Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Bright Shining Example of Cable Television Film Making: "A Bright Shining Lie" (1998)

Based on a true story, this made for cable television movie is both a heavy indictment of our involvement in Vietnam and a rallying story of American patriotism.

Bill Paxton plays Army colonel John Paul Vann. In March 1962, he is sent to Vietnam as a military advisor. The advisors are supposed to be hands-off instructors, helping the South Vietnamese drive back the North Vietnamese. Vann is looking for action and he knows Vietnam is going to be a hot spot. He is right in more ways than he will ever know.

Vann leaves his wife Mary Jane (Amy Madigan) in the States with his young children, and immediately takes up with English language teacher Lee (Vivian Wu). We learn that Vann has little respect for his marriage vows, and sleeping around is in his nature. Right away, the wool is being pulled over everyone's eyes, as photos of dead Viet Cong are being doctored to increase the number of dead the South Vietnamese are "killing." Vann repeatedly butts heads with South Vietnamese brass, and after a disastrous raid that kills many undertrained South Vietnamese as well as some of the "advisors," Vann goes to reporter Steven Burnett (Donal Logue). Vann has had it with the corruption, and pours his heart out to Burnett, who prints the story.

Vann is taken on a tour of briefings around Washington, where he comes up with a new strategy for the Vietnam War- win the hearts and minds of the peasants and they will stay on our side. He is rejected by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and resigns in protest. Vann and Mary Jane work on their deteriorating marriage, and see a counselor (Richard Libertini). Vann seems to be a sex addict, and it stems from a deep dark secret involving his mother. JFK is assassinated, and Vann tries to get back into Vietnam after Johnson begins increasing troop presence there. He is offered a job with Civilian Aid, and sent back to Vietnam, where he is assisted by Doug (Eric Bogosian) to help the people there. Corruption is now rampant as the Americans fix a school's leaky roof. In the meantime, he offends the local criminal colonel Dinh (Les J.N. Mau), who kills Vann's native staff and orders the bombing of the village in retaliation.

Vann launches a campaign against the corruption, still preaching his idea about helping the people directly. He finds out his mother dies, and returns for her funeral. We find out why he treats women the way he does, his murdered mother was a prostitute. Mary Jane asks for a divorce, and Vann heads back to Vietnam. He also shuns Lee, getting another local girl pregnant and marrying her. Doug returns to the states, where he becomes an anti-war demonstrator. Vann predicts the Tet Offensive, but General Westmoreland (Kurtwood Smith) ignores him. The Offensive is defeated, and Westmoreland is out. Vann soon finds himself a civilian running things in a capacity normally reserved for active duty officers. He is referred to as a senior advisor, and finally gets his own battle and routs the enemy troops in a daring maneuver involving carpet bombing of his own location. On the way back from a medal ceremony, Vann is killed in an unceremonious helicopter crash due to poor weather, ten years after arriving in Vietnam.

Bill Paxton is probably the last actor you would think of to play a major part like this, but he pulls it off. His style is so laid back, he makes his character more real than some other performer who might spend the whole film chewing the scenery and making little scenes that could be shown to the Emmy nominations committee. Amy Madigan is good in the clicheed long suffering wife role, and Donal Logue is okay as the reporter. My problem was more with the character of Lee than Vivian Wu's portrayal. The character is completely unnecessary, and I could not figure out what her function in the film was.

Despite the self important title, the film is surprisingly not anti-military. Paxton has a great line to Logue at the end, where he blames the Vietnam War on Kennedy and all the reporters who said we should be there to help these poor unfortunate people in the first place, then these same reporters worked to end the war by questioning why we were there in the first place. Westmoreland is clearly portrayed as less than effective, the South Vietnamese military cannot seem to put one foot in front of the other, but Vann is no saint either. His sexual dysfunction and personal ambition cloud his judgement.

George wrote and directed the film, and his budget seems to be larger than your average cable film. He handles the war scenes with appropriate horror and gore, and the Thailand locations work perfectly.

No matter what your politics are, this film addresses a number of issues. The people involved and the constant change of strategy (the press conference after Westmoreland's departure is a comedy of semantics) all cloud the fact that, according to end credits, almost 60,000 U.S. troops and close to a million Vietnamese died in the conflict.

While we pay attention to our dying World War II generation, we should also be getting the stories of our Korean, Vietnam, and later war veterans. Waiting until these veterans get their own "Saving Private Ryan" will prove too late. "A Bright Shining Lie" is another thought provoking war film that I highly recommend. (* * * * *) out of five stars.