War, up close and personal: ‘Vietnam in HD’ and ‘Where Soldiers Come From’

November 7, 2011

It’s not easy to program Veterans Day to wide approval. Some TV viewers want the manly Military Channel specials about strategy and warfare. Some want pure history and grainy footage. Some want yellow ribbons and emotions. Some can wade into the moral vagaries or go deep into the trauma of postwar mental illness and injury. Some just can’t go there at all.

History channel’s “Vietnam in HD,” which follows the same Emmy-adorned path blazed two years ago by the network’s massive “WWII in HD,” is exactly what you think it is: footage of the war made sharper by that beautiful flat thing hanging on your living-room wall.

A lot of what’s seen in this six-hour, three-part miniseries is “new,” in that it has been culled by History’s “film corps” researchers from private individuals’ home movies or forgotten stock. History has cast the net about as wide as one can in this quest for old film that was shot by soldiers in the field.

What they found — and then digitized into the sharpest possible experience — can be quite immediate and surprising. It’s also part of larger effort on History’s part to assist veterans groups in amassing an archive of Vietnam veterans’ photos and movies, the stuff kept in spare closets for years, into an accessible public collection.

Yet for all the clarity in the pixels, the essential murkiness that was the Vietnam War remains. It is never just a war, which is how “Vietnam in HD” quickly becomes tangled in its intentions. It understandably wants to include the stories of the home front, the protest movement, the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and everything else that comes with the word “Vietnam.” Within the first hour or two, it loses its way.

We are introduced to real people who will frame the entire story — former UPI correspondent Joe Galloway; Army veterans Barry Romo and Charles Brown; and a dozen other soldiers, spouses, etc. — who tell us their tales in on-camera and voice-over interviews, but, strangely, their voices are overtaken by those of celebrities, whose voices lend the words more . . . drama, I guess? Thus, Galloway’s voice becomes the voice of movie actor Edward Burns. Romo’s becomes that of “Entourage’s” Adrian Grenier; Brown becomes Blair Underwood.

For some reason, History’s obsession with HD visuals leads to overblown aural enhancements, as well. In addition to the celebrity voice-overs, “Vietnam in HD” adds sound to vivify what would likely be the silence that accompanied the original amateur footage. This means a lot of work for sound-effects artists, who make sure no jungle bird goes unchirped, no leaf goes uncrunched, no bullet unwhizzed, no shell unexploded — re-creations all. If they could find a way to shake your sofa, they’d do that, too.

With the line between documentary and amusement-park ride now crossed, it’s easy for a critic to start noticing “Vietnam in HD’s” other narrative and technical shortcuts with filler and stock footage, splicing in wherever needed the images we have seen before, including those familiar payload-perspective views of bombs being dropped over the hills and villages.

But keep in mind that’s how “Vietnam in HD” played on my own personal high-def machine. Others will be fully absorbed by every moment of it and not distracted by its bells and whistles. In fact, the razzle-dazzle will make “Vietnam in HD” a valorous and worthy trip for many.

‘Where Soldiers Come From’

Much more my speed and tone is filmmaker Heather Courtney’s hauntingly beautiful and deeply felt “Where Soldiers Come From,” part of the “POV” documentary series on PBS.

In synopsis, Courtney’s film sounds like stuff we’ve seen many times before, in both fictional (“The Hurt Locker”) and true-life (“Restrepo”) films. Here, a trio of young men living in a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula sign up for the National Guard and are sent on a nine-month tour in Afghanistan. Then they come home, forever changed. It’s as simple as that.

The film begins in late 2008 and focuses on Dominic Fredianelli, a budding artist; Cole Smith, an aimless jokester; and Matt “Bodi” Beaudoin, who departs with optimism and returns embittered and mentally frayed. Barack Obama wins the presidential election along with the hopes of Cole’s beautician/waitress mother, Mary, who wants the wars to end before the boys (who proudly call themselves “Yoopers,” the local lingo for U.P. residents) are deployed.

But go they must, leaving their parents and girlfriends. Courtney embeds with the soldiers, and her footage (and the way she has assembled it) is some of the best Afghanistan war-related storytelling I’ve seen, whether as depicted in the trio’s tense daily patrols along explosive-rigged dirt roads (while listening to Nappy Roots’s anthemic “Good Day”) or hunkered down in their plywood “spanktuary” berths at the operating base.

Courtney is equally good at tenderly capturing what it’s like during the long Michigan winter back home, as the soldiers’ parents fret daily, despite the comfort of Skype connections. Something about this film perfectly captures the ambivalence of our present war, without hammering too hard the point about the cultural divide that delivers the sons and daughters of the lower working class unto a volunteer Army while sparing the upper class.

When the unit returns home, your heart will swell seeing the entire town turn out for the welcome ceremony. I watched “Where Soldiers Come From” twice — it was that good.

Now for the aggravating news: For the umpteenth time this year, I’ve been captivated by a public-television documentary only to learn that none of the Washington area’s PBS affiliates have scheduled it to air this Veterans Day week. (MPT will be showing it Sunday on one of their auxiliary digital channels, and WETA will air it on Dec. 25 — at midnight.)

But Viewers Like You can also hunt this film down with the modern tools at hand: You can wait for “POV” to stream it online free of charge, or watch it using an iPad app from PBS, or queue it up from Netflix, perhaps, or program your DVR to catch it when it comes on. “Where Soldiers Come From” is worth the search, and it deserved a prime-time slot.

Vietnam in HD

(six hours, in three parts) airs Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 9 p.m. on History.

Where Soldiers Come From

(91 minutes) For Web streaming and broadcast schedules and information, visit www.pbs.org/pov.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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