Tuesday, March 28, 2023

DOCUMENTARY: A Permanent Mark

            My father fought in the Vietnam War.  I lived in Japan from 1964-1967 as he flew F-105s out of Thailand.  I was too young to realize that he might not come home.  After he left the Air Force, he joined an Air National Guard unit in New York.  The war continued, but I paid little attention to it.  My dad did not suffer from PTSD, so the war had no long-term effect on my family.  When the draft ended, I was too young to be sweating it out.  I thought about joining the Air Force, but poor eyesight ended my dream of being a pilot.  After college, I got a job teaching American History.  I had a strong belief in reading up on what I had to teach.  It brought my first true knowledge of the war.  I included Agent Orange in my Vietnam War unit.  My reading on the war caused me to teach the bad with the good.  As one of the vets in this documentary says:  “America is not perfect, but there’s none better.”  I have continued to read histories and novels about the war.  And I have watched and reviewed a lot of Vietnam War movies and documentaries.  But I will never know everything I would like to know.  I learned some new things yesterday.

             “A Permanent Mark:  Agent Orange in America and Vietnam” is a new film about the effects of the defoliant on American and Vietnamese veterans and their children.  Director Holly Million was inspired by the death of her father-in-law, Bob Macher.  Macher died of an illness traced to Agent Orange.  Million’s mother Janet is the focus of the film, as are two veterans.  The trio made a trip to Vietnam to meet with Vietnamese people who were also affected by Agent Orange.  The documentary chronicles that trip and also deals with effects of the herbicide on the environment of Vietnam as well as on the people who served or lived there from 1961-1971.

            During my early teaching years, the jury was still out as to whether veterans were truly impacted by Agent Orange.  There were veterans in our faculty who were trying unsuccessfully to get compensation for its effect on their health.  Those failures by veterans swayed the public to believe that their claims did not have merit.  Would the military really harm its own personnel?  It was hard to believe that.  Now we know how na├»ve we were.  And we should be ashamed.

            Before reviewing the film, I feel it is necessary to provide the background that the film does not have time for.  After all, Ms. Millions is not doing a history of Agent Orange.  Her film is more personal than that.  What became known as “Agent Orange” was developed by chemists in the 1940s.  It was crafted to be an herbicide and defoliant.  The formula included the very toxic dioxin.  This fact was kept from the public and even the government and the generals.  The Pentagon ended up buying more than 20 million gallons from Dow and Monsanto.  Those companies (as the documentary points out) covered up its harmful effects to avoid regulation.  It was first used in the U.S. along railroad tracks and power lines to keep vegetation away. The first military use was by the British in Southeast Asia during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).  The Kennedy administration used that as precedent for its use in Vietnam.  This began as early as 1961 and lasted until 1971.  This herbicidal warfare was called Operation Ranch Hand.  The purpose was to remove jungle havens from communist use.  More secretive was the spraying of crops to deprive the enemy of rice.  For this purpose, it was called Agent Blue.  It was usually sprayed from helicopters or C-123 Providers.  A total of 6,542 missions were flown.  Eventually, 12% of South Vietnam was defoliated.  It was not just a catastrophe for the environment, but for society as well.  Many peasants became refugees as they could not subsist on rice crops anymore. This facilitated the Saigon government’s strategy of shifting the population to cities, away from the Viet Cong.

              By 1966, there was increasing evidence of the harm created by Operation Ranch Hand.  The United Nations tried to pass resolutions condemning its use.  However, the Department of Defense argued the British had established a precedent in Malaya.  It also claimed it was not covered by the international prohibition against chemical and biological weapons because it was a herbicide and was not aimed at civilians.  By 1970, research and tests showed there was a harm associated with its use.  The Nixon Administration was forced to admit it was dangerous.  Finally, the DOD scaled back its use and in 1971 suspended Ranch Hand.  Incredibly, some units continued to use it against orders!  Although the DOD was willing to admit it was dangerous, it was not ready to concede that it had had deleterious effects on American soldiers.  It eventually admitted that, but it put in a rule that those effects had to be proven to have begun within a year of discharge.  Since most of the effects did not manifest themselves until later in a veteran’s life, this left most of them uncompensated.  By 1993, only 486 veterans were receiving government help.  This was out of 39,419 claims!  Help came too late for so many

            “A Permanent Mark” follows a typical documentary template.  Janet Macher and the veterans are interviewed sans the questions.  They are well-spoken and passionate about the subject, but they don’t come off as strident.  They evince more of a weary, yet optimistic view.  Million deftly intermixes their reminiscences with footage from the war.  The footage complements the narrative well.  And then the film moves on to their trip to Vietnam.  Sadly, Janet’s husband had succumbed to his cancer by then.  The Vietnam segments contrast the moon scape the defoliant created with the before and after lush greenery that Vietnam is known for.  The beauty of the country is apparent and this is matched by the people the touring vets meet.  There is a connection as the Americans and Vietnamese suffered from the effects of Agent Orange.  They share the belief that the villain was the American government, but the documentary does not use its platform to argue against our involvement in Vietnam.  It focuses more on accountability for the use of Agent Orange and the ethics of its use.  When they visit Friendship Village (created by Vietnamese and American veterans as common ground) in Hanoi, there is no animosity between the old foes.  A visit to an orphanage for children disabled by their genes is heartbreaking. 

            “A Permanent Mark” works on both a personal and educational level.  It jerks tears effectively, but it also informs.  I have to admit that after all my reading on the war, there were a few things I learned.  All of them were distressing.  I had only recently read about Agent Blue being used to kill off the peasants’ livelihoods.  I did not know that some of that was done by spraying fields with hoses.  The footage of soldiers doing this without protective gear was infuriating.  Another eye-opener was that Agent Orange has resulted in birth defects and illnesses for the children of AMERICAN veterans.  It is pretty widely known that it had this effect on South Vietnamese children, but the plight of American children has been overlooked.  One veteran has a daughter who has undergone 19 surgeries because of a birth defect resulting from her father’s contact with dioxin.  Try getting compensation for that. Until watching this film, I had never connected Agent Orange with female personnel, specifically the Donut Dollies.  Try getting compensation after being a female noncombatant.

            I have seen a lot of Vietnam War documentaries, but most of the stand-alones are aimed at chronicling the anti-war movement or describing how the war was wrong. Few call for action.  And in most, we can sit in our living room and shake our head at mistakes made, but don’t feel a connection.  “A Permanent Mark” is more topical because it is a call to action.  We still have vets and their children that are suffering from something their government did and was reluctant to admit to.  It’s not too late to do what’s right for the still living.  But considering the plight of homeless vets, I’m not optimistic.


Sunday, March 26, 2023

Coriolanus (2011)

                I am currently reading Livy’s history of Rome, specifically the accounts of wars and battles.  Virtually every year, Rome was at war with one or more neighboring cities.  One of those perennial opponents were the Volscians.  They were a real thorn in Rome’s side.  The Romans won almost every battle against them (according to Livy).  There was a lot of ravaging of the enemy’s territory, by both sides.  It’s a bit repetitive, but occasionally a battle or person stands out.  One of those heroes was Coriolanus.  He is a unique figure because he went from hero to traitor.  His story also incorporates the ongoing strife between the patricians and the plebeians.  Over the years, the plebeians had gotten more power from the patricians.  Sometimes it took protests and strikes.  One significant gain was the creation of government officials called tribunes.  The tribunes represented the plebeian class.  They could prevent Senate legislation that was deemed harmful to the lower class.  William Shakespeare found the legend of Coriolanus to be worthy of a tragedy.  “Coriolanus” is not one of his famous plays, but it made for a good war movie.

                “Coriolanus” was a project of Ralph Fiennes.  He made his directorial debut.  He made the decision to put the play in a modern setting.  The characters dress contemporaneously, but their words are Shakespeare’s.  He had an outstanding cast to work with.  Besides himself, the cast included Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, and Brian Cox.  It was filmed in Serbia and Montenegro which was appropriate because although set in Rome, the film uses the Yugoslav Wars as a template.  The movie cost $8 million, but made only $2 million.  Fiennes was nominated for a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer.

                Rome is in a food crisis.  There is martial law to cope with the unhappy lower class.  Protest marchers descend on the grain depository yelling “Bread!  Bread! Bread!”  A general named Caius Martius (Fiennes) stands up to the mob.  He calls them ingrates and refers to  them as  “fragments”.  A phalanx (a unit used by the Romans at the time against the Volscians) of police banging on their shields confronts the protesters.  The city of Rome has this civil unrest while it is also at war.  There is a lot of bitterness between the Romans and the Volscians.  The Volscian leader Tullus Aufidius (Butler) executes a Roman captive on video shared with the Romans.  Martius and Aufidius are sworn enemies who have vowed to kill each other.  Being able to leave the stage, the movie is able to depict urban fighting in the city of Corioles.  Martius leads an assault on a building held by Aufidius and his men.  Martius is a killing machine and his rampage ends with a knife fight with Aufidius.  An artillery shell creates belligerence interruptus.  Martius returns to Rome a hero and is given the cognomen Coriolanus.  His mother Volumnia (Redgrave) encourages him to run for consul (similar to a president).  He is a reactionary  who wants to return to the good old days when the plebeians lacked any power.  He manages to fake respect for the lower class, but in the end, he is a military man, not a politician.  His political mentor Menemius (Cox) advises him to kiss up to the commoners, but Coriolanus just can’t help but rant about the damned rabble.  He ends up banished from Rome.  He is determined to make Rome pay.

                I realize I am more open to the play “Coriolanus” because I have an interest in Caius Martius.  He is one of the most interesting figures in the Roman Republic.  Livy wrote his history to make Romans proud of their heritage.  His history emphasizes great Romans, starting with Romulus.  Most of those heroes are saintly.  Gaius Martius is unique -a brilliant general defeats Rome’s enemy and later goes over to their side!  Not only that, he’s a politician who can’t bottle his true feelings about the masses.  That’s pretty unique, too. 

                Ralph Fiennes deserves a lot of credit for bringing the play to the screen.  He assembled an outstanding cast, but his performance is the standout.  Coriolanus is a character who an actor can really sink his teeth into.  Fiennes is brilliant in depicting a man who tries but fails to keep his true feelings bottled up.  He is like a tea pot coming to boil.  Fiennes’ involvement reminds of Laurence Olivier’s and Kenneth Branagh’s takes on Shakespeare’s “Henry V”.  Both did great acting jobs in portraying the king, but Henry was portrayed as a sympathetic figure.  He is able to come down to the level of his common soldiers.  “Henry V” is a drama. “Coriolanus” is a tragedy.  His hubris can not be contained.  The great warrior and failed politician is also a momma’s boy, which will factor into the ending of the movie. 

                Fiennes decision to place the play in a modern setting and to allude to the Yugoslav Wars was brilliant.  That messy situation is the closest to Rome versus Volsci that could be found.  The rubble of Corioles is similar to Livy’s sacked city.  Other than the police phalanx, Ancient Roman warfare is not replicated in the movie, for obvious reasons. However, other than that, the movie adheres to Livy’s tale faithfully.  For this, we have to credit Shakespeare for doing his research.  The decision to keep Shakespeare’s dialogue will be oft-putting for some potential viewers who would need more than subtitles.  Shakespeare’s words feel a bit anachronistic, but the brilliance of his dialogue overcomes this.  Screenwriter John Logan wisely pared down the speeches to their essentials.  Thanks.

                I am approaching the end stage of creating my 100 Best War Movies list.  It is a bit perturbing to see great war movies this late in the game.  I recently have been looking at various lists of good war movies to see if I have missed any.  Usually when I watch the rare “great” war movies that I hadn’t seen yet, I wonder about the sanity of the list-maker.  “Coriolanus” is the rare gem.  I am not sure why it is rarely mentioned.  It certainly is a war movie.  It has a well-choreographed combat scene in Corioles.  Speaking of choreography, the knife fight is amazing. It took two days to film.  Unlike “Henry V", it is solid to the end.  Livy, Shakespeare, and Fiennes make for a great collaboration.  It’s available on Tubi.