History Channel // 2011 // 282 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Rogers (Retired) // January 14th, 2012
"It's not the war we know. It's the war they fought."
"There are some events that are so overwhelming you can't simply be a witness. You can't be above it, you can't be neutral, you can't be untouched by it. Simple as that. You see it, you live it, you experience it. And it will be with you all of your days." -- Joe Galloway
Following up their Emmy winning documentary series, WWII in HD, the History Channel brings us Vietnam in HD. This documentary uses rarely seen archival footage to tell the stories of thirteen people who experienced the war from different perspectives and will forever remain changed. The story is told in six distinctive parts:
* "The Beginning (1964-65)"
* "Search and Destroy (1966-67)"
* "The Tet Offensive (1968)"
* "An Endless War (1968-69)"
* "A Changing War (1969-70)"
* "Peace With Honor (1971-75)"
What I know of the Vietnam War, I know from the films of Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone, and Francis Ford Coppola. The violently sadistic yet beautiful maelstrom of images and sounds within Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket formed my first real basis for the war; seeing as my father was too young and my grandfather too old to fight in Vietnam. It was on one of those days when I had the house to myself, and instead of sneaking into my dad's private boxes to look at pornography like every other boy my age, I raided the VHS cabinet to watch those films I knew I shouldn't be watching.
I knew nothing of the country itself, the reason for our occupation, or the political and social upheaval that followed. I saw the war through the eyes of the grunt as he came to grips with a foreign land where death was forever at his back and where sanity went to die. I saw men lose their innocence and morph into monsters. I experienced my first real understanding of the meaning of death in the most horrific of ways. There was no glorification of war or death, no John Wayne heroics, no happy ending where the hero returns home a man. It's a stark realization that resurfaces any time I think about the war in general. It's an experience that will forever stay with me and shape the way I view war and the men who fight them.
I only wish this program had the same effect on me, considering it was all about putting us in the boots of the common grunt. Sadly, its impact is a soft whimper. But is it really any surprise that three masters of cinema can create something so sublimely arresting in its ferocity, while a television network far past its prime and veering into lunacy can give us something so middling and uninspired?
Vietnam in HD should be a staggering account of America's most divisive war from multiple perspectives. It should be compassionate and incendiary, infuriating and dramatic in equal bounds and at many times it is. Yet it ends up being too familiar far too often. The show employs a scatter-shot approach with its aim that is both its strength and weakness. As an exhaustive history behind the Vietnam War in both its lead up and aftermath, this documentary is sorely lacking. The show decides to neglect the history behind France's colonialist involvement in Vietnam entirely, while also glossing over the reasons behind the formation of the Viet Cong and the Cold War implications that fueled our involvement. It's a somewhat inspired idea to simulate authenticity, but it only works in flits and flutters.
Michael C. Hall seems an impressive choice to narrate this documentary and I'm sure executives at the History Channel were slapping themselves on the back for their stroke of genius. After all, His cold and calculating narration on Dexter is viciously enthralling. Unfortunately, that same emotionless monotone doesn't translate here. He constantly comes across as distant and unfeeling in places he should be engaging. On top of that, the choice to have a real life soldier read from his own accounts and then transition the narration to a host of rotating high profile actors is both strange and distracting. There's more impact hearing it from the mouths of those who lived it, not those who are plying their craft of emotional manipulation to sound endearing.
But regardless if the footage and the stories seem so familiar, it's still viscerally emotional to hear these soldiers recount their trials and tribulations in a war they ended up being vilified for. To see these men choke back tears as they describe the horrors of what they experienced and the staggering ways in which they were forever changed is humbling to say the least. That these words are accompanied by beautiful high definition footage with just the right amount of grain only helps to heighten the impact. There's a reason why beauty and destruction go so well together.
The series also captures the feel of the era both abroad and domestically very well. The political and social upheaval in America after the Tet Offensive has been covered to death in every form of media available for some time, but with some of this new archival footage and an approach that isn't condescending or cynical, Vietnam in HD at times makes the viewer angry and frustrated along with those rallying in the streets of America. And yet you also feel heart broken for the returning soldiers, barely coping with what they've been through, as they're spit on and vilified by the country they served. It's a hard thing to artfully capture both sides of that dichotomy. Most films opt for doing one perspective or the other. Luckily, Vietnam in HD captures both.
In terms of the video presentation, this AVC-encoded 1.78:1/1080p high definition transfer can be startlingly beautiful. The lush jungles of Vietnam with their multilayered depths of green fauna lend themselves exquisitely to the Blu-ray format. When paired with blooms of napalm and tracer rounds, things become staggering. And yet this is also archival footage where the source material ranges from well shot and preserved to a muddled 8mm mess. Grain levels for scenes range from sublimely cinematic to annoyingly muddled and marred with dirt and damage. It's obviously a forgivable offense because no collection of archival footage, especially some of which is over 50 years old, is going to be reference quality. But the biggest offense is that more than a few segments of the footage have been stretched to fit the widescreen format. It's even stranger considering that other footage has been correctly matted within the 1.78:1 image. It reeks a little bit of laziness.
To make up for the odd matting issues, the set comes with a very solid 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The mix is surprisingly crisp on the front end in terms of the dialogue and main action, while the back channels play wonderfully with the ambient noises of war and nature. It's almost enough to make up for the fact that this set comes completely devoid of special features. I understand this is a documentary and the people behind it have included all they wanted to say within the show itself. But give the consumer something. A trailer, a collection of extended interviews, maybe a commentary with the director to see what they were trying to capture with this footage...anything.
Vietnam in HD (Blu-ray) is not nearly as effective as it could have been, but for a network still enthralled with ancient aliens, Mayan apocalypse theories, and decoding Dan Brown novels...this documentary is a step in the right direction.
Guilty for not being enough.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 282 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated