Return With Honor

Now that Spielberg and Benigni have succeeded in dulcifying the Holocaust, here come the Oscar-winning doc-makers of Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision to restart the John Wayne–ing of Vietnam. No American film since The Green Berets has portrayed the 'Nam battle dynamic with such confident jingoism as Return With Honor, the first major theatrical documentary about the war since Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam. From that film's well-earned desperation to a stoic, all-American heroism—we've come a long way, baby. A talking-heads trip through the memories of the war's most prominent fighter-pilot POWs as they recount their experiences of capture and internment at the Hanoi Hilton, Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders's dull-eyed hymn sidesteps the bothersome issues of the war's futility and tragedy early on (with a single pilot saying he understood the war to be a "NATO-type" intervention), and then settles in for tales of torture and tough-guy survival amid the hordes of bloodthirsty communists.

The virtually all-white vets (including ex–VP candidate Admiral Jim Stockdale) all comport themselves modestly, unlike the filmmakers, who illustrate the often harrowing torture stories with drunken camera pans through jungles and old buildings. Since it's the only situation in that war free of ambiguities, the dynamics of withstanding torture are focused upon, and the boys would make the Duke proud. (More affecting is the pilot who ruefully remembers how his intercell tapping-code conversations with another pilot he'd never met were the most intimate he's ever had.) In this context, even being broken under shoulder-dislocating torture and spilling info to the Reds isn't shameful; these lads take what's being dished out and hold their Yankee heads high. Maybe the filmmakers went in wanting to make a POWs' Shoah, but obviously entranced by the eloquent resilience of their subjects, they came out with a flag-waver fit for a mall recruitment office.

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