Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Rumor of War (1980) 2.5 of 4

** this review contains spoilers about this based-on-truth miniseries **

Maybe this is a good time for watching and discussing Vietnam War movies: it looks increasingly likely the American electorate will never choose a Vietnam veteran to be president.  (Of our last four, Donald Trump is the third draft-evader; Barack Obama was too young to be eligible.)

After taping this off TBS in 1993 (thus the commercials for Children of the Corn II and Matinee), I finally watched this miniseries, much-praised on release as one of television's first serious treatments of the Vietnam War.  I probably saw a cut version (the broadcast was larded with commercials), but I got the gist of it.

John Sacret Young, who later co-created the Vietnam War TV series China Beach, adapted Marine Philip Caputo's memoir.  A product of small-town America and admirer of the late John F. Kennedy, Caputo became a Marine lieutenant after college, serving in Vietnam 1965-66.  Brad Davis stars as Caputo; the excellent cast also includes Keith Carradine, Brian Dennehy and Stacy Keach.  Richard Bradford gives a memorably satiric turn as Gen. Rupert, so immersed in his talking points he's aghast when reporters doubt his accuracy.

Amidst the usual scenes of male bonding and military manners, the film relates how young soldiers were driven half-crazy by a war in which they rarely knew where the enemy was, or even who, given the Viet Cong's lack of uniforms and uncanny skill to blend into the countryside.  The soldiers' stress and grief over fallen comrades climaxes in their murder of civilians, after which Caputo is subjected to Kafkaesque military justice.

My authority on Vietnam films is Michael Lee Lanning, via his 1994 book Vietnam at the Movies.  Lanning's a bit hawkish for me, but as a Vietnam veteran he at least knows what he's talking about.  A Rumor of War gets one of his more positive reviews, although he idly wishes for an equally good film about a green lieutenant who does not murder noncombatants.

As a doughy non-veteran, I found A Rumor of War worth watching, if superseded by the likes of Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and Full Metal Jacket.  (The Vietnam film that rocked me the most: 84 Charlie Mopic, which Lanning also raves about).  My main complaint was the lack of convincing combat scenes.  I understand that the film is arguing most of our troops in Vietnam were woefully ill-prepared for a task that may have been impossible, the main point being the maddening lack of direct confrontation.

Still, it seems unfair this lengthy film lacks any scenes of American men on the offensive, fighting valiantly.  Instead, they mostly patrol the countryside, then frantically try to survive when they're shot at or bombed, always from a distance.  As Lanning observes, most of the cast fail to make convincing Marines.  (Also, I'm pretty sure that real soldiers don't throw their hands in the air like synchronized cheerleaders every time a bomb explodes nearby.  Even if they do, it looked vaguely ridiculous here.)

Reading the respectful reviews from Lanning and other vets, I'd like to see an uncut version sometime.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by now, but this TV production is not on DVD in the U.S. (even the VHS releases had cuts).  If this were a theatrical movie, Hollywood would've by now released it multiple times, with each one a bit different to catch the double-dippers.  To me, such non-releases indicate U.S. television still struggles with self-contempt.

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