It will come as a surprise to most filmgoers that they've been waiting 30 years to see "Winter Soldier." But now that they have the chance, they won't want to miss it. This extraordinary documentary, 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 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. (See Film Notes on Page 34.)

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." The stories are stunning, deeply troubling and often literally unspeakable. "I don't know what to say," another veteran says numbly. "I just wanted you to know about it."

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 The film is an important historical document, an eerily prescient antiwar plea and a dazzling example of moviemaking at its most iconographically potent.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

-- Ann Hornaday

Soldier share war stories in the documentary "Winter Soldier."