'Winter Soldier': Cold Days in Hell

Jan Barry, above, co-founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, at the three-day gathering the group sponsored in 1971, at which veterans -- including Rusty Sachs, right -- told of atrocities they had witnessed or committed.
Jan Barry, above, co-founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, at the three-day gathering the group sponsored in 1971, at which veterans -- including Rusty Sachs, right -- told of atrocities they had witnessed or committed. (Photos By Milestone Film & Video)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 9, 2005

See "Winter Soldier."

This extraordinary documentary, made in 1972 and having its first theatrical release, not only revisits events during the Vietnam War that have uncanny resonance today but also stands as a riveting example of pure filmic storytelling. An unadorned, black-and-white record of a three-day gathering held in Detroit in 1971, "Winter Soldier" turns the camera on the testimony of former soldiers invited by Vietnam Veterans Against the War to share accounts of atrocities they committed or witnessed. The result is a spellbinding film that achieves impressive power through little more than the spoken word.

Political junkies might remember the Winter Soldier meeting from last year's presidential campaign, when Sen. John Kerry's involvement in the event was the subject of the film "Going Upriver." Kerry is seen only briefly in "Winter Soldier," but there are some familiar faces here, chief among them Rusty Sachs, whose interview before the meeting -- in which he describes piloting aircraft from which blindfolded Viet Cong prisoners were routinely thrown -- opens the film. More than a dozen veterans from all branches of the military go on to tell their stories, each recounting some act of brutality that either explicitly or tacitly came under the heading of standard operating procedure.

Recreational killing of civilians, rape, arson, torture: They did it, or saw it, all. Having been trained to see their enemies as less than human -- they were always called gooks or commies -- and having been taught to dissociate from the violence they were committing lest they be killed themselves, they simply learned not to care.

"I didn't like being an animal," one veteran explains on the hearing dais. "And I didn't like seeing everyone else turned into an animal." (During a particularly revealing aside, an African American veteran engages one of the meeting's organizers in a discussion of how the Vietnam War was informed by stateside racism.) The stories are stunning, deeply troubling and often literally unspeakable. "I don't know what to say," one veteran says numbly. "I just wanted you to know about it."

With the soldiers' testimony occasionally accompanied by color footage of the very events they're describing, "Winter Soldier" recalls the early days of political cinema verite, when filmmakers such as Richard Leacock, Robert Drew and D.A. Pennebaker were revolutionizing film with unnarrated slices of life devoid of technical bells and whistles. With its high-contrast palette and startlingly beautiful stars (were we better-looking back then or was it the film stock?), "Winter Soldier" takes on surprising urgency.

When the film was made (by a collective that included such future documentary stars as Barbara Kopple), it was deemed too controversial to be released in theaters or on TV, and instead was shown sporadically in venues such as the Whitney Museum in New York. It's easy to see why Milestone Film & Video, which is releasing "Winter Soldier" under the Milliarium Zero banner, would see a potential market for the movie now. As its subjects speak of their lack of training in the Geneva Conventions, their confusion over what constituted torture, the lack of accountability of their superiors, the misuse of military propaganda, even the use of white phosphorous (nicknamed Willie Pete), it's clear that, as a scholar once observed, history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

Regardless of their views on conflicts past and present, everyone should see "Winter Soldier," if only to understand that when we speak of military sacrifice, that means psychic as well as physical. And on another level entirely, the film presents a gripping portrait of something that we don't often see portrayed with such authenticity on-screen: the act of a man defining himself. Several of the film's subjects, chief among them a Florida native named Scott Camil, are seen grappling not only with their experiences overseas but also with the very definition of manhood, whether as constructed by cultural mores or one's own inner code.

"Winter Soldier" is an important historical document, an eerily prescient antiwar plea and a dazzling example of filmmaking at its most iconographically potent. But at its best, it is the eloquent, unforgettable tale of profound moral reckoning.

Winter Soldier (95 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company