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The Vietnam War As Public Spectacle

Bottom-up Collective Drama or Top-Down Atrocity?

The many creative techniques used in the film hit us from the very first moment. The series opens on a black screen with the characteristic fwop fwop fwop of a Huey chopper. It's an iconic aural “image” established in the American cultural consciousness from a host of popular Vietnam war movies like Apocalypse Now. By now, it’s a familiar metaphor accessible through the ears. The sound instantly puts our minds “in” Vietnam, and we're buckled up and ready to sink into the weeds of the individual stories to come. Beautifully layered sound is everywhere: crunching feet on dirt roads; the subtle sound of bodies pushing through bushes accompanies a scene of men walking through hedge rows looking for VC; realistic explosion sounds are layered over images of bombs going off add verisimilitude to the stories. At other times, the filmmakers show restraint, as when they use spooky night video of large, tropical leaves waving in wind and rain as a narrator tells of hearing the agonizing cries of dying men. No such sounds are layered into the sound mix. It's left to the imagination. In a scene of ARVN corpses, we hear the faint, almost subliminal, buzz of flies. Over the litany of LBJ’s confusion and bad judgments and images of LBJ and McNamara slouching and grimacing in their swivel chairs, we hear strains of Dylan’s “Eve of Destruction.” Then, it’s the NVA build-up in the South and Mick Jagger singing, “Don’t play with me/ ‘cause you’re playin’ with fire”. Of course, sixties rock ‘n roll classics have always been associated with the absurdity of Vietnam. Sometimes, the editing is strange, or playful. Karl Marlantes, a Vietnam combat veteran and author of the novel Mattehorn, gets featured treatment in the film. Commenting on the lying that so characterizes the Vietnam War as top-down history, he says: “It’s like living in a family with an alcoholic father. ... You know, shh, we don’t talk about that.” When Marlantes says this, we cut to a shot of an anonymous, very young GI on the ground, looking back; he seems to be hugging the earth protecting himself from something, maybe a firefight or a mortar attack. The cut to the kid is at the precise moment Marlantes says, “... shh, we don’t talk about that.” It feels a bit jarring and cute. In the film’s introduction, we get a long segment where the iconic images and film of Vietnam (the napalmed naked girl, the shooting-in-the-head of a VC man on the streets during Tet, Hueys shoved over the side of an aircraft carrier, etc) are run backwards. It goes on for a long while. As visual metaphor suggesting the erasure of iconic stereotypes, it’s a call for fresh eyes, ears and mind. To get beyond the “dissonance” Burns and Novick speak of, I liked that they were willing to do such an unconventional thing.

story | by Dr. Radut