'Vietnam' is powerful, if lacking in production vaues

by Susannah Maurer | 11/6/98 6:00am

For a documentary that lacks the financial resources of feature-length films, "Vietnam Long Time Coming" captures with intensity and poignancy the emotionally charged journey of a group of Vietnamese and American, disabled and able-bodied veterans on a 1200 mile cycling journey across Vietnam.

The documentary was financed through the collaboration of World T.E.A.M. (The Exceptional Athlete Matters) Sports and Sports Illustrated Television in order to record the experience of the veterans' reconciliation with the enemy and with themselves (i.e. their physical disabilities and traumatic memories of war) that resulted from participation in a sports event.

Directed by Peter Gilbert, Jerry Blumenthal and Gordon Quinn, the creators "Hoop Dreams," the film is currently previewing in a U.S. tour that includes stops at select college campuses before its release to national audiences on NBC Dec. 26.

The film opens with the picture of the tense, anxious faces of U.S. veterans as they await the flight take-off for Vietnam. Soon they are on their bikes and forming bonds of similarity with Vietnamese veterans who share the same "war wounds" paralysis, amputated legs, blindness, etc.

A major theme that the film confronts is the struggle of the American veterans to come to terms with the guilt they feel for being responsible for the deaths of so many civilians.

"It was like a shot in the heart," one man says while watching the dedication ceremony of a hospital that he helped bomb during an air raid. "I was the guiltiest guy in the world after that happened. I wanted to go up to every person in the hospital and apologize."

Another man struggles with the guilt of being forced to kill young boys knowing they would kill him if he did not.

Some refuse to let guilt weigh them down, though. They argue that their brothers and best friends were being killed, too, and they refused to feel guilt for serving their country. After all, they were willing to offer their lives by serving in the war.

Though the camera is shaky at times and the inclusion of background noise makes it difficult for the viewer to focus on the dialogue in certain parts, the filmmakers manage to capture amazingly candid moments on film.

The viewer watches a U.S. and Vietnamese woman talk about marriage, a blind Vietnamese veteran give a traditional massage to a blind U.S. veteran and an American man break down in tears as a young Vietnamese schoolgirl presents him with a bracelet.

While the film tends to focus more on the thoughts and reactions of the Americans than of the Vietnamese, it does include some interesting observations and comments made by Vietnamese participants.

When asked how she feels about the return of these ex-U.S. soldiers, a Vietnamese woman replies, "We fight against those who run away, but not against those who return."

A Vietnamese cyclist is asked by a Vietnamese couple if the man standing next to him fought for the U.S. during the war.

"Yes," he says, "But today we are on the same team."

Many Vietnamese express the idea that they are a forgiving people by nature and that they would rather look to the future than dwell on the past.

Still, it is amazing to watch the people from villages that were bombed by the U.S. during the war come out to welcome the cyclists, apparently forgetting any sense of bitterness or anger that they might have harbored in the past.

It is difficult to review this film solely on the characteristics of good filmmaking without being affected by the sincerity and the intensity of the emotions conveyed by the participants in the journey.

Sure, the film lacks the quality of a high budget, Hollywood production and the narration is reminiscent of high school educational videos. The soundtrack is annoyingly generic, the cinematography is lackluster and the story begins to sound the same after awhile.

However, this is a movie that places content above form. The emotions of the participants are real, and it seems unfair to reduce them in any way because of imperfections in the film quality. The fact that these people are allowing some of their inner-most feelings of vulnerability, grief, confusion and anger to be taped is truly incredible.

After many breakdowns, many tears, much anxiety and much courage, the journey ends in Ho Chi Minh city where the cyclists join the town in a celebration of the development of reconciliation and goodwill between two former enemies.

As one of the Americans reflects upon the effect of the trip, he remarks, "What America could not give me in 30 years, I have found in Vietnam in a matter of days."

Hopefully the film will help American audiences to understand the power of reconciliation, of forgiveness, and of emotional confrontation.

One of the U.S. participants in the Vietnam Challenge put it best when he said, "Vietnam is not a war. It's a country. It's a beautiful country with beautiful people."