DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of The Fog of War, Hearts and Minds, In the Year of the Pig, The Weather Underground, Return with Honor, Faith of My Fathers, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (The Killing Fields), Rescue Dawn, The Hunting of the President The War Room Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry  Voices of Iraq  Guerrila: The Taking of Patty Hearst; Gunner Palace; Voices in Wartime, The Quiet American , Broken Promises: The United Nations at 60 , Why We Fight, Sir! No Sir!, The U.S. vs. John Lennon, Al Franken: God Spoke, The Queen, The Royal Family, Shut Up & Sing, Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story, An Unreasonable Man, Journey from the Fall, So Goes the Nation, The Big Fix 2000; Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater, The War on Democracy, Standard Operating Procedure; Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story; Burma VJ; Fighter Pilot;  The Baader Meinhof Complex, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers; A Film Unfinished; Unforgettable: The Korean War


Title:  The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

Release Date:  2003

Nationality and Language: U.S.A., English

Running time: 105 Min

MPAA Rating:  PG-13

Distributor and Production Company:  Sony Pictures Classics

Director; Writer: Errol Morris


Cast:   Robert S. McNamara


Relevance to doaskdotell site: Vietnam war



This documentary has the straightforward format of Mr. McNamara’s talking into the camera, with the film then showing supporting footage for the various periods of history that he covers from his career. It also complements his 1995 book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (written with Brian Vandemark, published by Random House). But here he reaches all the way back to World War II, through his time at Ford Motor Company, to set up a reprise of Vietnam. The film was made with an invention called the Interretron, an elaboration of a Teleprompter for interviewing (see p. 20, Winter 2004 issue of FLM).


He starts his argument with his first point, to understand how the other guy thinks, and illustrates it with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the subject of New Line’s 2000 film, 13 Days.  He and Kennedy figured out what Khrushchev needed to bail out, all right, but there was a great deal of luck. Nuclear warheads were already present on Cuba, and meaningful civilization as we know it could have come to an end in late October. That would have left a more primitive world that had no place for someone like me, if I had survived at all. I was a patient at NIH at the time with my college “mental health” problem as detailed at


That’s another lesson, that luck matters, and rational human beings can destroy themselves. And they sometimes do evil in order to do good. That takes him back to the firebombings of Japanese cities during 1945, even before Hiroshima Mon Amour. The “kill ratio” for civilians was totally immoral and could have led to our own leaders being tried for war crimes if we had not won. Here, it is interesting to compare his comments with those of philosophy professor Susan Neiman (Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy) on “NOW with Bill Moyers” on PBS on Jan. 2, 2004; she considered Truman’s excesses (however justified in terms of the lives of American GI’s) as basic evil.


But it is McNamara’s penitence on Vietnam that seems most telling, much more so than his 1995 book, which was disturbing enough when it was published (while I was writing Do Ask, Do Tell). He goes back to indications in October 1963 that Kennedy was going to pull advisors out of Indochina, and then there was a coup in South Vietnam. Early on, Johnson, on his clunky tapes, gave hints that he might pursue Vietnam more aggressively. Then in early August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin happened, with only the first of the two attacks “real” (and the U.S. was not the intended target). Nevertheless LBJ and perhaps our military and industrial complex had an excuse for war, so the theory goes. The rest is well known history, of the dominoes not just of communism but also of unstoppable escalations. Here the filmmakers adopt the simple device of showing falling dominoes on a map of Southeast Asia, almost as if it were being unbuttoned.


McNamara offers the surprisingly placid explanation now that Vietnam was simply either a civil war or a war for Vietnamese ethnic independence of colonialism, as much from the Chinese as from the French and Americans.  As if the whole agony of Vietnam (which indirectly would occupy about five years of my own life) was superfluous.


I could challenge this notion after all. For the summer of 1968, after finishing Army Basic Training, I was stationed in the Pentagon myself and saw enough documents regarding official fears of the Soviets and Chinese in Vietnam as well as previously in Korea. Then I was mysteriously transferred to “Fort Useless.”   In 1967, I had seen the grim short black-and-white film The War Game on campus at The University of Kansas where the hypothesis was advanced that the Soviets and Chinese enter the Vietnam conflict. On the other hand, China and the Soviet Union were becoming divided during the 1960s (when Mao enforced his Cultural Revolution), and the historical relationship of the Chinese with the North Vietnamese is at most controversial. Here are a couple of web references:


And here is a simple summary of Gulf of Tonkin:


In sum, for me and my “buddies” in the Army stateside then, the “domino theory” and zero-tolerance theory of conventional deterrence (backed up by a male-only draft and the ability of the likes of General Westmoreland to get as many men as he needed) was the “buffer” that prevented repeats of the Cuban Missile Crisis or even the Berlin Wall Crisis, the paranoia of which formed a background for my own troubles (expulsion for “homosexuality”) at William and Mary and then N.I.H., and then my “self-redemption” with draft physicals and then actually volunteering for the draft at the end of graduate school.


McNamara does finish his eleven points, the last two of which are “Never Say Never” and “Have a Respect for Human Nature.”


The film does present a chilling recreation of history. Here I indulge in a conceit. I could certainly come up with pretty much the same eleven lessons from my own life (especially the first one) and compose a narrative film that gives an account of history (including the AIDS epidemic and gays in the military, gay marriage, and censorship and technology and finally counter terrorism debates that would follow). In fact, I have an amateur 38 minute film (some of it at  on my hard drive (not yet ready for Kaaza) that does that. But we come back again to a final point. I remember being very troubled while in graduate school about Vietnam, and getting a letter from our ministers at my church that we had to trust our leaders (this church was the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC, where presidents sometimes attend). It seems, though, that leaders can be bullheaded and impose their views of reality on entire populations, even in a democracy like ours. Maybe it is happening again with George W. Bush.  Yet, individuals can likewise follow their own agendas while ignoring the needs of others pressing upon them, and this is not so dependent on external politics. The hardest thing, as the character Ephram Brown on Everwood writes in a fictitious high school essay, is to change. 


Hearts and Minds (1974, dir. Peter Davis, Rialto/Touchstone, 110 min, R) is being re-released this election year, won Best Documentary in 1974 for its chilling account of the Vietnam war. It was premiered that year at the Cannes Film Festival. The film shows graphic real war footage, including children burned by napalm, and GI’s having explicit sex (nipple teasing, for example, is shown) with prostitutes. The narrative is spiced with comments by various principals of the time, including opposites Daniel Ellsberg and Clark Clifford. One scene shows Mr. Ellsberg grieving in his home while his cat looks on.  Johnson administration officials (and then Nixon) talked about the fantasy of winning the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people, and at the end General William C. Westmoreland comments that Orientals don’t value human life the way westerners do, while the film cuts to Vietnamese women, looking over coffins for their children, grieving and crying uncontrollably as simple family is all peasants there had to live for. The point of view here is that McNamara knew by 1967 that our leadership had misunderstood the conflict completely, yet continued to sacrifice American GI’s and Vietnamese civilians for years. Nixon would have done the same beyond 1973 had Watergate not derailed him. The U.S. had actually paid over 70% of the cost of the war even when it was the French Indochinese war (remember Michael Caine in The Quiet American?) When one builds up a military-industrial complex to defend the country against an enemy ideology (here, communism), there is a tendency or incentive to pick a fight to give the complex customers and make it profitable. Michael Moore says of this film, “Required viewing for anyone who says, ‘I am an American.’” I saw this in a sneak at the AFI/Silver in Silver Spring Md, with Daniel Ellsberg and Peter Davis taking questions from the stage afterward. Mr. Davis, to my question, suggested that history teachers compare the United States to other empires (Rome) rather than present history as a “parade of heroes.” 


In the Year of the Pig (1968, MTV, dir. Emile de Antonio, 115 min) another documentary about how we got into Vietnam. Blogger. 


The Quiet American (2002, Miramax, dir. Phillip Noyce, based on the novel by Graham Greene, R, 101 min) is an impressive statement of what was going on in Vietnam in the early 50s before it became an American obsession, domino theory and all. The center of the plot is a love triangle between British reporter Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), American CIA agent Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) and Vietnamese girl Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), in which Fowler explores his distrust of American interventions, leading eventually to a catastrophic climax. It’s a good thing, for a novelist to build a plot in an important period of history (that would lead to big things later) without having to hit a moving target.


The Weather Underground (2003, Directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, USA) documents the history of the Weather Underground radical movement as it got started in the late 1960s as mainly a violent protest against the Vietnam war. So this movie crosses two currents: Vietnam, and an earlier form of domestic terrorism. For the Underground, loosely connected with the Students for a Democratic Society and competing with the Black Panthers, provided probably the best known example of Left Wing terrorism in our modern history. (By way of contrast, Timothy McVeigh is viewed as a right wing terrorist, and the Unabomber as a kind of Luddite terrorist, all before Osama bin Laden and radical Islam of 9/11). The methods were crude by today’s practice: homemade bombs placed in public buildings (one of these misfired and blew up a row house in Greenwich Village in 1970, not far from where I would move in the mid 1970s to live myself). The Weather swore to make life “unlivable” for average “white bourgeois America” but was not very effective. But some observations come out of the woodwork. One is the incredible righteous indignation of the radial Left, that any middle class white person who took advantage of the “perks” of modern America was part of the oppression. Another was self-appointment, that one may decide to commit acts of violence against civilians in order to draw attention to one’s causes or ideology. Hitler and Stalin did that. Morality for the far Left was pure class struggle; individual actions and accountability for them meant for nothing. Finally, the Underground imploded with the end of the Vietnam war, and relatively few of the “terrorists” were prosecuted because J. Edgar Hoover had been exposed by a break-in as having used illegal methods to watch them. Some of the ex-Underground members who speak in the film are Bernadine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, David Gilbert and Brian Flanagan.


Return with Honor.

1998, Tom Hanks films; Produced, directed and written by Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders

105 Minutes; dis. American Film Institute PG; 9.5/10

            This film, making its rounds at art houses and special screenings (I saw it at the University of Minnesota film society), has won critical praise for its portrayal of the plight of American pilots shot down over North Vietnam early in the Vietnam war.

            Indeed it shows the opportunities and limitations of historical documentary film making. For indeed, the portrayal of history is vivid, starting with LBJ's speeches over the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 and his articulation of the domino theory. The live film, often black-and-white, starts with the presidential clippings and moves into the Air Force Academy with shots of the hazing and survival training that would fit well (in a Naval Academy setting) in a future film of Joe Steffan's Honor Bound, and which recall Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. The realism continues and becomes increasingly grim, with real shots of Hanoi, of the pilots being taken, and of the Hanoi Hilton. Many of the pilots are well known, such as James Stockdale, Ross Perot's running mate in 1992. (He's more articulate in the film than he was as a candidate.)

            The accounts of their treatment are graphic, and make important social-politico points, that go way beyond prisoner-of-war (POW) issues. For example, the North Vietnamese didn't have to abide by the Geneva Convention (I remember that well from my own Basic Training), so they thought, because they had no diplomatic relations with the United States, so the pilots were, as individuals, criminals. This fits the left-wing theory of the 60's that anyone who partook of the "establishment" was a capitalist pig and therefore an enemy of the people and a criminal. Another little gem occurs as we learn how the North Vietnamese wanted to use the prisoners as propaganda. To display an African-American officer pilot would disorient the young black conscripts who made up 40% of the infantry fighting in the South, all because of the student deferment system.

            Which brings us to another social point. Yes, the men are brutalized horribly, with various manacles and positional tortures. Limbs are dislocated and broken; the men will be scarred for life. Their bodies are sacrificed. They seem to fit the paradigm that to become a man, you serve your country first, then provide for a wife and family, and only then take care of yourself. That was part of the honor code, pre Joe Steffan. You didn't make a separate peace with the enemy to save yourself, because your buddies might go down in your place. So you returned with honor. Although, this was part of the Code of Conduct, again, well covered in Basic Training,

            Actually, though, the motives of these heterosexual men were less than 100% altruistic. Joining the military was the one big way to fly, to get to make a jet plane and extension of your own body, terminator style. It was an ego shot for the right kind of man. This isn’t exactly what I have in mind for service to country when I debate gays in the military in the 90's.

            And this brings us to the issue of the film-making style. It seems that these historical documentaries give us our only chance to see real footage of these troubled places, as if we could have visited them and come back. But the style of interviewing the protagonists (much the same device used in the Stonewall films) isn't as dramatically effective as it could be. I'd rather see the men interact in discussions, at least Dinner-with-Andre style.

            So I hope that filmmakers will show more interest in epic historical filmmaking of the rising individualism of the past four decades, but find the right way to frame history with personal interactions that matter. I have my own suggestions.


Faith of My Fathers (2005, A&ETV, dir. Peter Markle) is a biography of Senator John McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, based his memoir of the same name. Shawn Hatosy plays the younger McCain. The early part of the film interweaves his POW episode with his days as a plebe at the Naval Academy (the film had me wondering what Joseph Steffan’s Honor Bound would look like). He is not particularly promising at first, as his XO once vandalizes his room when he fails inspection. Then the film switches to flashbacks of his wife and family, which rather justify his existence. He is repeatedly offered opportunities to make propaganda “confessions” to get out. He resists at first (“I want my candy”) but eventually compromises. At the end, he says that every man can break at some point. Propaganda as a weapon of the state is less effective in an online Internet world if people have freedom of speech. On the other hand, what is the obligation of absolute loyalty to others?  I recall well the start of the preliminary peace talks; I was on the rifle range loading ammo in Basic at Fort Jackson the day that was first reported on the radio. The music score makes a couple of awkward renditions (with intentional piano mistakes and mis-harmonies) of the 18th Variation of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”


The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002, First Run Films, 80 min, dir. Eugene Jarecki, PG) is based on the book by Christopher Hitchens. It did not seem as strident in presenting Kissinger as a warmonger as I expected. At the Ninth Street Center in New York in 1973, we characterized Kissinger as psychologically feminine, like Richard Nixon himself, both feminine subjectives, so they made political bedfellows. In one comic still photo, Kissinger is shown in shorts only, with no hair on his chest. He would claim that “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” a psychological defense. Kissinger would come up with these theories about how states are not exactly like people (we used to talk about that in 11th grade history). Toward the end of the Nixon years, however, Kissinger got himself into a double jeopardy situation in Chile. On September 11, 2001, a few minutes before the first World Trade Center attack, Kissinger was served with a summons regarding his activities years before. Kissinger rails against the idea that the United States should over-invest in an international justice system. But any proponent of violence against civilians can be held accountable, even the supposed good guys. 


The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2003, HBO/BBC, Dir: Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain, 74 min) tells the story of the attempted coup in April 2002 of socialist president Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. This is a critical issue for Americans because Venezuela is one of the world’s largest oil exporters (#3), and oil production has been severely hampered by political and social unrest. This could be exacerbated by other problems in the Middle East associated with resentment against Israel.  The film does document Chavez’s attempted changes in social policy and claims of redistribution of wealth, which would invite the right-wing attempt that may have been aided by the Bush administration. Modern Caracas, with its poor neighborhoods, is shown vividly.


S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2002, INA, France/Cambodia, 101 min, dir. Rithy Panh) presents a series of interviews of former prisoners at the notorious S21 detention center in Phomh Penh, which had been previous a high school. The interviews are graphic in depicting Khmer Rouge brutality, and show that totalitarianism, whatever the ideology, is capable of the most brutal crimes imaginable. Some of the story is told through some rather expressionistic paintings, and there are a lot of shots of diaries in the native language, which tends to look like mathematical symbols. There is one striking aerial shot of the city at the beginning. The film is rather dour and relentless. There are many references to the brutal Pol Pot, often covered by Ted Koppel on ABC “Nightline” in the 1970s. It does remind me of The Killing Fields (1984, Warner Bros., dir. Roland Joffe, 141 min, R) where Sam Waterson plays reporter Sidney Schanberg. (That film contains one of the most horrific scenes in all of cinema, as Schanberg escapes through a field of corpses and skulls; the music in the urban escape sequence is also especially riveting, and the reunion at the end is emotionally compelling, reminding one of the film Julia.) The new film seems a fitting entry for the week of former President Ronald Reagan’s funeral.  Blogger.


Rescue Dawn (2006, MGM / Gilbraltar / Top Gun, 130 min, R, Germany) German-born Ranger pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is shot down in Laos in 1965 in the days just before LBJ commits America to Vietnam, on a top secret mission. He escapes in the jungle for a while, but is caught and taken to a makeshift POW camp. With his buddies, they engineer an escape. Most die, but he and Duane (Steve Zahn) make a run for it into Thailand. What follows is an odyssey and redemption and rebirth comparable to Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, with more fidelity to actual history. His bond with Duane grows into what the military believes to be the result of unit cohesion, but what some see as bordering on homoerotic – yet both men have their wives and kids back home. Duane becomes ill and may not survive. Dengler tries desperately to attract helicopters by starting a fire the stone age way (makes you wonder about flammability) and gets shot out. Finally another scouter plan arrives as now the LBJ and McNamara have changed history irreversibly. There are some subtle filmmaking effects. In one scene, the captors shoot blanks at him and deafen him temporarily. In another scene, when Dieter is sleeping, a hand slips over, and the viewer can tell it is a Caucasian hand from appearance and therefore an American, given the circumstances. The Laotian people are cast to conform to the “gook” stereotype that the Army portrayed of “Charly” the enemy during Basic Training in those days. The film is shot flat (1.85 to 1), but the scenery (in Thailand) is breathtaking and this may be the greenest looking film ever made. It can give one retinal fatigue.  It would have been more appropriate to have Dengler speak German in the scenes where he really would have.


The Hunting of the President: The Ten Year Campaign to Destroy Bill Clinton (2003, dir. Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry, PG-13, 89 min) traces the right wing conspiracy to nail Bill Clinton, from the time of his governorship in Arkansas, through his presidency, up to the time of the unsuccessful impeachment attempt in early 1999. The centerpiece is the tragedy of sorts of Susan McDougal, who went to tough women’s prison (a la “Crystal” in Days of Our Lives) because she refused a proffer from the fibbies seeking to nail him for Whitewater. Kenneth Starr appears, complete with his conflicts of interest. Remember, Starr’s accounts of Clinton’s behavior with Monica Lewinsky was, when published on the web, said to violate COPA before it was challenged. You expect to see Michael Moore show up at any time in a film like this (for this film was released the same week as Fahrenheit 9/11 and may have been obscured).


The War Room (1993, October, dir. Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker, 96 min, PG) is a spirited documentary of Bill Clinton’s win in the 1992 primaries, of the nomination and then the election. George Stephanopolous, for example, appears often live. Bill’s campaign life starts in New Hampshire, all right, and he enjoys his Big Macs, and will not enjoy coronary bypass surgery (like Dave Letterman) in 2004. I don’t recall mention of his 1992 promise to lift the military gay ban; but I remember the reality of it, even when Keith Meinhold came out on ABC in 1992.


Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (2004, Palisades/ThinkFilm, dir. George Butler, 92 min) presents a biography of our 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, and one which supports his basic good character. The first half of the film recounts his Vietnam service in the Mekong Delta, where he won a Silver Star and purple hearts for courage in action while on Naval patrol boat missions. Some of the war footage is quite harrowing, and there is coverage of the indiscriminate slaughter of Vietnamese civilians as “enemy.” The second half of the film recounts a lean late-20s Kerry leading the veterans’ anti-war movement, including his testimony in Congress. Veterans stage an event at the Capitol where they throw away their medals and ribbons, although I don’t see Kerry throwing away his—the message was that the patriotic sacrifice subsumed by the draft was all for nothing. Nixon would make half-hearted attempts to discredit Kerry but could find nothing.


A related book is by Michael Kranise, Brian C. Mooney and Nina J. Easton: John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best, Boston: The Boston Globe and Public Affairs, ISBN 1-58648-273-4, paper, 448 pgs.


Matt Bai has an article, “Kerry’s Undeclared War” in The New York Times Magazine, Oct. 10, 2004, in which he discusses neoconservative “viral theory of democracy” and compares it to Kerry’s pragmatic approach to terrorism. Bush, Bai argues, may have made radical Islam credible around the world by raising to the level of fundamental ideology.


There is another documentary film, “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal” (Red, White and Blue productions) that is reported to discredit John Kerry, or at least dispute the claims that Americans committed atrocities in Vietnam. The film shows testimony of American POW’s, and apparently the POWs maintain that Kerry’s 1971 testimony to Congress made life harder for them. Sinclair Broadcasting was going to broadcast some of the film, but there are reports of attempts to prevent its broadcast (by the Democrats) and of objections from shareholders of Sinclair (although supposedly Sinclair is owned largely by “conservatives”—so this brings up the whole question of media objectivity, ownership, and political contributions). Tucker Carlson discussed this on CNN “Crossfire” on Oct. 20, 2004. The web link is  I have not yet seen the film bout will try to, out of “objectivity.” One high-level employee of Sinclair was fired for talking to the press about this issue, a situation that reminds me of my own conflict of interest page.


Voices of Iraq (Magnolia, Voices of Freedom, 80 min, rec. PG-13, 2004) was shot on 150 digital camcorders by ordinary people in Iraq in early and mid 2004. The clips are somewhat random but cover everything: the Kurds (and Saddam’s gassings), the Marsh Arabs (and Saddam’s draining of the marshes), the Iraqi stock market, and the tawdry everyday life in Baghdad. Opinions on American involvement are mixed. Some Iraqis welcome the “freedom” but miss the “security.” Some Iraqis had an adequate lifestyle under Saddam, only to be undermined by Saddam’s aggressive actions and resulting wars and sanctions. There are graphic scenes of Saddam’s torture chambers, including genital and tongue mutilations.


Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (2004, Magnolia, dir. Robert Stone, 89 min, rec PG-13) may provide its most telling insight in the last line, where Patty, freed after 22 months of prison after President Carter commuted her sentence, tells a television interviewer that growing up as a rich girl was good. Then the movie ends. Actually, President Clinton would pardon her on his last morning in office, Jan. 20, 2001. Now the rest is history, but important. The Symbionese Liberation Army (like the Weathermen) is presented as a kind of domestic Al Qaeda, but what comes through is the enormous collective indignation against the “corporate state” (Theodore Reich and The Greening of America come to mind) that supported the “fascist” war in Vietnam. That indignation of course extends against the tainted fruits of the children of the rich. So Patty Hearst, daughter of the publishing magnate, was a tempting mark, for the February 1974 kidnapping. We know the rest of the story. In some months, Patty was “won over” and participated in the robbery of the Hibernia Bank. Eventually most of the SLA would be captured in an LA shootout at a “safehouse” but some of it would escape to Berkeley. Eventually Patty would be “rescued” and arrested in San Francisco. The trial would focus on the “Stockholm Syndrome” where kidnapping victims start to identify with their captors.  After 9/11, some of the interview subjects in this film were rounded up and tried for their participation in the mid 1970s crimes. Sarah Jane Olson (aka Kathleen Soliah) became a famous example when she was apprehended in St. Paul, MN in 1999.


Gunner Palace (2004, Palm, dir. Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, 87 min, PG-13) documents, in digital video, a Field Artillery company in Iraq in late 2003, just before Saddam Hussein would be captured. Much of the time the company is in the former (and now bombed out) palace (filled with bizarre accoutrements that seem to parody Western values) of Saddam’s son Ude.  A number of soldiers are interviewed, and the general feeling is that Americans back home haven’t a clue as to what they are going through, even if this is an “opportunity” for high school graduates. There are scenes of soldiers interrogating suspected terrorists or insurgents and manipulating them with simple rewards, punishments and self-interests; there are scenes of Americans giving Iraqi troops basic combat training, complete with chest-scraping law crawls. There are a few homophobic jokes. You get to see a lot of Baghdad in this film, up close, an opportunity now since it has been years since Baghdad—one of the oldest cities on Earth-- has been a practical destination for personal travel.


Voices in Wartime (2005, Cinema Libre, dir. Rich King, 74 min) is a documentary that reflects the experience in war (from World War I to the towers falling on 9/11) by matching historical footage to poetry (from poets who are well-known to battlefield self-journals). Perhaps the greatest war poet was Wilfred Owen, who wrote, “Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is the pity….”  West Point instructors explain the importance of poetry in communicating the essence of war.


Broken Promises: The United Nations at 60 (2005, dir. Kevin Knoblock, Citizens United, 65 min) is a history of the U.N., and presents the organization as more interested in protecting its reputation as a benign neutral body than in getting pro-active in preventing horrible slaughters in places like Palestine, Somalia, Rwanda, Sudan, and Bosnia. The early parts of the film detail the formation of Israel in 1948 and its initial struggle to survive, and the controversy its takeover of land caused, as well as “The Wall”.  The Rwanda genocide in 1994 is covered in some detail (the Tutsi and the Hutu). The film is shot 4:3 with a log of old news footage.


Why We Fight (2005, Sony Pictures Classics, dir. Eugene Jarecki, 98 min, USA). I remember once at around age eight being asked by a neighborhood boy, “do you want to fight?” I said no. I was called “Chicken” (and “Chickenman” in the Army, at least at Fort Eustis). Should this film be titled "Blowback Mountain"? I used to have debates with Sunday School teachers about “hitting back” – retaliation with fists. Now as a nation we are supposed to fight to defend freedom. Now President Eisenhower, on the last night of his presidency in 1961, warned about the threat of a military-industrial complex running out of control. It has. It would not be until Vietnam that we learned to question it. Now President Bush has carried the doctrine of preemptive war to high art in the wake of 9/11. And there is a buzzword for credible disinformation from the CIA, “bushback or blowback.”


The film starts out with the images of 9/11, including the Twin Towers falling. A man who lost a brother in the towers comments. Later there are other stories, as a 23-year-old who joins the Army after losing his mother in order to afford a college education. But the most devastating point is that a number of neoconservative think-tanks are paid to tell the Congress what the president wants them to hear, for the benefit of defense contractors; and these think-tanks tend to hire ex-military people or other defense contractors, not a prescription for intellectual objectivity. In fact, it seems that people get paid to write what others want the public to hear, a good reason to check online profiles and blogs of job applicants for polemic loyalty.


The film spends half its length on the beginnings of the War in Iraq in March 2003, including all the talk by Bush, Rice and Rumsfeld about weapons of mass destruction, which, we know, have never been found. (Who knows, maybe they were stashed in Syria? Or “Syriana”? ) But the main motive seems to be to fill the coffers of defense contractors and "beltway bandits." A particularly galling moment is when the president contradicts himself and maintains that he never maintained that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. He did. And, objectively, it is possible that there was.


People have told me they are surprised that “they” would allow this movie to be made. Well, there is a First Amendment, and there is no “they.”  Except at the W&M tribunals. But there is a certain social pressure to sell the messages of others, especially to support, provide for and protect a family. This comes through when the recruit notes that Army recruiters generally have the reputation of car salesmen for hucksterism (“always be closing”). Yet, the young man is sold on an enlistment contract. In Vietnam we depended on the poor to fight. Today, we still do.


“CNN Presents” covered the content of all of this on Sunday Feb. 13 2006.


I created some reaction with a group called The American Experiment in Minneapolis with a letter that I submitted on WMDs in 2003. At the time, I believed the president, to be sure. But now, I am very much the "skunk at the picnic" wherever I am, because of what I publish.


Sir! No Sir! (2005, Balcony/Displaced, dir. David Zeiger, 84 min, sug PG-13, documents the history of protests of the Vietnam war by American servicemen. In 1966 a Dr. Levy would be court-martialed at Fort Jackson, SC (the eyebrowed barracks where I had basic are shown) for refusing to train troops. Protests would build up over the years. Sometimes “coffee houses” near military bases were shut down and owners prosecuted for running “public nuisances.” (Yes, this can happen.) Officers were court-martialed for marching at protests in uniform, when supposedly politicking violates the UCMJ.  Protests would increase in the Nixon Administration (with the Kent State tragedy), and fragging of officers in Vietnam would take place. There would be a major GI demonstration on the Mall in 1971, with many soldiers throwing away their medals. Soldiers would be “spit on” when returning home from ships. The film is in 4:3 digital video, a lot of it in black-and-white, with some live shots of napalm bombing, especially in the Mekong Delta. A couple stereotyped movie clips (Rambo and Hamburger Hill) are shown as projected on TV. Jane Fonda, Joe Bangert, David Cline, Howard Levy, Donald Sutherland, and many others appear. I can remember resenting, as a boy, being expected to address men as “sir.”  


The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2006, LionsGate/Paramount Classics/Authorized Pictures, dir. David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, 96 min, PG-13) is a documentary about the career of (Beatle) singer John Lennon, who emigrated to the United States from Liverpool, England. He became active with the anti-war movement, and the Nixon White House, along with closet-case Hoover’s FBI, came to view him as a serious political threat. Early on, the film shows shots of the rioting at the 1968 Democratic Convention (the subject of Medium Cool), and Lennon and other activists get on Nixon’s case quickly when Nixon breaks his campaign promise and escalates the war. In 1972, Lennon threatens to tailgate the Nixon campaign with demonstrations. When 18 year olds get the right to vote, Lennon threatens to mobilize them. We have the odd spectacle of a conservative administration afraid of the political power of artists and musicians (The Beatles, no less!)—they were to be taken that seriously. The Nixon administration started an attempt to have Lennon deported, and the battle would go on for a while after Nixon resigned due to Watergate. The concept of the film anticipates the modern Internet era, where rogue artists can create a new kind of “threat.”  


A follow-up is the Dec 20, 2006 Los Angeles Times story by Henry Weinstein, “FBI to release last of its John Lennon files: The U.S. had said such an act could stir military retaliation. The papers, withheld 25 years, don't seem to bear that out.”, link is this.


Al Franken: God Spoke (2006, Balcony, dir. Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus, 90 min, PG-13) traces the career of liberal radio talk show host Al Franken, from Minnesota. Much of the film follows the 2004 election, but one segment goes back to Oct. 2002, when Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash in northern Minnesota. His battle with Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, who sued Franken for libel (the suit was thrown out of court) over his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. The film is shot in 4:3 digital video (it does not fill the normal screen) but nevertheless there is a lot of interesting on location footage of many cities, especially Minneapolis and St. Paul, where I was living until Aug. 2003. There is especially sumptuous video of the inside of the state capitol. Franken says he may run for the U.S. Senate (from MN) in 2008. I considered running for the Senate under the Libertarian Party in 2000. The film opens with a comical animation that reminds one of “Bruce Almighty.”


The Queen (2006, Miramax/Pathe, dir. Stephen Frears, 97 min, UK, PG-13) belongs on a page of political films about the US because it recounts a comparable “crisis” in Britain that foreshadows the issues of today. In May 1997 a young Tony Blair (Welsh actor Michael Sheen, who really does act the part as a kind of subdued male sex symbol in good clothes) curtsies in front of the HM Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and formally asks for permission to form his government (as if doing so were like executing a constructor of a java class). On Saturday, August 30, 1997, the paparazzi chase the car containing Diana Frances Mountbatten-Windsor, the Lady Diana Spencer, who lost her royalty status with her divorce from Prince Charles in 1996) into a Paris tunnel (which I drove myself in 1999). The video goes that far, and then we are in the Queen’s apartment as she takes the calls and protects the boys. I remember that weekend, as I was moving to Minneapolis from Virginia to take a corporate transfer, and I remember hearing the news about “Princess Di” Sunday morning in Ohio. After getting set up in a new apartment and new life in Minneapolis, one of the first things I saw on cable was Kitty Kelly talking about her book “The Royals,” as she said that truth was not a defense to libel in Britain. The critics pick up the movie well here, as the Queen wants to keep the family grief private, whereas Tony Blair feels that she is snubbing the people. (She does handwrite her diary in penmanship; no personal Internet in Buckingham Palace!) In the middle of the film, there is discussion about the constitution in Britain (there is none as we understand it) and the idea of overturning the monarchy and making Britain a republic. After all, not only the USA, it happened in France. There is the idea of taking away all the unearned privilege of heredity. But the Queen has done a job she did not choose for half a century, and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) considers doing so an honor to God. The Queen goes out on her own at her estate, driving a four-wheel drive across a stream and getting stuck. (Those scenes were shot in Scotland and are spectacular). She even has a personal encounter with a wild antelope, which is rather like Ephram’s encounter with the deer in Everwood. Animals don’t discriminate. Of course, the depiction of Tony Blair foreshadows his alliance with Bush in the war on terror and then in the war in Iraq, despite his liberal and Labor Party origins.  The film should not be confused with a film from SpainQueens” about gay marriage. (“Homosexuals” are mentioned in this film once, as likely to come to the public funeral and tribute; Princess Di did a lot of work for AIDS fund raising.)


The Royal Family (2008, ABC 20/20, narrated by Barbara Walters) is a careful documentary of the business of the British monarchy, aired 3/3/2008, blogger link here.


Shut Up & Sing (aka “Dixie Chicks”, 2006, The Weinstein Company/Cabin Creek, dir. Barbara Kopple/Cecilia Peck, 93 min, unrated but would be PG-13) is about the famous female girl band (Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, Martie Maguire), country & western, that made a lot of enemies (to say the least) in early 2003 when one of the girls said on stage, “I am ashamed that George W. Bush is from Texas.” That was when Saddam Hussein was about to fall in Iraq, and everyone was sure that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. We know the history since, and it should come as no surprise that the Dixie Chicks retooled themselves and recovered as the Bush policies came under fire. Bush himself once says, "They shouldn't have their feelings hurt because some people don't want to buy their records." Sony/Columbia eventually figures out that people do want to. But there also the warning, "When entertainers get political (with their speech) there can be a business impact." The Dixie Chicks did receive death threats, and one of them was amazed "that someone could hate you so much for what you say." The film is shot in video, in only a narrow 4:3 ratio, which is a little disappointing with a major indie distributor. But it is on location, with handsome shots in many cities, such as the American Airlines theater in Dallas.


The film should not be confused with “Shut Up and Sing,” from Bruce Leddy, also 2006 (no distributor on IMDB). 


Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story (2005, Safarimedia, dir Patty Kim and Chris Sheridan, 86 min, sug PG-13; website) is a video documentary about the abductions from Japan of a number of people, apparently randomly, by North Korea, to be trained to help North Korean spies. North Korea now admits to at least 13 such abductions since 1977; there could be over 100, and they may have happened as far away as France (none in France or Britain). Megumi Yokota was apparently taken from a beach. It does not appear that people were targeted as individuals in advance, which has happened in Europe with a few assassinations (or threats) of writers and artists by Al Qaeda, but the underlying idea is similar (as is the recent polonium poisoning in Britain of a former KGB agent); individual people can be attacked for foreign enemies. The directors held a Q&A afterward at Landmark E Street in Washington DC. Outside the Theater, the Children’s Rights Council of Japan was passing out leaflets criticizing Japan for failing to join treaties protecting children, and for condoning abductions to Japan! Jane Campion (The Piano) was an executive producer.


An Unreasonable Man (2006, IFC/Red Envelope, dir. Henriette Mantel, Steve Skrovan, 122 min, NR sug PG) is a biography of the famous consumer activist and presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004. The early part of the film depicts his youth in a cohesive family of Lebanese immigrants in Connecticut, and his upbringing instilled critical thinking skills. After getting a law degree, Nader became a consumer activist, going after unsafe products, first in the auto industry. He built an organization that had some connections to the Carter administration, but had to break off on its own during the Reagan years. The last part of the film deals with the controversy of Nader’s effect on the 2000 presidential election (as the Green Party candidate). It’s debatable; had Gore won, the same could be said by Republicans against Pat Buchanan and Harry Browne (a comment left out of the film). Gore also failed to carry his own home state (Tenn.) and Clinton’s home state (AR).


But more interesting is what makes Nader “tick”. A reasonable man (a term well known from Shakespeare’s “Julius Ceasar”) accommodates to external reality. An unreasonable man insists on his own ideas. Throughout his career Nader’s main focus was the intellectual dishonesty of the way political “debate” is conducted, as large corporate interest pay both Republican and Democratic candidates to say the right things. This has a perverse effect on socialization, where people feel it is more important to go along with other interests that will “protect” them and other family members than it is to do the right thing. Nader has a new book “The Seventeen Traditions” (blogger review) (Harper Collins) which he signed at the Washington DC premier at Landmark E Street downtown, and indeed Nader (who never married) has a traditional view of the importance of family, which he sees as abused by the pressures for unethical competition by organized corporate special interests.  His attempt to get into the Bush v. Gore debates is shown, and the private debate organizers illegally use the Boston Police Department to threaten Nader with arrest for trespassing when he has a legal admission ticket. Nader’s life, however, really doesn’t burrow into the more existential questions about personal life direction against family loyalty. There are scenes of his cluttered Dupont Circle offices in the late 1970s, where he seems to be living the life of a geek and bookworm, accumulating knowledge in hardcopy that would fit into the idea of supersized and encyclopediac websites today.


The “Priceless” lawsuit that occurred in 2000 is discussed here. 


Journey from the Fall (2006, ImaginAsian, dir. Ham Tran, 135 min, R, VietNam/Thailand) is an epic story of the Vietnamese boat people, who are captured by the North Vietnamese after the Americans leave in 1975. Some of the men are shot or thrown into solitary confinement, and the women are imprisoned separately. Gradually some escape, and their kids have emotional problems adjusting in California, as the 1980s arrive. The early part of the film is very graphic and echoes “The Killing Fields”. The film could be construed as an ex post facto argument for our involvement in Vietnam. Even in the 1960s, there were many stories of refugees from the North.


So Goes the Nation (2006, IFC / The Weinstein Company, dir. Adam Del Deo, James D. Stern, 90 min) documents the 2004 presidential race in Ohio, red state and all, as the swing state for the entire election.  The Republicans are accused of gay-baiting on the gay marriage issue (there are some nasty anti-gay speakers [pivoting on gay marriage and the president's desire for a constitutional amendment to "protect the sanctity of marriage"] who practically sound like Fred Phelps), and then playing on fear over 9/11, when the President’s performance on policy issues (like deficits and health care) is so weak. The Republicans, historically associated with the rich, are portrayed as appealing to the ‘average Joe” and to being anti-intellectual. One girl says, “I am smarter than the president” but that doesn’t matter. At one point NY Governor George Pataki says, “John Kerry has to Google his name to know where he stands,” and the supporters chant “flip-flop.” There is some portrayal of door-to-door campaigning in Cincinnati, reminding me of my door-to-door activity (as well as ballot access petitioning and tailgating) in the Minneapolis City Council election right after I arrived there in 1997.


Conspiracy: The Secret History: The Big Fix 2000 (“Who Runs the Show”, 2003, UFOTV/ Mad Cow, 56 min) is a documentary that examines the conflicts of interest inherent in the voting technology industry and election management. The documentary is split into two parts and appears to have been intended for cable TV, but I haven’t found out where it might have aired. The Amazon link is this. The film starts by recalling the moment on Election Night 2000 when NBC News projected that Gore had taken Florida. Later, Tom Brokaw says “what the networks give, the networks take away” as Florida was marked too close to call. The Bush family was shown at the time, too happy for the circumstances. What did they know? The film moves into the subject of the lack of auditing facilities of electronic voting, and of the secrecy with which voting software and machine companies (especially Sequoia Pacific) work. A particular telecommunications card that is critical to the integrity of voting was contracted to a one-man Russian owned company when there were American manufacturers that could have supported it. The documentary moves to examine voting problems in Louisiana, and then examines the voting technology companies in New Jersey, and their putative ties to gaming and possibly organized crime.


Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater (2006, Zeitgeist / JBO Documentary, dir. Julie Anderson, 90 min, PG-13) is a documentary that spans the political history of the last half of the 20th Century with controversial Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, whose version of conservatism was originally considered “hard right” but gradually morphed into libertarianism as he cold-shouldered the religious right on the social issues. As for the famous nuclear war ad in 1964, Johnson became the warmonger in Vietnam. Goldwater is famous for his support for lifting the military gay ban in 1993. Blogger discussion is here.


The War on Democracy (2007, Lionsgate / Coach14 / Youngheart, dir. Christopher Martin and John Pilger, 96 min, PG-13) documents US policy undermining socialist or progressive governments in Latin America, most of all, Venezuela. Blogger.


Standard Operating Procedure (2008, Sony Pictures Classics / Participant, 118 min, R) a rather opulent look at the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2003, with much of the micro details recreated with actors (including the noose for Saddam Hussein at the end). The lower level enlisted people were the fall guys. Blogger review.

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008, InterPositive Media, dir. Stefan Forbes, 86 min). A biography of the famous GOP political operative, particularly his relationship with the first President Bush, and his death from a brain tumor. Blogger review.


Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag (2004, Stephen Low Company/ K2 Films, dir. Stephen Law, 41 min, IMAX) about Air Force and NATO maneuvers near Las Vegas. Blogger.


Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country  (2009, Oscilloscope/HBO, dir. Anders Ostergaard, 95 min), about the 2007 monk uprising in Burma (Myanmar). Blogger.


The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008, Summit/Constantin, dir. Uli Edel, Ger,amy. 150 min, NC-17) An unnarrated dodudrama of the Red Army Faction. Blogger.


The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2010, First Run, dir. Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, 94 min) Ellsberg, 78, narrates most of it. Blogger.


A Film Unfinished (2010, Oscilloscope, dir. Yael Hersonki) about a propaganda film attempted by Willy Wist in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942. Blogger.


Unforgettable: The Korean War (2010, PBS, dir. Kleespie). Blogger.

Related reviews:  13 Days  The Men Who Killed Kennedy  Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11  Hiroshima mon Amour, The Atomic Café, The War Game, Dr. Strangelove ; Black Hawk Down; Hotel Rwanda; Shake Hands with the Devil , Syriana, 9/11 movies   Blowback    (North Korea related): CNN: Inside the Secret State;  The Flower Girl  Apocalypto   Book: The Sara Jane Olson Story


Return to doaskdotell movies (reviews)

Return to home page


Email me at