A Bright Shining Lie
directed by Terry George
(Time Warner, 1998)

John Paul Vann was a man who made John Wayne look like Mahatma Gandhi and Don Juan like the pope. A professional soldier, he gave up his commission rather than become part of the Pentagon's "bright shining lie" -- the war in Vietnam.

Not that Vann was opposed to the war; Vann, a real-life adviser to the South Vietnamese army in the days before the Gulf of Tonkin incident, had no use for the antiwar crowd. Like many people in the '60s, Vann objected not to the war, but to the way it was waged.

A shrewd tactician, Vann early on realized that the key to winning the war was not firepower, but rice. The Viet Cong were outgunned and outmanned, yet they were winning because they had targeted the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese peasants. But for raising that point -- openly, with the help of the press -- Vann was threatened with court martial.

A Bright Shining Lie is a fact-based account of Vann's experiences, as recorded in Neil Sheehan's book of the same name. And while the film may lack the dramatic impact of The Deer Hunter or the archetypal underpinnings and big-budget fireworks of Apocalypse Now, it offers viewers something neither of those films could: context.

A Bright Shining Lie is firmly rooted in the sociopolitical scene of the late '50s and early '60s, in station wagon fins and Marilyn Monroe, in the evils of segregation and the real-life terror of the Cuban missile crisis.

Writer-director Terry George offers a quick but revealing look at those days in the black-and-white news clips that help open his film. What the clips don't provide, George fills in with voice-over narration by reporter Steve Burnett (Donal Logue), a Times reporter who ostensibly broke Vann's story.

Better yet, George offers a warts-and-all portrayal of Vann (Bill Paxton), which isn't easy, given how many warts he had. Vann had almost as many extramarital affairs as he did combat experiences, including ones that would make Bill Clinton blush -- such as with the family's 15-year-old babysitter.

But Vann never cheated on his country. He stood up to the Viet Cong and his superiors with equal fervor, and, if we're to believe George, died believing there was still a way for the United States to win its misguided "police action" in Southeast Asia, long after Gen. Westmoreland had extinguished his light at the end of the tunnel and gone home.

A Bright Shining Lie does have its shortcomings.

Often it moves so quickly over the surface of events that it doesn't capture the drama of them. This is especially true in many of the domestic scenes: Vann and his wife (Amy Madigan) never really seem married. It's just part of the script.

Logue fares little better as Burnett. He says all the things he's supposed to say, but he's not always convincing. He helps move the story along, but never becomes a compelling character in his own right.

A Bright Shining Lie may not be the last word U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but it's an important and insightful one, the kind that transcends its medium and budget. In short, it gives you something to think about. Now there's a claim you don't see many movies making these days.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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