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TV REVIEWS : 'Missing' Vision for a True Quest

July 13, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER

The nagging, puzzling conundrum of Vietnam veterans missing in action takes on different guises, depending on who is talking. If a Pentagon official is talking, it often sounds like an embarrassed government official trying to cover his backside. If a conspiracy theorist is talking, it often sounds like a huge government cover-up of a policy that sacrificed soldiers for foreign policy--a kind of Vietnam within Vietnam.

If a loved one of an MIA is talking, though, it sounds like a different story. Deborah Robertson Bardsley was 11 when her fighter-pilot father, John Robertson, was shot down over the Vietnamese jungle in 1966. His face was one of three shown in a hotly disputed photo released in 1991, purportedly showing three MIAs with a coded message noting their location. Soon after, producer-director Carol L. Fleisher followed Bardsley on a wild chase to find her father, and it has become a Discovery Channel-British Channel 4 co-production, "Missing: John Robertson" (at 9:30 tonight, Discovery Channel).

Bardsley's story perfectly fits the Discovery Channel profile of high human adventure, with the political message on the side. It is also the kind of story the great Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni might turn into a film: the quest for a loved one, which turns into a quest for identity, for purpose, for a sense of veracity in a world of puzzles.

Whether she is in a Moscow magazine office, a Kazakhstan hospital, a Phnom Penh office for POW investigators or a Bangkok hotel room waiting by the phone for a call, Bardsley has a heroine's sense of cool under fire and a dogged determination to get at the truth, with the growing awareness that the truth is as firm as quicksand. It could be that the photo showing her father, like the efforts for face-to-face meetings with Robertson, are elaborate hoaxes. But, as Bardsley wonders out loud, why? She can't even be sure that people such as a Russian doctor or an American MIA liaison are who they say they are.

Whatever the truth may be, the mystery is so much more compelling than Fleisher's bland recording of the events that "Missing: John Robertson" has a strangely dislocating effect. Bardsley's story requires an artist's passionate embrace of human desire and absurdity, not the kind of strait-laced treatment one might see on a "20/20" episode.

Meanwhile, Bardsley continues her search, while the U.S. government appears to stand by.

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