Welcome to Season 3 of Lies Agreed Upon, a podcast about Hollywood and history.
I’m Lia Paradis.
And I’m Brian Crim.
It’s kind of a cliche to say we all lived through the Cold War. Sure, we lived with the specter of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads, but truth be told it seemed pretty remote to most Americans and probably Russians too. I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot more stressed out post-9/11, post Trump, post-accelerated end of world climate change than I did about some Strangelove scenario. The movies we covered so far address the big issues we associate with the Cold War – nuclear war, McCarthyism, vast military industrial complexes, and shadow governments. But the Cold War wasn’t remote or academic; it filtered down to every corner of life and every corner of America.
We both know our Cold War history pretty well and can tick off all the major events and dates. We know all the proxy wars that bled both sides dry and wreaked havoc across the globe. I mean, Cold War for who? Not in Central America, Afghanistan, and most of all, Vietnam. We could do a whole season or three on Vietnam war films for Lies Agreed Upon, but in this one episode we chose three films that get to a very specific point about the Cold War’s omnipresence in daily life. You wouldn’t associate any of these films with how Vietnam figured into the Cold War dynamic, or even about the war in Vietnam proper. These are about the homefront and a reminder, or is it a revelation, that the Vietnam War deeply wounded American society from top to bottom.
Ok, so that’s not a profound comment, but we forget the whole 15 year folly was a Cold War decision, a containment era fait accompli that the best and the brightest didn’t really bother to deliberate. If you embrace the domino theory, then what choice do you have? We aren’t here to revisit Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. The point this week is to address how Hollywood dramatized what the war did to us at home, not just to the soldiers in country. Our first film is Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), an epic taking us from the Allegheny mountains in PA to Vietnam and back again. Hal Ashby’s Coming Home also came out in 1978 and dares to represent the plight of severely wounded veterans and their caretakers, mostly women, whose experiences are largely dismissed by Hollywood. The third film is the first to reflect on the experience of Black soldiers. Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods came out in 2020, a time when Vietnam seemed like ancient history. But, it’s really not.
So what are the lies agreed upon for this episode? I think the first is what we just said – the Cold War was a distant, persistent threat to our existence but it didn’t influence our daily lives at the ground level. Our fascination with Vietnam films stems in part from our desire to know what it was really like. And of course it influenced the lives of the half a million sent over there and millions more drafted into the effort. But, what did it to us at home? Was there any corner of life unaffected by the war? These films tell us, No.
The second lie concerns how we tend to treat Vietnam, at least in pop culture, as a separate event from other sweeping socio-cultural changes happening at the same time. So many of our favorite films on the subject are about the soldiers facing all the physical and psychological traumas thousands of miles from home. Think Platoon, or Full Metal Jacket, or the mythic Apocalypse Now, which of course isn’t even trying to comment on reality. Coming Home and Da Five Bloods in particular show how Vietnam fundamentally altered society, such as Jane Fonda’s character turning from status quo conservatism to feminism after being exposed to the misery of returning veterans, or the the five bloods framing their struggles as black men in America through the lens of the their Vietnam experience. Spike Lee even manages to link the legacy of Vietnam to Trump. The point is no part of society was untouched by Vietnam. There was nowhere to hide.
Let’s recap these films, two from 1978, a year that kicked off a decade of memorable Vietnam war films, and one with quite a bit of distance from the event made just a few years ago. Let’s start with The Deer Hunter, directed by Michael Cimino and co-written by Cimino and Derek Washburn. What can we say about Cimino? He’s what we might call “eccentric”? The Deer Hunter was his great, improbable success. He won best director, best picture, and then his next effort – Heaven’s Gate – was one of the greatest box office bombs in history. The Deer Hunter is also blessed with one of those legendary casts from the 70s – Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Jon Savage, John Cazale, and I’ve always been a fan of George Dzunda, great character actor. Walken won Best Supporting Actor and this is Streep’s first nomination of many thousands, as we know.
The making of the film was an epic in itself, over budget, filled with crazy infighting over the script. If you’re really interested in it you can read all about it, but what is it about these big Vietnam war movies and crazy production stories? Deer Hunter had its own Heart of Darkness vibe like Apocalypse Now, but what we see on screen is just stunningly beautiful cinematography and of course memorable performances. It’s not without controversy. I think we both agree it is bigoted and simplistic about the Vietnamese themselves. Not a lot of thought went into the politics of the war or even feigning some realism about combat.
This sprawling epic begins in the very distinctive tight-nit slavic community of Clairton, Pennsylvania in 1968. We are immersed in this working-class steel mill town populated by Russian and Ukrainian Americans shortly before a wedding and the three principal characters – Mike (DeNiro) Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Walken) are about to leave for Vietnam. Mike and Nick are super close friends who both love Linda, Meryl Streep, who suffers living with an alcoholic father. Cimino just drops us into this world and lets the camera take it all in. There is minimal dialogue. He lets us eavesdrop and we get so much from ambient noise and dialogue, visual cues. It’s really quite beautiful.
The guys have no idea what to expect in Vietnam. It’s just a duty, something expected, but they get a taste of what it is like coming home when they see a veteran at the bar where the wedding reception is held. This guy is stone cold silent and they just want to get some insight about what’s its like over there. Let’s play that clip.
Fuck it. It’s not the interaction they were expecting. Later, we see Mike return pretty much the same way.
Well, the bonding and ethnic rituals go by the wayside as we are suddenly in 1969 and the three guys find themselves prisoners of the Viet Cong. This is the infamous Russian roulette scene with these cartoonishly evil Viet Cong torturing and killing their captives. Mike’s quick thinking leads to the three escaping, going through more hell in the process. Nick is hospitalized with trauma, but few can understand his psychological damage and the doctors treat him callously. He walks off into the middle of Saigon and discovers an underground Russian roulette tournament that just goes on and on endlessly. He’s strangely drawn to it and we’re left with the impression this is his life now.
Yes, and Mike returns home just antisocial and withdrawn, preferring to hide from his welcome home party. Steven is an invalid with no real purpose or identity. It’s like everything is torn apart. Mike and Linda grow closer together amid this despair, but Mike feels obligated to go find Nick, who deserted, after Steven shows him all this cash he regularly receives from Saigon. Mike goes back as the city is falling and discovers the roulette game, desperate to get Nick back, but he’s a heroin-addicted zombie. [This is one of the film’s criticisms. Saigon obviously fell in 1975, but this is supposed to be just a year later at the most] In one last game between the two, Nick pulls the trigger and kills himself. The film ends with Nick’s funeral and everyone singing God Bless America.
Coming Home was directed by Hal Ashby, one of the pioneer New Wave Hollywood directors responsible for a slew of great films. The Last Detail, Harold and Maude, Shampoo, Bound for Glory about Woody Guthrie, and Being There to name a few. The story is from Nancy Dowd who worked, along with Jane Fonda and Jon Voigt for years to get this film made. The heart of the film is the burgeoning relationship between Jane Fonda, a conservative housewife volunteering at a VA hospital, and Jon Voigt, a parapalegic veteran embittered by the war. Bruce Dern is Jane Fonda’s husband, a gung ho Marine, and Robert Carradine plays a veteran with psychological trauma. Penelope Milford plays Robert Carradine’s character’s sister, who volunteers with Jane Fonda at the VA. Fonda and Voigt won the Best Actor awards, unsurprisingly.
Coming Home takes place almost entirely in California in the late 1960s, the same time frame as The Deer Hunter. Remember 1968 was the year of the Tet offensive and really marked the year the US committed to a limitless war effort. Whatever illusions we had about quick victory ended that summer. We see this in Bruce Dern’s character. His bravado was apparent when he shipped out, but he comes home sullen, dejected, and suicidal.
The film begins with a conservative Sally (Jane Fonda) slowly becoming aware of the inadequate care patients at the VA are receiving. She’s frustrated by other silent majority-type women freezing her out and takes matters into her own hands. While volunteering she befriends Luke (Jon Voigt), who was paralyzed in Vietnam and takes out his frustrations on anyone and everyone. The two fall in love and remain so after Bruce Dern returns, complicating matters. As Luke comes out of his shell and sees opportunities to be proactive about ending the war, protesting and speaking about his experience, Dern retreats.
There are other tragedies along the way, such as Robert Carradine, who only saw 2 weeks of the war, and yet commits suicide. Also, Army Intelligence grows wary of Luke and informs Bruce Dern about the affair, leading to a confrontation between the love triangle. In a memorable final scene, Luke speaks his truth to young men eager to fight about his experience while Bruce Dern strips off his uniform and wades into the ocean, drowning himself. I think it’s worth playing that scene and listening to Luke’s speech.
It’s a long clip, but you can cut out parts where its just Dern and music:
I’m always struck by how great John Voigt and James Woods were, and honestly Voigt is still great if you are a Ray Donovan fan. Do they recognize themselves when they see films like this or Salvador and The Way We Were, which we talked about in another episode? Oh well.
Da Five Bloods from 2020 is c0-written and directed by Spike Lee. His partner on Black KKKlansmen Kevin Wilmott is the other writer. There’s an interesting story behind this film about five veterans returning to Vietnam to honor one of their fallen friends and retrieve buried gold. It was originally intended for Oliver Stone, but when he dropped out Spike Lee was determined to make it a story about Black soldiers in Vietnam. Surprisingly, there’s never been a film focused solely on this group that served in far greater numbers than their percentage of the overall population. Thank the draft for that. But, in 2020, Spike Lee does it and received the usual mix of praise and criticism, although much more praise in this case.
The cast is great and includes some of Lee’s favorites as well as some talented Vietnamese and French actors. The five bloods, who are all named after the Temptations, are the following: Delroy Lindo as Paul, Clarke Peters as Otis, Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. as Melvin, Norm Lewis as Eddie, and Chadwick Boseman in one of his last roles is Stormin Norman. Jonathan Majors plays Paul’s son, David. You have Johnny Tri Ngyuen as their intrepid tour guide, Jean Reno as a corrupt French villain, and Melanie Thierry as a French aid worker. Da Five Bloods got plenty of awards, but I was really disappointed Delroy Lindo did not win his category. It’s a really, really impressive performance.
The film begins as Spike Lee films often do, with a montage of historical footage. In this case he edits together images of Black soldiers, important civil rights moments and figures speaking about Vietnam, and iconic moments like Kent State, the boat people, and then the sack of Saigon. Angela Davis has a really powerful and and prophetic statement for 2020 about how we should expect fascism in our future.
The action moves to Paul, Otis, Eddie, Melvin, and their squad leader Norman, the Five Bloods” in a helicopter with a mission to secure the site of a CIA airplane crash and recover its cargo, a locker of gold bars intended as payment for the Lahu people for their help in fighting the Viet Cong. This was an actual CIA tactic, arming tribes. The Bloods decide to take the gold for themselves and bury it so they can retrieve it later. It’s Norman who convinces them the gold can be used for reparations for Black people, not for personal gain. They actually learn about the assassination of Martin Luther King from Hanoi Hannah, the very real NorthVietnamese propagandist, while on the mission. Interestingly, this scene is based on her actual broadcast. Let’s play it:
This is what sparks Norman’s decision to keep the gold, but the Viet Cong attack and Norman is killed. A napalm strike destroys the site and all the identifying landmarks.
We should say here that Spike Lee chose to have his actors play themselves in both timelines, 2020 and 1970. This is why Chadwick Boseman is cast as Norman and the other bloods are much older. The point is these guys are remembering past events as older men and Norman will always be the age he was when he was killed. He also films the flashbacks in the style of 1970s films. He also references a lot of his favorite Vietnam films in his own, especially Apocalypse Now. It’s super meta, you can say. Like all auteurs, Spike Lee is very deliberate about his choices and you can find some great interviews on his process for this film.
The bloods are reunited in present day Vietnam when they learn a landslide uncovered the crash site. Each of them has had different life trajectories, some successful, others, like Paul, struggles in every way. His son David shows up unexpectedly on the trip. They are estranged and we learn, among other things, that Paul is a Trump supporter and harbors a lot of rage against immigrants, the Vietnamese still, and basically is unhappy. His PTSD is intense mostly because he is the one who accidentally killed Norman. We’ll play a clip later with Delroy Lindo getting into how he approached playing this unique character.
The plot is pretty complicated to relate here, but basically the five bloods wander back into the jungle to retrieve the gold but others are after it too, including an opportunistic French embassy official and descendants of the Lahu people for whom the gold was originally intended. The whole modern day Vietnamese landscape is littered with remnants of the war, including land mines that claim several people, and the French presence is a reminder that it all starts with colonialism. As Vinh their guide says, “The war never really ends.” Paul is also killed but after he gets absolved for his guilt. The film ends with the survivors using the gold to better the lives of their community, whether it is a Black Lives Matter organization or Morehouse College, the HBCU Spike Lee attended.
Let’s revisit our lies agreed upon and get into some more details about how our three films relate to them. First is the idea that the Cold War is an abstraction, something that threatens all life, dictates foreign policy, and occasionally intrudes in our culture, but is ultimately far removed from daily life. Even Vietnam, which tore the nation apart along political lines and drafted 2.2 million men, is often remembered via pop culture as a distant war that certainly traumatized front soldiers, but those who lived with those men, near them, or cared for them upon their return are kind of forgotten. Our films this week do a better job than most of tracing the legacy of this Cold War Containment conflict in daily American life.
There’s a particularly powerful and understated scene in The Deer Hunter with Sally and Mike sitting in a car together. Mike has returned from Vietnam and wanders the town, this poor little steel town filled with generations of the same people doing the same jobs, and no one knows how to act around him and vice versa. Sally grinds away at the grocery store day in and day out, mourning her life there. They both mourn Nick, although his absence means their more genuine love can grow. But the scene comes at the end of the day and they’re just staring out at the claustrophobic town. Sally says, “Did you ever think your life would turn out like this?” It’s classic Michael Cimino with the minimal dialogue. When you hear some, its usually profound.
To me, this is kind of the point of The Deer Hunter and this episode. Even in Clairton, Pennsylvania the war has fundamentally altered their lives.
Yes, obviously the men who left for war as volunteers are altered. One is crazy, another an amputee, and Mike is a shadow of his former self. The men who stay behind, John Cazale and Georg Dzunda for example, are still these simpletons who can’t relate or understand their blood brothers. The ones they hunt with. All that ethnic loyalty and pride and deep roots in a place are frayed by this distant war. There’s a lot Cimino gets wrong about Vietnam. I mean, he really doesn’t even try because the story is about these people at home, or what coming home looks like.
And the women, who let;s face it, are pretty nonexistent in any film about Vietnam, are fundamentally altered too. John Savage’s wife is a complete wreck, barely able to speak when Mike visits her. She is stuck with an infant and a husband in a VA hospital she barely knows. The other women in Clairton are working poor, abused by their men (partners and fathers both), and the war is about to make things even worse if and when their men return. I think there are different ways to interpret the ending when they sing God Bless America. Is it genuine patriotism, or a kind of ironic statement about the fate of Nick, someone driven to madness by a war none of them understood but felt compelled to fight?
The other two films reflect this first lie, too. In Coming Home a harsh light illuminates the magnitude of the problems that lie ahead for what will be hundreds of thousands of severely wounded veterans and those with PTSD, a new diagnosis after Vietnam. Coming Home foregrounds women caretakers and the incredible burdens they must bear in the absence of an adequate welfare state.
Da Five Bloods manages to show generational trauma and damage. Paul is a broken person, a bad father, and a dangerous citizen of his country because of what he went through. The other bloods think they left their problems behind, but returning decades later reveals they’ve been carrying the pain of being a Black veteran all along. In the quiet moments of an otherwise crazy film at times, there’s no denying their pain derived from serving a nation that despised them and broke all its promises to them, decade after decade.
Our second lie is about the symbiotic relationship between the Vietnam War and every social, cultural, and political movement at the same time. I think most educated people know this if they took a good college history course, but do we see this reflected in pop culture? Not always. The war is distant, mythical at times, but our films highlight these connections in subtle and not too subtle ways. Coming Home is an early example of acknowledging what will become known as PTSD . It also dramatizes how this epidemic affects everyone else. I found this 1982 news CBS news report discussing nurses and their own struggles and it seems appropriate here:
How did we get there? A distant war fought for abstractions like the domino theory and containment becomes in its own way another total wary. It accelerated social and political change while opening up new wounds that a film like Da Five Bloods implies never heal.
Part of the reason why those wounds haven’t healed is because of the power of film, interestingly enough. Benjamin DeCarvalho has written a really interesting article about how much the collective memory of the Vietnam War and its veterans, was shaped by the Deer Hunter and Coming Home. Both movies, he argues, stripped out the politics, turning vets into heroes by making them victims of politics. It also cemented them as being overwhelmingly white, which, of course, was not the case.
So through the narratives of those 2 films, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum were able to replace a memory of division and domestic turmoil, and replace it with a collective memory of veterans’ sacrifices. But that cohesion came at the price of silencing and erasing black vets experiences.
Spike Lee talked about showing his film to an audience of Black and Brown Vietnam Vets in a Netflix interview. It was emotional for all of them, as you might expect, and he talked about why he felt the need to focus on this particular group of veterans. He’s always been a film historian in the same way a Marty Scorcese, one his mentors, tries to be. Let’s listen to him:
Correcting that false narrative, or diversifying the existing ones, is vital. That’s what he does here in between some of the more ludicrous plot points in the story.
Da Five Bloods is a really interesting film because it returns to Vietnam from the perspective of 2020. It’s not just the unique and long-overdue story of Black soldiers. It’s like 45 years removed from our 1978 films. Spike Lee can use the added decades of experience to make the film relevant to present times, like what he does here with Norman’s speech about the gold. Notice the 1619 reference:
Yes, and later he gets into police abuse and other issues at the top of people’s minds in 2020. A lot of BLM related dialogue is in Da Five Bloods in both timelines, which really emphasizes continuity.
I think the character of Paul is most interesting. He takes his rage and directs it at others – his son, immigrants, whomever. It’s why he is drawn to Trump, which the actor Delroy Lindo had a real problem with. This Rolling Stone interview he does gets into how he reconciles that fact with the character and it’s worth playing some of:
I think that’s just a great peek at how actors prepare. Paul’ arc is really the heart of the film, which at times is a mess and busy and all very Spike Lee, but the message comes through that this moment – the Vietnam War – is a giant source of pain for Black veterans and yet another betrayal. We can trace so much back to the war. Look what they brought home with them, and while Da Five Bloods ends on a note of positivity and reconciliation, it shows us these wounds are still open unless we acknowledge them continually and honestly. I give Spike Lee credit for that.
The Vietnam War film is such a popular genre. There’s always a holy trinity with Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and people cite Platoon and The Deer Hunter gets in the mix, too, but usually not for the reasons we discussed today. Our point in this episode was to introduce, or re-introduce Vietnam War films that get to the war at home, that emphasize the pervasive influence of a Cold War conflict on daily life far removed from southeast Asia in the 1960s and 70s. Even when you think the war is in our rearview mirror, a film like Da Five Bloods reminds you it is never really over, and not just for veterans.
The Cold War reached every corner of America, every segment of the population. We might not think about it that way, but the decisions made on behalf of the containment paradigm extended to more than atomic bomb drills and STEM classes in school. 2.2 million draftees, spiraling debts and social unrest, epidemics in disabilities and mental health crises, and increasingly more militant social movements are going to leave their mark. Just remember, the Vietnam War is the Cold War, and it came home with a vengeance.