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January / February 2009

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By Marc Leepson

If you didn’t get to see the hilarious Vietnam War movie parody Tropic Thunder in your local megaplex last summer, check out the DVD, which was released November 18. That is, if you’re in the mood for an over-the-top, slapstick send-up of the Hollywood glitz machine.

This is the film, which Ben Stiller co-wrote, directed, and stars in, that was accused of—among other things—demeaning people with “intellectual disabilities.” Playing a self-important, third-rate action film star, Stiller brags about his role as a mentally disabled guy in an awful movie he starred in to try to get people to take him seriously—and get an Oscar nomination.

Robert Downey, Jr., plays an egomaniacal Australian actor who has his skin dyed to play an African American in the movie within the movie. There was concern before the film opened about Downey playing in “black face,” with all the racial stereotyping that entailed.

And there was worry from some quarters that the lone Vietnam veteran in the film—good old Nick Nolte as Sgt. “Four Leaf” Tayback—was a one-dimensional “Nam vet” Hollywood stereotype.

No worries, though, about any of this. The whole movie is played for laughs and makes fun of arrogant, greedy, self-aggrandizing Hollywood types. The Stiller-Downey dialogue deals with their half-baked ideas about acting, not about making fun of the mentally challenged. The Downey character himself has some of the funniest lines—at the expense of his dopey idea of playing a black man. Plus, the real black guy in the squad (Brandon T. Jackson, playing rap star Alpa Chino), gets off tons of zingers at the Downey character’s expense.

And then there’s Nolte, who looks like the screwed-up Vietnam veteran from hell, a grizzled, cammie-wearing gray beard who lost both hands in the war and whose book on the topic is the subject of the movie. I started to bristle when I saw that his tattered uniform had unit patches from both the First Cav and the 82nd Airborne, and cringed at lines such as “beds give me nightmares,” when he was asked why he liked to sleep outdoors. Not to spoil the plot, let’s just say those concerns of mine vanished about halfway through the movie.

A few times it appeared as though things were getting serious, but no character got off more than one or two straight lines before something weird—and often weirdly funny—happened. That included Tom Cruise emoting like crazy as the studio exec from hell.

There is a ton of violence in the movie, accompanied by some graphic blood spattering that would not be out of place in a Rambo movie. That aside, Tropic Thunder is good, clean fun.

Well, not all clean. There is an abundance of fart jokes committed by Jack Black. I laughed at every one of them.


The documentary filmmaking husband-and-wife team of Cheryl and Patrick Fries, whom VVA honored with an Excellence in the Arts Award in 2004 for their first-rate In the Shadow of the Blade, has just finished another terrific Vietnam War doc: the informative and evocative A Touch of Home: The Vietnam War’s Red Cross Girls.

The film, which Cheryl Fries directed and wrote and Patrick Fries shot and edited, tells the story of the 627 young women who volunteered for the Red Cross Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas Program in Vietnam—or, as most GIs knew them, the “Donut Dollies.” The film features former Donut Dolly Holley Watts reading excerpts from her book, Who Knew? Reflections on Vietnam, along with present-day interviews with a dozen or so former Red Cross girls, comments from male Vietnam veterans, and lots of in-country footage and photos of the Donut Dollies.

“We tried to bring a touch of home to the combat zone,” Watts notes, and then the film shows how and why the women did just that in Vietnam. They brought good cheer (they were told to smile at all times), recreational games, soft drinks, and donuts to the troops, all the while sporting distinctive light blue mini dresses. It was a mixture of “idealism, the lure of adventure, and a minimal salary” that took us to Vietnam, one of the women notes. “None of us knew what we were getting into.”

The Donut Dollies traveled just about everywhere in South Vietnam, averaging about 17,000 air miles a month, taking their program to the troops in the field. Their job, one of the women said, “was to make people smile and take their minds off the war.”

The Fries’s film does a fine job of making this small but important segment of the Vietnam War come alive. To learn more about the film, including its availability on DVD and screenings, go to or email



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