This 1974 documentary is devoid of voicever narrative, alternating between footage of the Vietnam War, news footage of the era, anti-communist propaganda documentary clips, movie clips, and interviews with ordinary American citizens, Vietnamese villagers, American soldiers and policymakers. The thrust of the documentary is that the conflict was precipitated by a racist, warrior society (high school football being an engine of the former malady), a hysterical fear of communism, and a hubristic, imperial policy. It is skillful, affecting and pernicious, simplifying a complicated reality with editing that feels deceptively selective. Worse, because it is comprised of raw footage and heartfelt interviews, it presents as an honest portrayal. As Roger Ebert noted, “Here is a documentary about Vietnam that doesn’t really level with us … If we know something about how footage is obtained and how editing can make points, it sometimes looks like propaganda … And yet, in scene after scene, the raw material itself is so devastating that it brushes the tricks aside.”
An example: interviews with American bombers, where we never hear the documentarians, but it is clear the answers of the fliers have been elicited by questions about the experience, followed by footage of Vietnamese peasants, who are asked to recount the effect. I imagine most viewers would deem this strategy hunky dory, but the effect is to create an easy falsity-our boys dig on the need for speed and the kick-ass of it all, encased in their imperialistic manned drones, while the carnage below them escapes their notice. Indeed, I saw this storyline on an episode of M*A*S*H.
Another: the treatment of the policymaker interviewees. The anti-war Senator Fullbright and Daniel Ellsberg are edited as erudite, comprehensive and certain, and Ellsberg is even filmed breaking down recounting the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Walt Rostow’s contribution as selected is halting, petulant and confused. William Westmoreland seems near-sandbagged, even in a sit down interview.
Finally, if there is a patriotic rally or demonstration, the filmmakers always find the most extreme commenter, generally dressed up in a historical costume to punctuate his inevitable, “America, love it or leave it!”
This film is the father to the staged propaganda of Michael Moore, saying less about the subject matter and everything about how the filmmakers want you to feel about the subject matter (it is an indictment of Moore’s skills that he must insert himself as the center of his films to hammer home his points). In that manner, it is comprehensive, a cinematic Cliffs Notes to the most basic conventional wisdom about the conflict.
The picture was also clearly influential on Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.