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TV Reviews : 'Vietnam War': Trilogy of Profound Humanity

August 19, 1989|HOWARD ROSENBERG

More evidence that "Vietnam War Story" was unfairly ignored in the Emmy nominations is available when this irregularly scheduled dramatic anthology series returns with an intriguing trilogy at 9:30 tonight on cable's HBO.

The return is short-lived. "Vietnam War Story" began in 1987, and HBO says the series will likely end with tonight's program, which is coincidentally titled "The Last Days." All three stories take place in 1975, after the United States had withdrawn its forces but left behind a small contingent of military and civilian advisers to help dispirited Saigon government troops resist the attacking Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. And now these last remnants, too, are about to depart.

Written by supervising producer Patrick S. Duncan, the first two stories are especially fascinating because each shows a single incident of war from a different perspective.

First, in a segment directed by Luis Soto, we see a lonely, downtrodden, fearful outpost of suffering South Vietnamese (Dr. Haing S. Ngor is featured) and U.S. troops (Steve Antin and Wil Gotay) being decimated by a faceless sniper as the Americans await evacuation. Sandy Smolan directs the second segment, in which the outpost targets are the faceless ones, and the Viet Cong sniper (Jade Hong) and his dwindling comrades--an elderly officer (Doan Chau Mau) and his 11-year-old nephew (California Xuan Tran), who is hardly bigger than the rifle he's itching to shoot--are the ones who gain our sympathy as living, breathing victims of this conflict without winners.

"We had no politics until the Americans arrived," the old man, a farmer who understands futility, tells the boy. "They burned our villages in front of our eyes. . . ."

Grimly, but appropriately, this little slice of tragedy ends badly for all involved. Stories expressing war's emptiness are a legion, but these speak with a profound humanity that is rare and refreshing.

The third segment is especially dark, taking place in the American Embassy in Saigon, where the CIA chief (Daniel Benzali), his chief operative (Chris Mulkey) and his secretaries (Sydney Walsh and Elizabeth Ruscio) frantically destroy sensitive documents in preparation for being airlifted home.

The performances are outstanding, and director David Burton Morris shapes Richard Dresser's morality story into something of an illusion that plays like someone's bad dream.

This is also a tale of deception and of loyalty being displaced by pragmatism, as the Americans must play "God" in deciding which of their Vietnamese comrades to take with them and which to abandon to the rubble of failed U.S. policy. This is significant television.

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