The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

June/July 2002
ARTS OF WAR
   
 

LBJ As A Tragic Figure In HBO's Docudrama, Path To War

BY MARC LEEPSON
 

You have to give the folks at HBO Films credit. They spent a huge amount of money getting a first-rate cast and filmmaking crew - including the always excellent director John (The Manchurian Candidate) Frankenheimer - to put together Path to War, a high-minded docudrama about President Lyndon Johnson's crucible of Vietnam War policy-making. They succeeded in many respects, creating a movie that shows the deep complexity of the man and of the relentless forces that drove him to wage a limited war in Vietnam.

The film - which HBO premiered May 18 and which will run June 14, 19, 24, and 29 - succeeds on several levels. Screenwriter Daniel Giat accomplishes his expository scenes deftly, quickly, and credibly, introducing a large cast of characters and a wide range of political and military issues. The portrait that emerges is that of a constantly put-upon and frustrated Lyndon Johnson who slides from elation and triumph following the 1964 presidential election to depression and failure after Tet 1968.

Johnson, the film makes very clear, wanted to fight the war against poverty - not the war in Vietnam. But he was forced into making decisions based on political expediency (pressure from powerful hawks in Congress, for example) and on the advice from his supposedly best and brightest advisers, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Advisers McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow. These four, along with the top Pentagon brass, are the bad guys in this film. Johnson, torn in different directions, comes out looking more tragically put upon than evil. The only heroic figure is Under Secretary of State George Ball (Bruce McGill), who constantly warned LBJ against escalating the war in Vietnam, only to be ignored.

A group of first-rate actors help things immeasurably by turning in very believable performances. That goes especially for the star of the show, the accomplished Brit actor Michael Gambon, who resembles LBJ. Gambon, however, doesn't try to impersonate the larger-than-life Texan so much as he becomes the highly conflicted character. Alec Baldwin makes a convincingly hard-charging and arrogant Robert McNamara. Donald Sutherland's performance of the brilliant and powerful Clark Clifford is exceptionally true to life.

And, as a treat for those of us who follow the Vietnam War film genre closely, three supporting characters are played - and played well - by actors who made their marks in memorable roles in war movies. Frederic Forrest, the spaced-out Chef in Apocalypse Now, turns up here as the bald, blustering, tubby Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Earle Wheeler. Tom Skerritt, one of the iconoclastic docs in Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, makes a believably clueless Gen. William Westmoreland. And Gary Sinese, so memorable as Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump, turns in a top-notch performance as Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

On the negative side, none of the actors portraying the Johnsons were able to come up with anything close to a convincing Texas accent. But that's a minor quibble. Path to War is as good a film on this subject as we have had. Anyone interested in finding out the basics of how the Johnson administration followed the path to that disastrous war will find this film instructive and entertaining.

MICHAEL CONNELLY SPEAKS

We had a chance to talk with best-selling novelist Michael Connelly when he was on a recent tour promoting his latest LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch procedural, City of Bones (see "Books in Review''). The conversation centered on how Connelly conceived Bosch, a former tunnel rat in the Vietnam War, and how Bosch's service in Vietnam influenced his emotional life and his profession.

"In the late eighties I was trying to put together a detective novel and decided to make the detective a Vietnam veteran because it had some significance for me,'' Connelly, 45, told us. "I was going through high school at the time of the war. People ahead of me had gone and not come back.'' Bosch, he said, "comes from all over. The reason he's a Vietnam vet was I was trying to get a sense of accuracy in the character I was going to create. I was a reporter for the L.A. Times, and I was covering the crime of the day. And a high percentage - about 85 percent - of the homicide detectives I worked with were veterans, and of them, about half were Vietnam veterans.''

Why did he make Harry a tunnel rat? "I had a tunnel phobia when I was a kid,'' Connelly said. "There was a tunnel you had to crawl through as a rite of passage. When it got to be time for my turn, I had dreams and claustrophobia. Luckily, we moved before I had to do it. Also, a man who worked for my father had been a tunnel rat. He had a full beard to cover the scars he had gotten, and he would not talk about the experience. That made me interested in it.''

In 1987, a group of thieves dug a tunnel from one of LA's storm drains into a bank and looted it. Connelly covered the story. "As a police reporter, I was able to get details about how they did it,'' he said. "And then all of these different things came into one. I knew my guy [Bosch] was a Vietnam vet. I had this interest in tunnel rats, and then came this tunnel robbery, and it all came together in a book.'' That book was Connelly's first published novel, the best selling The Black Echo.

How did Harry's difficult time in the war influence his character and how did his rough upbringing fit in? "I'm just trying to reflect what I know and what I see. That's how Harry came out,'' Connelly said. "He's got lots of conflicts, but they're rooted in what happened to him before he went.''

DOUGLAS PIKE, 1924-2002

Douglas Pike, 77, an internationally renowned expert on the Vietnam War, died May 13 in Lubbock, Texas. Pike, the former director of the Indochina Studies Project at the University of California, Berkeley, went to Vietnam as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in 1960 and became perhaps the West's leading expert on the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.

He was the author of several books, including the seminal Viet Cong: The Organization and Techniques of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (1966), and was the long-time editor of The Indochina Chronology, a quarterly he founded in 1982. Pike moved his mammoth collection of millions of pages of Vietnam War documents, books, monographs, and slides to the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University in 1997 and became its associate director.

ARTS IN BRIEF

Hollywood producers Robert Michael Geisler and John Roberdeau (The Thin Red Line) in April bought the film rights to Sen. John McCain's best-selling autobiography, Faith of My Fathers. If asked, Sen. McCain said, he would cast Robert Duvall as his father, Adm. John Sidney McCain, and Ed Norton, Jr., as himself as a young Navy flyer who was shot down over North Vietnam and held captive in the Hanoi Hilton.

The Viet Nam War Generation Journal was named one of the Top Ten Best New Magazines of 2001 by Library Journal. The new issue (Vol. I, No. 4) of the journal - the only regularly produced compendium of poetry, fiction, and essays about the Vietnam War - contains another excellent assortment of work. Among the best: Ruben Quintero's well-rendered Vietnam War memoir, "A Soldier Tells His Wounds'' and Walter Jones's insightful analysis of former Navy Corpsman D.S. Lliteras' trilogy of Vietnam War-influenced novels.

Ballantine Books, a division of New York publishing giant Random House, acquired Presidio Press, the California publisher that specializes in military history, on February 19. Presidio publishes about two dozen new hardcover and trade paperbacks a year, a good percentage of them dealing with Vietnam War topics.

In an interview in February in The New York Times, Biff Henderson, David Letterman's genial and self-effacing stage manager and occasional straight man, mentioned that he served with the Army in Vietnam after getting a degree in business administration from Hampton Institute in Virginia. Henderson, 55, did not offer details about his tour of duty, other than to say: "One of the things Vietnam taught me, I hate conflict because of that.''

Honky-tonk country music legend George Jones's latest album, The Rock: Stone Cold Country 2001 (Bandit/BMG), contains 50,000 Names, a country weeper that is a tribute to those who perished in the Vietnam War. Jones, who served in the Marines in World War II, released the song, which was written by Jamie O'Hara, as a single and video early in March. "Those boys that died and are missing in Vietnam gave everything for their country,'' Jones said. "I don't think, as a nation, we can be proud of how we dealt with the Vietnam veteran situation. I think we need to remember those boys.''

The performance piece,  Daughter of a Pacifist Soldier, by choreographer Tamar Rogoff, which opened in December in New York's La Mama E.T.C. theater, is based on interviews Rogoff did with five veterans being treated for PTSD at the VAMC in Manhattan. Two of the veterans served in the Vietnam War. The piece consists primarily of individual dancers performing to recorded voices of veterans telling their stories, while photographs of the veterans appear in the background. They are based on letters Rogoff's father wrote to her mother during World War II.

AUTHOR QUERIES

Lisa Granatstein is working on a project for a book that would reunite Vietnam veterans with their Zippo lighters. In doing so, she would like to discuss the Zippos' value and significance and get information such as where the owners served and what they used their lighters for. She also envisions photos of veterans and their lighters in the book. Granatstein has located a few veterans but wants to hear from more. If you'd like to help, send an e-mail to deadline320@earthlink.net

The Mancelona Historical Society in Michigan is collecting stories and pictures of veterans for a book. Proceeds from its sale will be used to start a museum. VVA Life Member Lona King is in charge of the project. If you're interested, write: 6975 W. Blue Lake Rd., NE, Kalkaska, MI 49646-9496.

MEMORIAL HELP

VVA Chapter 57 in Grand Junction, Colorado, has been one of the primary supporters of the soon-to-be-built Western Slope Vietnam War Memorial Park in Fruita, Colorado. The memorial, scheduled to be dedicated July 4, 2003, is looking for donations for construction costs. Contact: PO Box 340, Fruita, CO 81521; e-mail: doody@gj.net, or go to www.gj.net/fieldofdeams.

The Committee for a Veterans Memorial Park in Detroit, which will be located near VVA Chapter 9's building in the Motor City, is raising funds for the project. For more information about the memorial, which is being heavily supported by the chapter, contact 2951 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48201, 313-832-0168 (phone) or go to www.vetsmemorial.com

   

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