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Sir! No Sir!
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by Jay Seaver

"Not everyone just followed orders."
4 stars

Most movie watchers can recite the standard narrative about about the American experience in Vietnam with little prompting: Naive Americans are sent overseas not knowing what they're getting into. They witness horrors as the war is waged from Washington by people who don't understand it, while the peace movement at home slowly makes remaining in Vietnam politically unviable. And then, when they come home, the GIs are ostracized. The thing is, at least as "Sir! No Sir!" tells it, this story is at best incomplete and at worst a fabrication.

The omission, as filmmaker David Zeiger points out, is that the peace movement was not just a factor on the homefront. The Vietnam war saw an unprecedented amount of soldiers refusing orders, undergrounds newspapers and organizations within the army, and open mutiny. The film ends with a deconstruction of the oft-repeated myth of soldiers being spat upon as they returned home. Throughout, it is documented by primary sources, soldiers recounting their own experiences both on bases and on the front lines.

The film tackles the stories of various soldiers in roughly chronological order, starting with Donald Duncan, a decorated Green Beret who resigned his commission in 1966 after a fifteen month tour in Vietnam. He describes his realization that his professionalism was being twisted for bad ends as seeing that "I was doing it right, but I wasn't doing right." He wrote an article in a military magazine; the next subject, Dr. Howard Levy, disobeyed his orders to train other soldiers in basic dermatology. He couldn't live with the idea that he'd be helping attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese after the army destroyed their villages. For this he was court-martialed and sent to the stockades at San Francisco's Presidio.

We spend a fair amount of time focusing on that military prison, which is soon bursting at the seams with AWOLs, protesters, and any soldier who speaks and acts against the war effort. We revisit it with Randy Rowland, then an army medic who started out as an AWOL and wound up facing a life sentence for singing "We Shall Overcome" in the exercise yards. We're also shown coffee shops near stateside army bases designed so soldiers could feel free to discuss their views on the war without officers looking over their shoulders, and the mimeographed underground newspapers that were often harshly critical of the war effort.

These stories are mostly told by the people involved, thirty years after the fact. It's interesting to note the veterans chosen to tell their stories: By and large they're rugged grandfather types in their earlier sixties. Duncan, already a decorated officer in '66, is probably the oldest man we see, and he's got a stare that could back someone down; several of "the WORMS" (standing for "We Openly Resist Military Stupidity", they were communications and intelligence officers in the mid-seventies) are in their early fifties. It's worth noting because it seems Zeiger has made a deliberate effort to avoid frail, injured vets; you won't see any missing limbs or people weak from cancer here. The idea is that these men are heroes whose actions changed the course of the war, so they're not going to be portrayed as victims. Rowland is a bearded, almost jolly tour guide to his former prison, and when the film gets to Billy Dean Smith, an African-American GI tried for "fragging" an officer, we don't see him directly, despite being told that he's alive and living on the streets/in prison at the tie of filming - his story is told by his sister and lawyer.

The film also spends what seems like a lot of time on the Jane Fonda/Donald Sutherland "FTA" shows. Commercially, I suppose, you almost have to - Fonda's a celebrity willing to talk about her activism on camera (compared to Sutherland, who doesn't appear), and it's archival footage to break up the talking heads; it shows soldiers' dissatisfaction. It is, however, a side track from what the soldiers in the GI movement did. The conspiracy theorizing at the end that tries to tie everything together is interesting, but underdone: We're introduced to Jerry Lembcke, one of the few vets interviewed to really be presented as an expert, rather than someone relating his own experiences, and he talks about how the stories of veterans returning home via San Francisco airport only to be spat upon by a hippie girl in love beads are almost certainly urban legends. He suggests a deliberate disinformation policy, pointing out covers of Life magazine that show veterans marching on Washington, offering it as evidence that this is how vets were thought of at the time, and suggesting that the other version is myth-making designed by later administrations (perhaps to rally support for later actions, although the film scrupulously avoids tying it to the Bushes' actions against Iraq). This would probably be more effective if we hadn't seen soldiers saying they didn't know there was a "GI Movement" and that they were just acting on their own consciences. Older members of the audience than me (I was born in October 1973, so much of what I know of Vietnam comes from film and television) pointed out that although the footage of these stories being reported on the news was genuine, compacting the occasional story from a ten-year period into an eighty-minute movie makes the story seem more ubiquitous than it was.

That doesn't make what is shown any less true, though - it just means that rather than being the last word on American involvement in Vietnam, "Sir! No Sir!" exposes another, important facet. It's also interesting to view from the vantage point of another undeclared war - what lessons have we learned and what lessons have the establishment learned?

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=13259&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/30/06 09:39:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 FilmFest Kansas City For more in the 2005 FilmFest Kansas City series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/27/09 Phineasandhiskillerspear Hateful Marxist propaganda. Soldiers WERE spat on by hippy devils.Fonda is the devil. 1 stars
6/01/06 San Lamar great 4 stars
5/31/06 Peter this review sums up my opinion about the movie almost perfectly. 5 stars
5/24/06 Wayne A Lewis As a veteran who joined at the tailend of the vietnam "War" 5 stars
4/06/06 Mr Jones Amazing history lesson that ties in to the present without ever mentioning it. 5 stars
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  DVD: 19-Dec-2006



Directed by
  David Zeiger

Written by
  David Zeiger

  Jane Fonda
  Donald Duncan
  Howard Levy
  Keith Mather
  Oliver Hirsch
  Susan Schnall

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