"These are the times that try men's souls. The
summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will,
in this crisis, shrink from the service of their
country; but he that stands it now, deserves
the love and thanks of man and woman."
One of the Founding Fathers of the United States
(and author of the book Common Sense)
This, by DVD Outsider standards, will be a relatively short review. It's not a short review out of necessity or choice. It's a short review because this extraordinary movie (and its just as extraordinary extra features) do not need reams of pussy-footing prose to sell it, nor a profound investigation into the darkness of the human heart to justify a significant recommendation. A companion piece to the excellent Sir! No Sir!, Winter Soldier consists of confessions from men who are truly regretful of their own disregard for human life and their almost bestial behaviour during the Vietnam war. Over three days in 1971 in Detroit, these soldiers risked public opprobrium and military censure by revealing all the depraved actions that passed for American conflict in Vietnam. They were not just witnesses but active participants.
These are men plodding slowly down a road leading from perdition, men who horribly discarded their grip on their moral compass in a red mist born from a fear of their own mortality and the absolute conviction they were doing the right thing. Yes, right and wrong are not absolutes, nor are they easily definable. But these men and thousands more like them tortured, maimed and killed fellow human beings, civilian and soldier alike, in such a detached way that they honestly believed the 'gook' was a sub-human communist creature. What they were doing was fighting for an American administration that had encouraged this barbarity by doing nothing to curb or stop it.
I cannot understand the mindset that can gun down a young boy who gives you the finger on a street (believe me that's one of the mildest revelations in this searing exposé of just how bad things got) but I may just understand the idea of "It's them or me..." Down to the wire, when your own life is threatened, I would imagine the human being could go feral. By this movie's standards and therefore its own truth (and I'd never think I'd be writing this), Apocalypse Now could be said to be relatively tame... The one key element in the film that is alarming in its casual nature, is the military camaraderie – atrocities spill out from these men and some have that resigned smile of brittle and guilty recollection. They could be swapping baseball stories not frank admissions, admissions like "...you never count the prisoners getting on a helicopter, only those getting off..." I'll let that sink in.
There is a cliché that originated from Edmund Burke's observation that "Those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it." It's only by understanding what drove these men to such terrible acts can we strive to prevent it but it should surprise no one that 1960s American self-interest and fear of the 'red menace' was at the heart of the problem. Few other men are indoctrinated more profoundly than the American soldier. If you enlist, you're already declaring a willingness to comply. You see, God loves America and with that omnipotent big guy behind you, morality is a sort of given (or if it isn't, then it must be God's will that I heat a metal spoon on a fire until it's glowing red and then press it into the back of the neck of a prisoner until I reach bone...) And that one's mild too compared to a lot of the other stories. But imagine if the brainwashing works. It does. These men freely admit that they went in as 'the good guys' so whatever they did, they were still on the right side. They didn't cross the line, they smeared the line away with pulped human organs removed from living prisoners, to make their prisoner buddies talk. OK, I admit. That's a bad one.
This movie is 95, searing, black and white minutes of concentrated redemption, the kind (as Harvey Mean Streets Keitel might have pointed out with his finger burning on an alter candle) you pay for but not in church. This public confession of extreme cruelty meted out because of a profoundly insensitive command structure with two blind eyes has a bludgeoning effect on the viewers' own morality. Atrocity after atrocity pours out of these broken men whose belief in their own country's smoke-like phantom values had poisoned them and turned against them with a ferocity they couldn't accept. While their honesty is no help to their victims, their redemptive confessions have a bizarre but essential elegance in remorse. They speak as if waking from a dream and their words have weight because of the truth of their experience. There are some who cry foul suggesting some men were revealed as frauds but from the photographic evidence, their stories, while incredible, still ring disgracefully true.
In short, Winter Soldier is a series of confessions of extreme barbarism – or witnesses to barbarism – that has the effect of making you yearn for the simplicity of naïve polarisation (goodies and baddies). It was the South Vietnamese's ill fortune to racially resemble their northern neighbours. The war was won on body count so, anyone not Caucasian was fair game. Winter Soldier is the sort of movie that should be significantly broadcast for all sorts of genuinely worthy reasons. It's not just one horrible story after another. It's bigger than that. It's biting social commentary, yes, and yet there's a real tangible spine to it, an extraordinary sense of 'event'. That something beautiful could come from the terror of young men trained to hate is a minor miracle of its own. Bravo to all those who committed their unpaid time and effort to get this film made.
The original 16mm film format (one I am very partial to having physically cut it for a decade) is filthy – tramlines and sparkle all over the place – but that's fine, this is dirty stuff and the condition of the movie seems appropriate.
The mono soundtrack is clear (this is, of course, vital). There are no subtitles or foreign language tracks.
Seasoned Veteran: The Journey of a Winter Soldier (40' 28")
This is a portrait of the most famous Winter Soldier of all, Scott Camil. After his conversion to support the peace movement during the Winter Soldier Hearings, Camil was compelled to right his significant wrongs and those of his government. A chapter member of the 'Vietnam Veterans Against The War', Camil was in the top ten of Nixon's shit list. His activism (as far as I know) hasn't ceased and he comes through as a profoundly honest man (in every iteration) with a deep love for Taliban-style facial hair. His story about fighting the police at a demonstration in Gainesville, Florida is a terrific one that screams out 'Movie of the Week'. Never too far from controversy, one of Camil's early anti-war suggestions was to simply kill the men who made up the policy of the south east Asia's conflict. This is a good extra with one small flaw. It's a stand-alone documentary and therefore uses great chunks from Winter Soldier and as I may have said before, this kind of repetition is a little irksome having just seen the movie. But it's a fascinating portrait of a man who effected a significant change to his character – how many people do you know who've done that?
Winter Soldier: A Conversation With The Filmmakers (18' 13")
This is a very earnest and touching breakdown of the making of the movie with the filmmakers who reconvened in 2001 to assess the experience. Surprisingly, all the film stock and gear were donated and everyone worked for free (doesn't that sound familiar these days?). They all slept in the gymnasium (the location of the hearing) and their passion and drive was exemplary. There is also a telling section on the effect of editing such extraordinary material.
"Americal Division" (25' 05") and "First Marine Division" (17' 24")
Obviously these are off-cuts from what must have been a long rough cut of the film. It's strong stuff (with some repetition) and there's a really heartfelt explanation on why everyone in the room (or the gymnasium) didn't really understand the depth of disgust signified by the word 'gook'. Well worth a look. It also emphasizes a small detail mentioned earlier. It may have been the start of the 70s and all the style horrors of the decade ahead but the soldiers to a man seem to have rebelled against their crew cuts and grown great mops of hair and luxuriant beards. Hirsute doesn't begin to cover it.
Oh, Camil (The Winter Soldier) by Graham Nash (2' 56")
A folksy song (by Mr. Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame) with lyrics like "Not for God, but for country and war..." Not my taste but the message is sound. It's also uncontrollable. You can't fast forward it (and I did try... to my shame).
Theatrical Trailer (2' 45")
Does the job. Footage from the movie with Camil front and centre of course interspersed with critical plaudits on title cards. Not sure if the actual film stock could be dirtier.
Stills Gallery – Winter Soldier Plus
In here you'll find hundreds of stills of all the peace movements, the Winter Soldiers' depositions, the protests, Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland doing their bit, musicians spreading the word. My favourite was the New York premiere of Winter Soldier in 2005 – five years ago but still thirty-four years after the events... And Camil's T-shirt is priceless ("Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam").
"The Winter Soldier Files" PDF
Hundreds and hundreds of pages of US 70's officialdom and depositions including FBI files on the proceedings. It's a terrific record of events but I'm not sure how many people who buy the DVD will be interested in wading through all of it but full marks for the completeness by its inclusion.
I thought when I said about Sir! No Sir! "Eye opening is too insipid a phrase to use," I imagined my education in Vietnam and its horrors had plateaued. Winter Soldiers may be limited in terms of film-making (it is, after all, a filmed hearing with men talking into microphones for the most part) but it has its own poetry, redemption as revelation, atrocity as atonement. If you want a glimpse into the darker side of human nature and the perfect arena in which it was allowed to flourish, then take a look at this DVD... And do your best to vote against idiots who would have this behaviour flourish in the name of democracy.