Vietnam In HD

Vietnam In HD debuts tonight at 9 p.m. on History Channel.

Sometimes, a title can tell you a lot about a piece of media. Sometimes, it tells you virtually nothing. History's Vietnam In HD manages the impressive feat of doing both. The prominent positioning of “HD” in the title indicates that the visuals are the chief selling point, and that's entirely accurate. The documentary immediately describes how much of this footage is being published for the first time, and it matches the narration of the documentary perfectly.

But the vagueness of the “Vietnam” portion of the title also points to the difficulties the documentary faces and never quite overcomes: Its ambitions and its subject are almost impossible to handle in a linear, time-constrained media. The opening narration claims that Vietnam In HD will focus entirely on the words and stories of the American soldiers in the war, but that quickly proves impossible. It would be impossible in any war; one cannot tell the story of World War II without connecting the total war of the Nazi regime with its totalitarian politics, for example.

Even with that caveat, Vietnam is an especially difficult conflict to handle. The guerilla/fourth-generation warfare conducted makes conventional narrative impossible, as it's a constant series of patrols, ambushes, and village searches, with only occasional, largely irrelevant pitched battles. On the other hand, the social/political component of how the American soldiers react to the war is an absolutely necessary aspect of the story, included sporadically in the documentary. One quote from the very beginning of the first episode says “Even for me, it's hard to imagine how something on the other side of the world could affect one of us in San Bernardino.” Another describes the inevitable amorality of preferring one's friends' survival to the survival of the the South Vietnamese, ominously foreshadowing things like the My Lai Massacre.

Meanwhile, the political framing tries to stick with the bare facts of American involvement, but even that is fraught with loaded statements. A description of the Gulf Of Tonkin Incident makes reference to a “reported” second attack, with no mention that it's been heavily disputed since that reporting. The history of struggle in Vietnam is completely ignored, specifically the American replacement of the French colonizers or the famous battle of Dien Bien Phu.

This tension between the military and the social exists through the first two hours of the documentary. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, but it always makes the idea that this is just about the soldiers more difficult.

Which is not to say that Vietnam In HD doesn't succeed despite this. It's not likely to be spoken of in the same breath as Ken Burns' The Civil War, but it's not an unworthy successor. When the documentary actually does narrow its focus into the specific events, like the Battle of Ia Drang that serves as the climax of the first episode, it fulfills its mission statement admirably.

There are still some structural issues. The battle at Hill 875 starts out being given as direct a treatment as Ia Drang received in the first hour, but halfway through, it suddenly segues off into a discussion of the two-day breaks the soldiers on Search & Destroy missions received, followed by a description of how those missions worked and the aforementioned discussion of the tension between the American soldiers and South Vietnamese villagers, and then it returns to the battle. And if you were wondering, why yes, the doc does use “Somebody To Love” as the music for this interlude.

The music throughout the doc switches between period rock'n'roll of the sort we've become used to thanks to decades of Vietnam films and dramatic, generic background music behind the narration. Needless to say, one of these works better than the other. Likewise, Vietnam In HD uses a variety of different fairly famous actors to read many of its letters, but the people it focuses on the most often are still alive, leading to an odd conceit where the now-older person who wrote what's being quoted is speaking on-camera, and as the visuals cut away, the younger actor takes over. The opening credits prominently display the names of the actors, like Dean Cain, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Dylan McDermott, so it's understandable that History would use them to advertise, but it seems bizarre when the people being spoken for are obviously capable of saying exactly the same things. This is Vietnam In HD in a nutshell: There are some things that it does well, but the whole thing seems like it could be more coherent.

Stray observations:

  • “There are things about battle that movies cannot teach you, and that is the true horrendous noise of battle.” Joseph Gallaway, war correspondant, and one of the best parts of the first hour.
  • The doc refrains from direct criticism of how the war is run, but its description of the planning for Ia Drang and the “experimental” aerial mobility is fairly damning.
  • “That boy is my nightmare.” Gallaway again, with the strongest moment of the first two hours.
  • “For the first time in U.S. military history, victory will be measured not by territory taken, but by body count.”
  • Barry Romo, one of the soldiers highlighted, has a great scene where he describes an argument with his World War II veteran father about the relevance of the war.
  • A graphic display in the middle of the second hour: In World War II, soldiers averaged 10 days of combat a year; in Vietnam, 240 days.
  • “These are the people we're supposed to help, but they don't give a shit about helping us.”
  • “All they brought was the bare necessities: ammo, water, rations, and bodybags. Lots of 'em.”
  • “Of the 6000 original troops, only 1400 were killed.” Although the documentary maintains a generally neutral tone, words like “only” in the last sentence indicate the creepiness of trying to maintain that neutrality.
  • In the last two minutes of the second episode, we get a clue of the social upheaval that the war was triggering in the U.S.

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