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Return With Honor

     Return With Honor, Frieda Lee Mock and Terry Sanders' documentary honoring American pilots shot down over North Vietnam comes with an official endorsement from good-soldier Tom Hanks. "I sat there amazed," Hanks told The New York Times of watching the picture, why the Saving Private Ryan guy permitted a placing of his hallowed name above the film title: "Tom Hanks Presents."

     The press book for Return With Honor includes also a host of testimonials from Vietnam War opponents who have mellowed in their autumn years. Ex-New York mayor Ed Koch, The New Republic film critic Stanley Kauffman, columnist Anne Lamott are total converts to the ex-pilots' heroic tales of years of torture and isolation in harsh North Vietnamese prisons. Lamott is California-soupy about this documentary: "It is ostensibly about Vietnam...But it is also about you and me and God and greatness, faith, hope and love."

     Well, not necessarily...

     Here's one anti-Vietnam War skeptic who holds out, with numerous reservations about Return With Honor.

     But let's grant the film its due. Return With Honor is expertly made, and those American ex-pilots interviewed about their Vietnam experiences, now in comfy middle age, are articulate and intelligent, their words inevitably thoughtful and well-considered. Among them: Jeremiah Denton, John McCain. Credit the filmmakers for putting their subjects so at ease for a dialogue. And, yes, these pilots were extraordinarily brave, and some of their monologues of imprisonment in the hellhole jail, called ironically by them "the Hanoi Hilton," are damned unsettling.

     And sometimes exciting narratives too, these sagas of self-reliance in the great stiff-upper-lip movie tradition of Grand Illusion, The Great Escape, and Stalag 17. When the pilots finally get released in 1972 (the filmmakers have wonderful historic footage from Vietnamese archives), it's undeniably stirring and sob-provoking.

     But let's take careful note about whom we are so unconditionally honoring. Those interviewed are not unfortunate draftees in Vietnam, not the uneducated foot soldiers, overwhelmingly poor and minority, who were fodder for Johnson's and Nixon's blundering war policies. The cast of Return With Honor are professional pilots, mostly graduates of the Air Force Academy, who were dutifully trained, and were chomping at the bit to go to battle--just like our airmen over Iraq. As LBJ became obsessed with the North Vietnamese, our guys were salivating to jump into their planes. Bombs away! Napalm away!

     Not that you'd know it in Return Without Honor which, at its most dishonest, separates its heroes from their pernicious objective: to fly into North Vietnam and destroy it. To kill the Communist enemy. Don't ask, don't tell. Nobody in this movie (and there are 20 pilots interviewed) mentions the bloody stuff, and a reason that they were long imprisoned when captured by the North Vietnamese.

     Instead, the movie literally turns the American war campaign to aesthetics! You hear soft pilot voices talking about how "touching clouds is like touching a cotton field" and that, flying a bomber, "you play it like a violin," while the camera drifts somnolently through peaceful white pillows in the sky. Deja vu! The Return Without Honor filmmakers are unconsciously recalling (and it's a telling analogy) the opening of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, where Hitler's private plane descends through the empyrean clouds on the way to the Nurenberg rally.

     Who paid for Return With Honor? MBNA America, a credit card company, but also the Boeing-McDonnell Foundation.

     Isn't that ye olde military-industrial machine? Also the Association of Graduates, the US Air Force Academy. Isn't that why the film begins and ends at today's Air Force Academy, as a blatant promo for higher-education military preparedness?

     And what are the film's politics? The announcement of the North Vietnamese attack on the Gulf of Tonkin made by LBJ, long understood by Cold War historians as a manipulative lie to get the US Senate to support the War, is presented here as Truth. Vietnamese people are the undifferentiated Other, attacking our servicemen. Anti-War protestors back home in the US are also the Other, aiding the North Vietnamese enemy.

     "We were tortured far less (in prison) than by what Senators were saying on the Senate floor," says one ex-POW. As the angry words are uttered, the Return With Honor filmmakers flash without explanation onto a photo of "dove" Ted Kennedy!

     It's interesting to program Return With Honor, even with its militarist, guiltless-conscience America in Vietnam. But don't forget 1999's second major Vietnam documentary, Regret to Inform, made from the other side. The filmmaker, Barbara Sonnenborn, lost her husband in the War, and this movie is one of anger for America's involvement, anger that her husband volunteered to go there, and sorrow that, as his last letters said, things among Americans in Vietnam had turned so bestial and horrific that, even if he had survived, there could have been no "return with honor."

(September, 1999)

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