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BAM film series looks at the Vietnam War on film

for The Brooklyn Paper

The Vietnam War was the first conflict fought in the full glare of cameras - not only still photographers, who had first chronicled the Civil War, but also television news crews, brought the war into the homes of millions, eventually helping to turn the tide against our beleaguered involvement.

Side by side with journalistic coverage of Vietnam were the movies. Right from the beginning, documentary and feature filmmakers found fertile ground in this many-sided war, of which the month-long series "From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War on Film" (Nov. 1-30 at the BAMCinematek), provides a vivid reminder.

As the program notes state, "From Hanoi to Hollywood" is only a selective program. The war compelled so many diverse artists to present their stories and viewpoints that a comprehensive series would run many months.

Headlining the series are several seminal feature films that, for better or worse, are what most people remember about that era. First, there was the initial wave of Hollywood-ized versions of the war, starting in the late ’70s.

Three of those features were released in 1978: "Go Tell the Spartans" (Nov. 17), a sober fictionalization of U.S. adviser involvement prior to the war’s escalation; "Coming Home" (Nov. 8), which won Oscars for Jane Fonda and Jon Voight, starring in the first glimpse at what returning soldiers dealt with; and "The Deer Hunter" (Nov. 3, Nov. 23), Michael Cimino’s Oscar-winning Best Picture, an epic vision of how distant war destroys close-knit lives, friendships and communities.

Lost in the shuffle when it appeared early in 1979, Milos Forman’s adaptation of the Broadway musical "Hair" (Nov. 28, Nov. 29) seemed too little, too late in its idealized vision of ’60s flower children; seen now, it’s a quaint but valuable relic of a bygone era, with an unexpectedly touching climax.

When Francis Ford Coppola’s "Apocalypse Now" was finally unveiled at Cannes in May 1979, it was anticlimactic: psychologically and philosophically murky if visually splendid, often making war look beautiful. Coppola’s confused take on Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness" at least tried something grandiose, a fact borne out by the 2001 re-release, "Apocalypse Now Redux" (Nov. 30), over an hour longer and more grandiose, but no more satisfying.

Hollywood’s second wave of ’Nam films, in the mid-’80s, was led by Oliver Stone’s "Platoon" (Nov. 2), which won the 1986 Best Picture Oscar. Stone’s ability to convey warfare with immediacy and passion spoke to audiences unwilling to search for deeper meanings and metaphors, and Stone followed that with 1989’s more adventurous "Born on the Fourth of July" (Nov. 27), an honest attempt to present the entire Vietnam experience - before, during and after the war - through one character, outspoken activist-veteran Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise).

Stanley Kubrick’s masterly "Full Metal Jacket" (Nov. 10, 11) is set during Vietnam, but its brutal dissection of how the military breaks down young men and rebuilds them as efficient killing machines is a scathing indictment of all war. Matthew Modine - who will be present for a Q&A following the 7 pm showing on Nov. 10 - makes a haunting transformation from decent, affable young man to soulless murderer.

Also compelling viewing are the documentaries, where many outspoken war critics committed their beliefs to celluloid.

Emil de Antonio’s 1969 "In the Year of the Pig" (Nov. 5) traces the roots of American involvement in Southeast Asia to award-winning and vastly influential effect: it became the cinematic Bible for many in the quickly burgeoning anti-war movement.

And 1971’s "Basic Training" (Nov. 14) is another clear-eyed Frederick Wiseman study of traditional Americana, its blandly descriptive title belying its value as an historical and social document.

One of the greatest documentaries ever made, Peter Davis’ "Hearts and Minds" - which won the 1974 Best Documentary Oscar - is a searing, powerful experience that places side by side U.S. cultural indifference to the Vietnamese and our military arrogance, both of which led us into the quagmire, just like the French before us. Davis will present a Q&A after the 6:30 pm screening on Nov. 15.

In these politically and morally ambiguous times, seeing how fictional and documentary filmmakers approached the equally troubling complexities of what was one of our darkest hours is a way to reflect on our own possible future ... or will we be doomed to (again) repeat history?


"From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War on Film" runs Nov. 1-30 at the BAMCinematek, 30 Lafayette Ave. Several Q&As and director or actor appearances are scheduled. Call (718) 636-4100 or visit on the Web for tickets and further information.

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