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Television review: 'Vietnam in HD'

The three-night History channel series is at its best when it takes you inside the heads of the rank-and-file military who lived to tell their tales.

November 08, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • A visitor touches names engraved on a traveling half-scale replica of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
A visitor touches names engraved on a traveling half-scale replica of the… (Bebeto Matthews / Associated…)

"Vietnam in HD" is History's three-night follow-up to "WWII in HD," which ran, also in commemoration of Veterans Day, two years ago. While it goes out of its way to cast these soldiers as the heroic equals, if not betters, of their "Greatest Generation" counterparts, the series does not have the same impact — mainly because these images, though at times awful and upsetting, are also much more familiar.

Unlike World War II, Vietnam was documented in living color, first by journalists covering it and then by filmmakers attempting to make sense of it. Never before had a war been so well chronicled by so many, flooding the living rooms of Americans day after day, year after year, with sweaty, grim-faced men fighting their way through the jungle, the barrage of artillery, the fiery vomit of flamethrowers and the endless pitiful streams of refugees. Americans watched, mesmerized then horrified. The unprecedented broadcast of graphic violence fueled the antiwar movement and led Pentagon officials in subsequent wars to more carefully control media access.

Then came the films — "The Deer Hunter," "Apocalypse Now," "Hamburger Hill," "Platoon," "Full Metal Jacket" — all capturing the vivid landscape, the soul-rattling noise, the moments of personal heroism in a place that seemed outside the ken of sanity.

So though the footage here is new, it doesn't feel that way, even in HD. Narrator Michael C. Hall doesn't help much either. The fact that in "Dexter," much of the serial-killing main character's thoughts are done in voice-over alone makes Hall an odd and queasy choice, and here he has not been given sufficient direction. For instance, when saying things such as "They were walking into a deadly trap," less vocal drama would be better.

None of which makes the stories told in "Vietnam in HD" any less heroic, or compelling. If, in "WWII in HD," the personal accounts provided a narrative structure for a more sprawling theater of conflict, here they are the beating heart of the series, the reason to watch. Because if the imagery of Vietnam has been showcased in countless ways, the stories of the everyday soldiers have not.

"It's not the war you know, it's the war they fought" is the series tag line and it works well. Although there is no getting away from the parallels between Vietnam and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, "Vietnam in HD" is not about politics but people. One former soldier remembers the knee-jerk disgust Americans had for communists, another describes the mind-blanking shock of seeing a friend die right in front of him, and still another explains the impossible task of fighting an army that hid among the civilians — "We're told the VC threaten these people with their lives unless they help them, so you gotta figure it's not really their fault. But at the same time when you find a bunch of AK-47s hidden in some villagers' chicken pen, you can't help but feel that they're the reason your buddy is dead."

Every war inevitably becomes more symbol than reality with the passage of time; those who fought in the Civil War would no doubt be shocked and mystified that anyone would find it enjoyable to "re-create" the battles. No one wants to re-create Vietnam, but the almost immediate conversion of that war to art through film did the same thing, and more quickly.

But here are the men, and women, who experienced it firsthand; they are not so old, their tales are not cobwebbed by sentiment or gilded by victory. They are simple stories of war, direct and mind-blowing.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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