A painful journey into the past.
Tracy Droz Tragos was only three months old when her father, Naval Lt. Donald Droz, was killed in Vietnam. Thirty-some years later, while surfing the Internet, she stumbles upon a detailed account of his death. Wanting to finally understand the man she never really knew and reconnect with a loving, if guarded, mother, she asks about her dad. Thus begins a slow and painful journey into the past, into an era and a series of events that remain as influential and powerful to all the Droz family as they did back in 1969. The voyage of stark discovery starts in a rarely opened box of letters and mementos that Judy Droz Keyes keeps hidden, like her own feelings, in a secret place in the house. Merely opening the trunk unleashes a flood of pain, like tearing apart an old scar. The women then travel to Donald's hometown, where conversations with his family add more fuel to the wounded fire. There is a stop off in Washington D.C. to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (and a famous friend of Don's who is now a Senator). But Tracy still feels like she needs more. She meets with her father's roommates and friends from the Naval Academy at Annapolis. She locates the author of the Internet article and speaks to him. His account of that fateful day is devastating. Hoping for some closure, mother and daughter talk. But the grief is, once again, very real and the loss just as devastating. Tracy's tale is one of a family that never was, about a woman who lost both a husband and lover and about a little girl who grew up never knowing the man who wrote her of his undying love and fatherly pride. All she has are images and other people's memories. And his words, special sentiments like Be Good, Smile Pretty.
Those who think that Vietnam is an all-but-forgotten war, put in its proper place by those affected and influenced by it and merely tossed alongside history's other horrors, are fooling themselves. If anything, Be Good, Smile Pretty confirms that the bitter divide the controversial conflict caused is still very much at the surface of all who were part of its process, even some 40 years removed. You could argue that time heals all wounds, but that is simply not the case for those who served or lost loved ones in Southeast Asia. So be well forewarned: this is a very tough, emotional ride for everyone involved, and after just a few minutes, you too will find yourself weeping right along with the rest of the relatives. This very old lesion, this scab that this nation has worn for decades, is torn asunder in front of the video camera for everyone and anyone to see. For many, Vietnam was the last time America tried to break itself apart at the seams, for the pro and con of our involvement to dispense with normal life and fight along imaginary trenches for the heart of a nation's ideology. While that battle resulted in an unhappy tie, the issues that raged were buried like childhood traumas or the literal loss of loved ones. For many people, it was the only way to cope: grab a box or a trunk, hide it in an attic or basement, and deal with it another dark day. In the case of the Droz family, it was modern technology and ancient memories that begat the surprising rounds of emotional bombardment.
While daughter Tracy intends this film to be her expedition of discovery, it is really her mother, Judy, the high profile lawyer from San Francisco, who sets the tone and pace for this tale. Mom is a professional by trade, a monolith by relationship, and a basket case in private. She confesses to so many mixed feelings (anguish, guilt, sorrow, pain, anger) that the minute her courtroom façade breaks down, you can literally watch the years of torment wash over her in uncomfortable waves of unchecked despair. For her, the death of her first husband (she has since remarried) was the figurative end of one entire life. From there, she rebuilt herself in a new image, one of painful empowerment and widowed activist (she even led one of the largest anti-war marches on Washington—where she met her future spouse). So inside Judy Droz Keyes, there is still a never-resting clash going on, an internal war of devotion and denouncement, both social and personal, for the role her husband played in her family and in her future politics.
The other amazing aspect of Be Good, Smile Pretty is how the memory of Vietnam, and what happened to friends and fellow colleagues can reduce even the most stoic, media-savvy man or woman to a tentative, terrified youth. One of Donald Droz's friends during the war was Senator (and in 2004, candidate for President) John Kerry. As part of this odyssey, the Droz family goes to visit the high profile legislator, and within minutes of discussing his old chum, the stone face of party politics and Washington worry dissipates and, suddenly, Kerry is a kid again, an officer in the Navy fighting far overseas. As his eyes swell with tears and he discusses the last moments he spent with his friend, you feel the connection, both to the Drozes and to the other men and women who gave their lives back then. Similarly, a group of middle-aged businessmen entertain Tracey at a reunion for their unit. They seem well adjusted and jovial. But the minute she asks them to relive her father's final moments, it's as if a switch flips inside them, and the emotional turmoil of that time has resurfaced front and center and just as strong. You can literally see the suffering and stigma that the war left on them as it modifies their features.
Such visual evidence of Vietnam's devastation is all that Be Good, Smile Pretty really needs to work. The piecemeal approach to the story never really comes together until article author Peter Upton recounts Lt. Droz's mission and death. Then, like a slab of narrative glue, all the memories and letters and recollections come crashing together to devastating effect. Those who scoff at the importance of the Vietnam War as a defining moment in the US need only watch this film to be amazed and depressed by how easily its memory mutates proud, productive people into tormented, tortured souls. In the end, what Tracy discovers is not so much a father, but an entire hidden community of hurt, a tribe imbued with pain and passion that has lost none of its power. This is the legacy left by her father and all those who died (and protested the death) in bunkers, jungles, and the rivers of Asia. And it is all she has of the man who wasn't around to raise her, but definitely influenced almost all aspects of her, and a nation's, life. Like all good documentaries, Be Good, Smile Pretty transcends its personal truth to say something universal about the nature of things. And the epiphany here is both bittersweet and blessed. Every horrible event needs closure. But you can't settle what hasn't been started.
Docurama, as usual, treats Be Good, Smile Pretty with dignity and delicacy. The 1.33:1 Full Screen image is clear and crisp, with any defects in color or lighting the result of video camera source issues, not the transfer. The Dolby Digital Stereo utilizes some nice ambiance (the sound effects and the playback of old tapes) to support the crystal-clear narrative and overhead conversations. As for context, among the resource guides, filmmaker statement, and crew biographies, there are a couple of wonderful extras that really stand out. First, we are treated to a plethora of interview features, divided into sections. One offers individuals like Tracy, the children who lost fathers in the war (most of them speak at the beginning of the film), and the other highlights the war veterans themselves. Having a chance to hear each subject separately and in full makes the previous portrait painted by Droz that much more amazing. She manages to encapsulate so many of these sagas in the small sound bites that she uses in the movie that there is really no need for the extra words. But they themselves are so touching and tender, so fraught with fear and the forlorn, that they almost create their own film. Clocking in at almost 38 minutes (the movie itself is only 56 minutes), this is a weighty addition to the package. Together with a marvelous, very personal photo gallery, the bonuses really accentuate the film.
As a moving tribute to her father, his fellow veterans and the family that they all left behind, Tracy Droz Tragos' Be Good, Smile Pretty is an overwhelming portrait of the Vietnam War, both on the battlefield and at home. It is a stunning work that makes the POW/MIA motto resonate all the more profoundly: You Are Not Forgotten. Thanks to brave individuals like Tracy, truer sentiments couldn't be expressed.
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