ESSAYS // "Re-Viewing Vietnam"

"Re-Viewing Vietnam"

Looking Through The Eyes Of Veterans, For A Change

Originally Published In Unique Magazine, 1990.

Tom Cruise, born on the fourth of july

In BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, when Ron Kovic returns home to Massapequa, Long Island following two tours of duty in Vietnam, he remarks to an old school friend that he can sense the difference in how civilians look at returning veterans. Their gaze towards him becomes a gauge by which to measure the individual's sense of shared guilt — or lack of same. "The eyes change," Kovic says, as we watch a woman in a burger joint avoid making direct eye contact with the now-paralyzed soldier. As he recalled in his autobiography, Kovic began to feel like a ghost, that his fellow townspeople were staring as if he weren't there.

In the earliest films which dealt with returning Vietnam veterans, it was usually the vets' eyes which had changed, not those of society. The soldiers had seen too much in the fighting — witnessing acts of murder abroad, while also experiencing further brutalities and indignities at home. Their eyes had changed so much, in fact, that the vets were often seen (at least by Hollywood) as drug addicts, serial murderers or outcasts from society. Even if they served as the heroes (or, as was popular in the `70s, the anti-heroes) of a story, their struggle consisted of their trying to rise above the dreams of helicopter attacks and the faces of butchered children. It was the eyes of the vet that were the focus of the camera, and in them the audience saw society's outsider. And through those eyes the audience saw the victory of a personal war won, or the shame of a nation which had lost.

But because the cliches of war drama and dream-plagued vets were perpetuated to the point of numbness, they became a shorthand excuse for writers and directors to explain a character's behavior, without actually having to make judgments upon the moral impact or social consequences of the war. If a movie character suffered from painful headaches or restlessness (TAXI DRIVER), dreams or hallucinations about the horrors of combat (MAGNUM, PI), impotence (THE BIG CHILL), or withdrawal from social relationships or civilization itself (DISTANT THUNDER, SUSPECT), mentioning service in Vietnam was all a screenwriter had to do; an easily conditioned audience provided whatever prejudices were felt necessary to fill out the character and possibly understand his motivations.

It was through this course that society (in Hollywood terms) tried for so long to deal with veterans of an unpopular war — not by understanding the motivations that led them into battle, but by showing that, regardless of what went on "over there," the vets could still fit into our society if they'd only work at it, forget the horrors — in effect give up responsibility for their actions (After all, it was the governments of Johnson and Nixon which pushed them into it). If these movie characters failed at fitting into life in their hometown, then it must be due to their own weaknesses and not by fault of the conflict that so many others shared and survived. And certainly not the fault of the hometowns to which they returned.

In effect, films showed how it wasn't the failed war that made men weak; it was weak men that made the war fail. With stronger-willed men in combat and at the command posts things would have been different (as in RAMBO). What this says is that filmmakers, like politicians, did not wish to accept any moral responsibility for what was a shared enterprise. Not content with looking back and admitting a wrong, films used the men who fought the war as an easily accepted stereotype to fill the roles of serial murderer, kidnapper, vigilante, disadvantaged blue collar worker, victim of government bureaucracy, hermit — even terrorist (as in TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING, when the entire war was excused as a giant PR stunt, to show the Soviets how cruel and vindictive Americans could really be in a war). Vets may have indeed filled these roles in life, but since movie audiences demand reasons to explain seemingly random violence (as oft times reasons are not found to explain violence in their own communities), waving the experience of Vietnam became a lazy but often adequate method to patch up loose scriptwriting.

Oliver Stone, whose experiences in Vietnam fed the personal vision of his Oscar-winning film PLATOON, is one filmmaker who has turned the camera away from the central figure of his story and turned it upon those who sent him off to war — or rather, upon the audience. In Stone's film adaptation of Kovic's memoir "Born on the Fourth of July," it is the eyes of society which have changed. They have refused to see the pain of the returning vets, or by misunderstanding their needs show their own ignorance of the truth of war: the brutality and confusion which have no easy resolution. It is the irresolution of the Vietnam War, or even the lack of a defined purpose, which civilians saw in the returning vets — most conspicuously in the handicapped — and as a consequence turned their backs, closed their hearts, or lashed out in anger.

Veterans returning from any war have faced indignities trying to adjust to civilian life, but the stakes were increased with an unpopular war, and the sight of a soldier's handicap made the social responsibility of the civilians back home all the more visible, and all the more important for them to accept — or to ignore or deny. Kovic is stunned when he is attacked by police during a student demonstration, perhaps believing his wheelchair — like a press card — should grant him immunity and protection from the pain and harassment inflicted upon others. Later, when he attempts to take the floor of the Republican National Convention in Miami along with other members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he is pushed through a gauntlet of delegates, reporters and security guards, while being spat upon and called a "Communist" by conventioneers who had probably never seen one.

It is the irony of Kovic's life — perhaps aided by his eloquence and thoughtful reexamination — that someone so steeped in the values of America should find himself a target by those forces supposedly standing for the same values. It makes Kovic's adversaries — be they political opponents, riot police or the unfeeling bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration — appear hollow and arrogant, even sinister; yet they demonstrate the same blind, patriotic acceptance of authority that Kovic himself suffered from as a young man, which drew him to fight in a war halfway across the world to prevent the falling of dominoes.

This change in the eyes is revealed to us by some of the camera shots employed by Stone, in which tracking or Steadicam shots supposedly giving Kovic's POV — allowing for other characters to face and address the approaching camera as if it were he — are in fact to the side of where Kovic exists off-screen. Just as a conversation is about to start, the camera sees the character's eyes veer away, and we become aware that Kovic is actually next to us. The audience is both Kovic and an outsider through these shots, and the same falls true for the reverse: when Kovic's mother runs out of the house to see him for the first time in his wheelchair, the racing camera takes on her apprehension then lets go as Kovic looks over the camera's shoulder to greet his mom.

This duality results in striking scenes that reveal more about the characters than the dialogue allows. It reflects the uneasiness many people have in confronting a debilitating handicap — the sight of someone in a wheelchair stirs both morbid curiosity and an unwillingness to express affinity. It also reflects the ghost-like quality which Kovic comes to feel he exhibits to fellow members of his community, and which can only be lifted by his growing outspokenness against the war, when fellow vets, and others who listen to his message, can look him in the eyes again.

Tom Cruise, born on the fourth of julyThe evolution of Kovic from a bright-eyed Yankee Doodle boy to a fervent protester against the war and for better treatment of vets at home comes slowly, so that a change in his eyes is barely registered. He shows the same fervor, but learns to direct it in a more positive, more constructive direction. It is to Tom Cruise's credit that this change comes across gradually through a series of scenes — some involving violence, other merely examples of trying to live with a miserable handicap — rather than from an all-encompassing epiphany, where the Truth of the matter might fall with grace from above. In fact, many of the small epiphanies of the film occur in moments of isolation and helplessness; when a pump draining fluid from Kovic's leg fails to work and then starts up again, narrowly averting the need for an amputation, Kovic emits a gut-wrenching scream at the realization that his future well-being is dictated by the functioning of often-inadequate technology.

It is Man at his most mortal and vulnerable, and a frightening lesson for a 21-year-old to learn. But the most clear lesson in FOURTH OF JULY is that people are by and large unwilling to even look at those — like Kovic — who went to Hell and returned with a message of peace.

The main characters of JACKNIFE are less inclined to suffer the eyes of society, because they spend so much time looking inward themselves. The veterans played by Robert De Niro and Ed Harris, haunted by the nightmares of their war experiences, are both trying to come to grips with their own feelings of fear and inadequacy, but each handles their struggle in a different way: Megs (De Niro) attends meetings with fellow vets to discuss problems and provide support for one another, while David (Harris) tries to blur his memories with pills and alcohol.

Since the film was adapted from a stage play, little emphasis is given to characters outside the circle of Megs, David and David's sister Martha (Kathy Baker), who provides a romantic interest to Megs. So the eyes of society serve little purpose other than as curious onlookers (such as when Megs urges David to join a pick-up basketball game, only to see him quit in disgust, or when students and teachers at a senior prom watch David smash a trophy case). JACKNIFE does not place fault upon governments or society for the problems these men carry with them, but it does judge their ability or inability to cope, and provides hope through David's eventual awakening to his own pain.

IN COUNTRY, Norman Jewison's examination of a teenage girl exploring the life of the father who was killed in Vietnam at the time of her birth, is less narrow in its focus. It is about the opening of eyes, and in that sense they are eyes which look in all directions at once, like those of someone who has just been born.

As recent high school grad Samantha (Emily Lloyd) retraces her father's tour of duty and talks with fellow veterans about what the experience of war was like, she learns to put her loss in perspective with what was lost by families throughout the country. She also witnesses the ongoing damage the war has brought to her depressed Kentucky town, to the veterans who seem to still live in their own memories, and in their physical complications thought to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange. The town, meanwhile, has turned its back on the veterans, even neglecting to attend a dance held in their honor. Sam also witnesses the emotional turmoil of a veteran named Tom, with whom she develops a romantic interest but who is hesitant to draw Sam into his own private hell.

Much of the fire of the story is provided by Sam's uncle, the reclusive, solemn Emmett (Bruce Willis), who doesn't want to resurrect memories of the war, having put much of the pain behind him. He ignores Sam's questions about Vietnam, and tries to point her in a direction away from that period in history. But Emmett comes to realize that he's been fooling himself, that he's been ignoring the past rather than honoring it. It is not until the end of the film, during a purgative visit to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, that he is able to say goodbye to friends left behind. Sam as well is finally able to set aside the feelings of abandonment or denial — that her father was taken from her before she ever got to know him — and continue on. Even Sam's grandmother Mamaw, played by Peggy Rea, is one who had been living with closed eyes — so closed to the world that she'd never set foot outside her home state. When she is talked into joining the trip to Washington, she discovers first-hand the solemnity of the memorial and of the magnitude of the war's loss. She is also able for the first time to acknowledge the meaning of her son's death as something more tragic than a sad duty for his country.

There have been examples of films in which the eyes of the vets, or indeed the eyes of society, play no role in the story — and not always to its detriment. One of the most invigorating examples of how Hollywood sees returning vets is in the action film LETHAL WEAPON. Rather than pit an assimilated vet against the country which forsook him, everyone in the cast — good and evil — shares the experience of being Vietnam veterans, with both the police and their adversaries (a covert group of drug smugglers) using their combat training towards opposing ends. While Danny Glover's cop had returned from the war and settled into a comfortable middle-class existence, the CIA and Special Forces members have settled into a comfortable niche in government covert activities. Mel Gibson's suicidal cop lies somewhere in-between — a psychotic who can direct his violence either outwards or towards himself. Since there is no objective viewpoint in this film — no outsiders passing judgment upon the veterans, or vice versa — the eyes of the participants are never of much concern. However, by neutralizing this aspect of their lives by making it common to all parties, it desensitizes further the pain of having served there — both for the soldiers and the country which sent them. It's no big deal anymore; at best, it's an asterisk to their personalities.

It's an unusually forgiving conceit except that, in terms of this film's plot, it should be no big deal. The mere mention of Vietnam tells us that these are trained killers, but that doesn't make them any less or more dangerous than if they had learned their training in Central America, the Philippines or South Africa. At the most, it's unnecessary to their lives and to our enjoyment of the action.

But perhaps it's a sign that Vietnam is becoming such an accepted part of America's history that — despite occasional attempts to "do it right this time" in other parts of the globe — its alleged purposes are no longer something to be dwelled upon, even if it means ignoring or forsaking those who suffered the greatest.

copyright 1990, 2009 by David Morgan
All rights reserved.