Vietnam at the Movies, 2020-21

Still from Da Five Bloods.

So, what do you think is going on? My friend was asking about the spate of new films about the war in Vietnam and the opposition to it. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods story of four veterans who return to Vietnam to dig for treasure and the body of their “fifth,” both left buried there, and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, a courtroom drama based on the 1968 trial of antiwar activists were contenders for Academy Awards, she pointed out. The release of FTA, the 1972 film documenting the Pacific-rim tour of military bases by entertainers opposed to the war had garnered Jane Fonda, one of the film’s stars, a March 4th spot on the Steven Colbert show.

The sidebar on my friend’s list had The Boys Who Said No about draft resisters, and a new release of the 2006 Sir! No Sir! that uncovered the hidden history of in-uniform G.I. resistance to the war.

And so, my friend wanted to know, why this interest now in a war that ended 50 years ago? And why such approbation—seven Oscar nominations for The Trial of the Chicago Seven, including best picture? Not happenstance, I averred. But then I was stuck.

It is not unusual for 50-year anniversaries to be recognized, and the extension of the war’s political and cultural impacts into the twenty first century virtually ordained reflections on it at the half-century mark. The historical momentum toward remembrance got presidential imprimatur when Barack Obama declared Memorial Day 2012 the beginning of a twelve-year effort to commemorate the war’s turning points from 1961 to 1973.

The President’s initiative touched-off conferences and newspaper columns recalling the 1965 landing of Marines at Da Nang, the 1967 March on the Pentagon to protest the war, and the 1968 My Lai Massacre. The Vietnam War produced for PBS by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in 1917 brought interest in the war to peak levels.

But was it these reminders of Vietnam that stirred the creative juices of Aaron Sorkin and Spike Lee? And was it the vision of a monetized history of the war that moved the suits at Netflix to start the money pumps for the distribution of Bloods and The Chicago 7? I had my doubts.

The Chicago trial followed events surrounding the August 1968 Democratic Party National Convention in the city. Police attacked protesters assembled to oppose the Party’s impending nomination of Senator Hubert Humphrey as its candidate for president. During the trial, defendant Bobby Seale, a leader of the Black Panther Party, demanded to represent himself. Judge Julius Hoffman ordered him bound, gagged, and eventually removed from the courtroom.

Screened in the context of Black Lives Matter demonstrations that followed the police killing of a Minneapolis black man, George Floyd, the federal government crackdown on those demonstrations, and widespread alarm at President Donald Trump’s disregard for longstanding norms of democratic political behavior, my hunch was that public and critical interest in The Chicago 7 was driven by the analogy created with its display of proto-fascist state behavior in 1968 and the events of a new election year, 2020. Was filmmaker Sorkin using Judge Hoffman to warn of second-term Donald Trump? Was a vote for a Democratic Party liberal more prudent?

I teased my friend: was the Chicago 7 more about the present than the past? Judge Hoffman a Trumpian premonition?

The Boys Who Said No raises the same question about the presentism subliminally present in a film about the past. Its title truncated from “Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No,” an anti-draft slogan from war years, is a playful reminder of the gendered challenges that draft-aged men faced during the war in Vietnam. But it tells the stories of draft resisters confronting the same State power we see in The Chicago 7. Two of them, Bruce Dancis and David Harris went to prison.

In its closing minutes, The Boys positions Harris in conversation with Mark Rudd, a leader of a militant breakaway of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) known as the Weather Underground; Rudd spent seven years on the run for a Greenwich Village explosion that killed three of his comrades. The message of their tête-à-tête was all about the 2020 election: votes for the Bernie Sanders Left would clear the way for the Trumpian Right.

Whereas the Chicago 7 and The Boys use the war in Vietnam as background to warn about abusive State power, Spike Lee’s use feeds the betrayal narrative for the loss of the war, the very narrative giving rise to Trumpian revanchism. Bloods replayed the Hollywood cliché of veterans going back to Vietnam to find something lost or left there—the storyline of “unfinished business.” The POW-rescue films dominated that genre, their subtext all about prisoners supposedly left behind in Vietnam, abandoned by Washington Insiders intent on postwar reapproachment with the Soviets and Chinese. It would be surprising if, subconsciously at least, Lee’s Bloods’ trip to the past did not rekindle the angst for those who did not come home.

For many Americans, the war is a Homerian coming-home story—and Spike Lee has it covered. We were spat on, says one Blood; we’re all broken says another. With imagery reverberant with Donald Trump’s call to Make America Great Again—by going back to the future—Spike Lee’s Bloods conjure a do-over of the last half-century as a salve for the present.

“Going back,” I told my friend implies there is something unsettling in the present that lurks in the past. Jane Fonda captured that sentiment in Sir! No Sir! with her rhetorical explanation for why the film’s look-back on G.I. resistance had been necessary. “Why do we go back?” she asked sardonically, “because they go back,” the pro-war hawks and military establishment. The “patriarchy,” as she put it, ruminates the defeat in Vietnam like a bad sandwich growling in its stomach through a night that will not end.

The defeat in Vietnam struck at a pillar of American manhood. Vietnam veterans would sometimes be chided by older veterans: they had won their war; Vietnam veterans had lost—what kind of men were they? And the fact that thousands of veterans had joined the campaign to end the war was an indictment of their loyalty, character, and masculinity. Critics of the antiwar movement held it responsible for erosion of American military morale and the emasculation of its warriors. Slogans like “Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say Know” sapped men’s will-to-war, they said.

The stage show FTA reached into the ranks of service members still in uniform, inspiring dissent in large and appreciative audiences wherever it went. When the war was over, it receded in American memory. But the phantasmagoria of veterans rejected, and POWs forsaken, remained lodged in the national psyche. Those mythologies displaced the realities, discomforting for militarists, that the war was lost when the troops turned against it, and the POWs truly forgotten are those whom, for reason of conscience, spoke out for peace even before their release and return from Hanoi.

The image of POWs left locked in bamboo cages—emblazoned on the POW-MIA flags that still fly on government buildings—was a powerful force in postwar revisionism. Government propaganda and popular culture cast them as hardcore heroes who had endured torture claims, and news reports that as many as 30 percent of the POWs had spoken out against the war while still held in Hanoi, were both dismissed as communist lies. Upon their release and return from Hanoi, the dissident POWs who maintained their conscientious rejection of the war were slandered as communist “dupes” who had succumbed to the stress and trauma of captivity—the anti-heroes in postwar mythology.

The war in Vietnam left a pool of angst and resentment, the kind of repressed emotion that quietly seethes until its hurts are avenged. The 2020-21 flurry of Vietnam-themed films tapped that reservoir for its market value. Doing so might have vented some anger; or it may have stirred some feelings better left dormant.

Your thoughts, my friend?

Jerry Lembcke is the author of nine books including The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (NYU Press, 1998), Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal (UMass Press, 2010), and Dissenting POWs: From Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison to America Today (Monthly Review Press, 2021. His The Cult of the Victim Veteran: MAGA Fantasies in Lost-War America came out with Routledge in July 2023. Jerry’s opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He has been a guest on several NPR programs including On the Media.