A Bright Shining Lie (review)

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Talking the Talk

Yeah, you guys know I’m a big Bill Paxton fan. Alas, A Bright Shining Lie (an HBO original movie, based on Neil Sheehan’s biography of the same name) left me cold. At first glance, it would seem to offer the perfect role for Paxton: that of a sturdy, all-American kinda man not too strung out on testosterone. But Lie rarely lets Paxton express in action the passion he keeps talking about.

Lieut. Col. John Paul Vann (Paxton) is shipped off to Saigon in 1962 as one of those American military advisors sent to help the South Vietnamese in their struggle to fend off the Communist North. Vann is hungry for battle in this “exotic little war in an Asian paradise” — he sees it as a path to promotion to the Pentagon back home. “These are dangerous times, John,” warns Lee (Vivian Wu), the gorgeous native mistress he wastes no time in picking up. “But they’re exciting times, Lee,” he responds. However, he ends up stewing back at headquarters with the incompetent and corrupt Vietnamese commanders while the ill-prepared soldiers out on the front lines botch battles and have all the fun.

Watch this theme develop.

As Vann comes to realize that the advisor program is a sham and is inadvertently helping the Northern Viet Cong to arm themselves, Vann spills all to a newspaper journalist, Steven Burnett (Donal Logue). Which gets him into all sorts of trouble. So he’s sent home, where he ends up making an awful lot of presentations to Army brass about what they’re doing wrong in Vietnam. And resigns in frustration when they won’t listen.

More talking and stewing.

Vann talks his way back to Nam as a civilian advisor after President Johnson escalates the conflict. Which leads to more strategy conferences with General Westmoreland (Kurtwood Smith) and meetings with the journalist Burnett and parties with the U.S. ambassador (James Rebhorn). But this isn’t a story about a man whose passion was thwarted — if it were, not seeing our protagonist (I hesitate to use the word hero) in action would be ironic. Vann, unhappy as he was in many ways, lived the life he wanted to live — he was even more a soldier as a civilian. He came alive in battle, as demonstrated in the scene, late in the movie, in which Vann must fight his way to the American embassy during the Viet Cong invasion of Saigon.

A Bright Shining Lie is an excellent primer on the Vietnam conflict — Vann’s involvement is almost a metaphor for the U.S.’s involvement — but I would have preferred something a little less bloodless (in the figurative sense) and a little more passionate.

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