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Millarium Zero presents
Winter Soldier (1972)

"Don't ever let your government do this to you."
- A Vietnam veteran, testifying about his experiences in war, in 1971

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: May 15, 2006

Stars: Joe Bangert, Scott Camil, Evan Haney, John Kerry, Michael Oliver, Rusty Sachs
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:35m:26s
Release Date: May 30, 2006
UPC: 784148010045
Genre: documentary


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- ABB B+

DVD Review

More than three decades since the helicopters left the roof of the American embassy in what is now Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnam War and its legacy and lessons remain hotly contested, surfacing only most recently in the 2004 Presidential campaign. Was it the overreaching of American empire? The counterculture sapping the resolve of the honorable fighting men? A cautionary tale about not devoting enough manpower and materiel, or one about the perils of fighting a guerrilla insurgency on its home soil? For many the rage of those years is still palpable, and resonates still today; for others, it's a dimly remembered history lesson, more Oliver Stone than David Halberstam, with a rocking soundtrack. Winter Soldier is particularly useful in stripping away some of the myths about Vietnam, allowing us to hear unvarnished war stories from the soldiers themselves, and it's got a particular new relevance, as the U.S. fights on in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The focus of the documentary is a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and their assembly in January and February of 1971, at which vet after vet offered testimony about the horrors they had seen and participated in against Vietnam and its citizens. It wasn't an investigation, wasn't sanctioned by the government, and didn't purport to be either even-handed or exhaustive. But what it seems to have been is purgative for the veterans involved, finally getting a chance to relate what happened, and to expose what soon became known as the credibility gap—that is, the chasm between the successes the military brass were reporting and the experiences of soldiers on the ground. Most of the movie is little more than close-ups of vets telling their stories, so it may not be cinematographically intense, but it is galvanizing. Their horrific tales about torching Vietnamese villages, maiming, raping and killing Vietnamese for sport, tossing POWs out of airplanes, their wrists bound with copper wire, are generally related almost dispassionately, with a fierce amount of ironic distance—how else can you make sense of the hideous things you witnessed and participated in?

The film occasionally cuts to snapshots of the men in country, and the contrasts are startling—fatigues and brush cuts have been thrown over in favor of long hair and moustaches, and no shortage of unfortunate, long early-70s sideburns, and the fresh-faced and eager now are world-weary and sanguine. Even the occasional graphic photo of the injured or the dead aren't as powerful as these men bearing witness—they're not there to plead for forgiveness and understanding, but only to be heard, to spare others the soul-killing experiences they've been through.

Of course one can't determine from this film alone whether or not these stories are representative of all Vietnam veterans; and out in the lobby, between sessions, a couple of the speakers are harangued by some black vets, who rightly point out that the panels we've been watching have been almost exclusively white, and that racism—against both African Americans in the service and the people of Vietnam—hasn't been addressed. That doesn't mitigate the power of what's here, though, and viewing this from our vantage point, the parallels between these stories and those coming out of Abu Ghraib, for instance, are staggering. There's sure to be the obligatory partisan rancor and noise over this movie, too, for one of the organizers of the event, seen briefly at the beginning of the film, is John Kerry. But sending young Americans into harm's way, and putting their lives and their souls on the line, isn't—or at least shouldn't be—a party-line issue. No doubt the vets of this most recent war will for decades be sorting through the psychological shards of their experiences in Iraq, and, as this documentary makes clear, there are lessons here that we might have learned but, to our discredit, did not.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The black-and-white footage is grainy and scratched, but the transfer seems to have been done reasonably well.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: Lots of buzz, but all the words are audible.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, German with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. stills gallery
Extras Review: A strong package of extras provides illumination and context for the feature. A Conversation with the Filmmakers (18m:12s) is a recently recorded roundtable with a dozen or so of the documentarians who worked on the film, which doesn't carry any credits—they discuss their political activism of the period and the evolution of documentary craft, coming together so devastatingly here. Some of the filmmakers seem to be loosened up by the glasses of red wine in front of them; others, forever true to their calling, are filming the event in which they are participating.

Seasoned Veteran (40m:14s) is a closer look at Scott Camil, one of the vets getting the most screen time in the feature—made in 2002, it provides more background on him, a more conventional narrative on his illusions about serving his country being crushed first in basic training, and then in Southeast Asia. It also documents his decades-long involvement in anti-war movements, and he's quite a character—he's also the subject of a Graham Nash song, Oh Camil (The Winter Soldier), which you can listen to here (02m:56s).

Two shorter documentaries from the same period, even occasionally using some of the same footage, look like dry runs for Winter SoldierAmerical Division (24m:35s) and First Marine Division (17m:19s) are both powerful, but in some ways are just as interesting for a look at the editors finding the rhythms that work so successfully in the full-length film. A stills gallery is jammed with images from the testimony and simultaneous protests up through the movie's August 2005 screening at Lincoln Center, at which many of the filmmakers and interview subjects were in attendance, and the trailer is for the 2005 re-release.

Finally, the DVD-ROM content consists of seven PDF files, including a couple of introductions to the movie; Scott Camil's redacted military file, and 323 pages of FBI files on him as well, obtained presumably through a Freedom of Information Act request; and the full text of John Kerry's testimony.

Extras Grade: B+

 

Final Comments

A sobering, necessary look at young men and war, and the price we ask young soldiers to pay in pursuit of goals drawn up around conference tables and in war rooms. And sadly, it's just as relevant today as it was 35 years ago, and probably will be still, generations from now.

 


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