vietnam vet -- emotionally fragile yet physically dangerous -- became a stock figure in Hollywood movies, devolving into a sort of resident wacko and all-purpose plot device.

He could be pushed to the centre of a family melodrama (Jacknife); he could serve as the fulcrum for a surreal thriller (Jacob's Ladder); he could act as the catalyst in a coming-of-age flick (In Country); he could even show up as the bend-the-rules half of a buddy-cop team (Lethal Weapon). Of course, his most infamous appearance came in the Rambo series, where he metamorphosed into the iron-body and cement-head of Sylvester Stallone. By the time of 1985's First Blood: Part 2, when America under Ronald Reagan had regained much of its lost confidence, that Sly old vet had healed sufficiently to return to Vietnam and refight the war as an avenging angel, winning in silly fiction what had been lost in sad fact.

A year later, Oliver Stone effected an infinitely more realistic return in Platoon, a pivotal Vietnam film whose stylistic influence continues to be felt. Whereas The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now were wannabe epics elevating the war into myth, Platoon lowered the action to the eye-level view of the fighting soldier, to the terrified grunt on the ground. It's a view Stone knew well. As a veteran himself, he wanted to capture on film the down-and-dirty perspective that fellow vets such as Tim O'Brien and Philip Caputo conveyed in literature.

In doing so, Stone brought to the movies the same shift in perspective that characterized television's coverage of the war. There, with the advent of lightweight and handheld cameras, the coverage changed from top-down to bottom-up, from aerial shots of bombs bursting in the distance to dramatic close-ups of rain-soaked ponchos and thick elephant grass and the mud-streaked faces of young men aging too fast. In short, as the war continued, TV shifted its focus from the brass to the grunts, and from the cannon to the fodder. Stone re-enacted that bottom-up imagery and installed it on the big screen. Later, 84 Charlie Mopic would give his technique a literal-minded twist, as the entire movie unfolds through the handheld lens of an army cameraman.

However, while succeeding visually and psychologically, Platoon failed politically and thematically. Like Cimino and Coppola before him, Stone offered no analysis of the war, content to reduce its complexities to a simple Manichaean struggle between the good sarge and the evil sarge. Brian De Palma fell into a similar trap in Casualties of War, where the moral battle lines are too clearly drawn and measured. Enter Stanley Kubrick with Full Metal Jacket, an opus usually grouped with The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Platoon among the pantheon of Vietnam flicks. Yet, typically for Kubrick, the work might better be seen as a brilliant anomaly within the larger anomaly of Vietnam. Although nominally devoted to the conflict, it's really a war movie about the emotional duplicity of war movies -- less an epic nightmare than a deconstructivist's bad dream.

None of these pictures makes any concerted effort to capture the experience from the Vietnamese point of view. After taking his own melodramatic swipe at the plight of the returning vet (Born on the Fourth of July), Stone tried to offer an Asian perspective in Heaven and Earth, but with risible results -- he lacked the empathy or the imagination or both. Oddly enough, it fell to a comedy, Good Morning, Vietnam, to humanize the Vietnamese beyond the two-dimensional status of victim or villain-- if only at the edges of the frame, and between the manic riffs of Robin Williams. Otherwise, the picture situated the war's liberal conscience in an awfully convenient and aurally familiar place -- in an Army DJ hip to the animating power of rock 'n' roll.

So where are we now -- what is the current movie legacy of Vietnam? Certainly, that bottom-up imagery, and the consequent sociology of suffering, has become de rigueur in any serious movie about any war. It's abundantly evident throughout Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, and in the celebrated opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, before Steven Spielberg takes the plot to more conventional ground. As for the once-ubiquitous figure of the frazzled Vietnam vet, you don't see him much on the screen these days -- not in civilian life, anyway. Rather, in films about modern wars real or fictitious, he keeps popping up as a career soldier -- the wily professional who knows a thing or two about the rigours of combat. Like America itself, his suffering has been validated, his pride has been renewed, his experience has been dressed up in a fresh uniform and put to bellicose use.

Rules of Engagement provides us with an up-to-the-minute example. There, taking on a crowd of Mideast terrorists, our Vietnam veteran has finally earned his hero's stripes. Drawing on battlefield lessons learned those many years ago, the guy is a decisive warrior who acts boldly in defence of his beloved men and without any pseudo-sensitive regard for the political or cultural motives of the enemy. Remind you of someone? Damned if he hasn't transformed himself into John Wayne, so convincingly that, at the picture's end, the new Duke earns a heartfelt salute from his erstwhile foe -- yep, a North Vietnamese officer. Seems that, after having a quarter-century to mull it over, the winners are bowing and scraping to the losers. Apparently, in the annals of pop culture, if not in the essays of anniversary journalists, American redemption for Vietnam is now at hand -- at least when the hand is holding the pen that's writing the history.

Original article