Directors: Jerry Blumenthal, Peter Gilbert, and Gordon Quinn
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A lot of notable events occurred in 2016, not many of them pleasant. Fortunately, one of them delighted me all year long. Kartemquin Films, the Chicago film collective that makes thought-provoking documentaries that “seek to foster a more engaged and empowered society,” celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Kartemquin offered a free film every week from its online archive and then finished the year with a month of all-access free streaming. The most popular film streamed during the year was Life Itself (2014), star Kartemquin filmmaker Steve James’ compassionate portrait of Roger Ebert during the last months of the critic’s life. I joined others in making Inquiring Nuns (1967) the Number 3 viewing choice. As two nuns asked random Chicagoans in various parts of the city the question “Are you happy?” I was struck by how many people mentioned the Vietnam War as a source—sometimes the only source—of unhappiness in their lives.
I was moved by the concern ordinary people out of the line of fire felt for the horrors facing Americans and Vietnamese at the center of the conflict, an empathy that seems much harder to come by these days. And that is the beauty and value of Kartemquin films: they take circumstances that are largely abstractions to many people and help us empathize by bearing witness to other people’s lives. Vietnam, Long Time Coming is a brilliant example of their particular kind of filmcraft.
The documentary deals with an historic event—the first postwar American-Vietnamese athletics event. A group of 45 able-bodied and disabled Americans, plus support crew, staff, and board members of World T.E.A.M. Sports, joined a group of 20 Vietnamese to complete a 1,200-mile bike trek from the northern Vietnamese city of Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Veterans from both sides of what narrator Joe Mantegna sensitively refers to as the “Vietnam-American War” took part in the ride and form the core of the documentary. Framing the war this way helps American viewers with received notions about it enter a more nuanced space, one that the war veterans enter on their literal journey through their own past.
The film opens as the plane carrying the Americans begins its descent into Nội Bài International Airport. The veterans are visibly nervous, and older viewers may flash back to the helicopters, battles, and broken bodies they could view most every night on television. This was a shared national trauma as vivid as 9/11, and the directors know how to evoke memories that will help viewers face their own fears as well.
As the team members are introduced to each other and the paralyzed Vietnamese riders get used to their hand-pedaled bicycles, the struggles of the veterans start to reveal themselves. A 2-year-old Vietnamese girl runs over to Duane Wagner, a Marine sergeant from 1965 to 1968. He gives her a hug and then tells us he killed a girl just like her who emerged from her home carrying a couple of grenades. Tears form in his eyes as he rues “the fucked-up things I did.”
There are more tears when, as part of the team’s mission of medical and educational outreach, the group goes to Bạch Mai Hospital, which was bombed during the war. Bob Connors, who served in Vietnam as a sergeant in the U.S Air Force, muses that he could very well have dropped a bomb on Bạch Mai. “I want to go up to everyone here and apologize,” he says as his brave demeanor crumbles. Still, the mood lightens considerably when the announcement of a $200,000 check from World T.E.A.M. Sports to the hospital for a new, state-of-the-art orthotics unit has the interpreter do a double-take to see if she heard the amount right.
After a few too many shots of professional cyclist and Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, the directors drop their celebrity ogling and just get on with it. They turn the somewhat hackneyed device of a road picture into a meaningful metaphor for the rhythms of grieving and the slow return to life for the emotionally maimed, and improve upon many war documentaries and feature films by providing a 360-degree, balanced view from both sides of the complicated and emotionally charged conflict while maintaining a lively pace and narrative. The directors film a solemn rite at the Vietnamese Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with burning incense sticks seeming to represent the lives the war torched. They follow it later with a buoyant orgy of shopping in Huế’s colorful markets.
Liberal helpings of the bike ride, including crashes and flat tires, scored to bright music by Ben Sidran continue the forward progress as the participants and viewers return to some famous touchpoints—the demilitarized zone, China Beach, Da Nang, My Lai—that make us and the veterans pause and reflect. The directors get marvelous landscape shots and scenes of everyday life that reflect what one vet says late in the film: “Vietnam is not a war, it’s a country. A beautiful country with beautiful people.” Peacetime and the filmmakers’ discerning choices allow us to appreciate what fear, anger, and war coverage could not.
What I found most touching and valuable were the veterans’ memories and how they related to their surroundings. A Vietnamese rider in his 30s recalls being evacuated from his home in Hanoi and watching from a distance as the city was bombed repeatedly. Another spoke about the My Lai massacre that claimed 504 people, including 153 children, recalling that “Our hatred for the enemy boiled over” and transformed into campaigns of revenge.
To a person, the American vets suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. They talk with the team psychologist and among themselves as their trip south through rice paddies and Agent Orange-scorched fields that were once deadly traps for them unnerved them more and more. A bucolic afternoon at China Beach, where soldiers went for R&R with the war raging only a few kilometers away, gives way to a painful memory for Diane Carlson Evans, an Army nurse who founded the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., of another nurse who was killed nearby by a piece of shrapnel. The humor of the lifeguard at the beach waving long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad away from the rough surf transitions to a late-night rap session during which Carlson Evans reveals her abiding shame: “We feel we did something very bad.” A rainy day conjures memories of being soaked, trudging through mud, and then drying in the hot sun, only to be soaked again, this time with sweat, and covered with the biting red ants that were everywhere.
Nonetheless, struggle is sometimes its own reward. The climb up the steep Hải Vân Pass marks a turning point for some of the riders, as a policeman who discouraged the attempt comes to understand how much succeeding, particularly for the hand-pedal riders, means to them. Amputees Dan Jensen and Tran Van Son hit it off like gangbusters and give their artificial limbs a workout in an impromptu footrace; in the film’s postscript, Jensen brings Tran to his home in Sioux Falls, S.D., to get a proper artificial leg and run in a rematch.
All of the veterans found that the ride, the contact with Vietnam and the Vietnamese in a safe and comradely context helped them calm their demons. This seemingly happy ending, however, poses nagging questions to viewers by simultaneously offering a chilling indictment of the war and America in its aftermath. As the crowds cheer the riders as they enter Ho Chi Minh City, the American veterans contrast it with the brutal cold shoulder they received and continue to receive in the States. Jose Ramos, who developed drug and alcohol problems and made multiple suicide atempts after his return home, says “What America could not give me in 30 years, I have found in Vietnam in a matter of days.” Jerry Stadtmiller, disfigured and half-blinded, thought he would be defending freedom, but found out that “freedom had nothing to do with it.”
Directors Blumenthal, Gilbert, and Quinn made a record of a small, but successful attempt to bring peace to warring minds and hearts, and further understanding and friendship between former enemies. In the United States and in other restless countries, ideology has turned people against each other again in ugly, often violent ways. Vietnam, Long Time Coming has something to teach us in this crucible moment in time, if we choose to listen.