Documentary review: We Went To War

I do like (occasionally) to see a film that doesn’t quite work – here often lies long discussions and interesting channels of thought that a wholly successful film might not inspire. Such is, for me at least, We Went To War, directed by the legendary film maker Michael Grigsby, who died earlier this year.

WWTW is a documentary about three Vietnam vets who had been the subjects of Grigsby’s 1970 doc I Was A Soldier, in which these same people as very young men spoke directly to camera about the war, what they had seen, what they were frightened of, what the future might hold. It’s a bleak viewing experience. Grigsby wanted to revisit the men 40 years on, to find out what had happened to them and how Vietnam had influenced their lives. Had time healed their pain in any way? The answer is a resounding ‘no’.

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I think I might have seen the original doc in the ’70s; I was at secondary school (remember them?) and very taken by history and politics. Vietnam was raging, America was raging, it was a terrifying time of deep uncertainty about the future.

The young faces of David, Denis and Lamar are familiar. I very much liked the decision not include any archive war footage in the new film, there is no need, we’ve all seen plenty of it on TV news. We Went To War is a beautifully shot film, the soft apricot tones of big American skies is breathtakingly gorgeous but I quickly tired of the numerous driving scenes and just how many roadside diners are there?! Too many for one film. While the men’s stories are undeniably heartbreaking, I didn’t feel that the most interesting aspects were followed up, nor that some of the claims made were verified. For example, one snippet dropped into the narrative was that ’18 vets commit suicide every day’ – do they? That is a devastating figure but where does it come from? Even though it’s a film about people describing their lives, I felt that such big statements should/could have been tested or challenged; is it true, or is it hearsay? If the film maker accepts that these people’s lives have been profoundly disturbed by Vietnam (and clearly they have) I think there is a responsibility to verify statistics that are left in the text, otherwise the power of the testimony is undermined, even though it’s plain that the distress of the men (especially Denis) is utterly genuine.

I don’t expect every film to make me think differently, but I do expect a film to suggest something for me to think differently about and this is what I felt is missing from We Went To War. Is it because I’ve been thinking about these topics for so long? I don’t believe so, because we can always be shown new ways of thinking. It’s a film that tries too hard to labour its point; surely most people accept that war leaves permanent scars. Perhaps the focus is slightly askew? Maybe the meeting between Vietnam and Iraq/Afganistan vets would have been more productive, and how about the role of women on the front line? Obviously there were none in Vietnam but there are women fighting in Afghanistan. These were the little gemstones that fell by the wayside here, but which could have provided a platform for some real insights into the effect of conflict on some of the participants. Given how prevalent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may be across the globe, this subject deserves as much exposure as possible – people of all ages, ethnicities and cultures are living with the horrendous consequences of armed conflict. I feel a bit mean making this criticism of WWTW, but I wanted to learn something that would make me angry, that would make me want to take action, do SOMETHING. So please don’t show me endless footage of long drives, cliched ‘closeup of thinking driver’ shots and please do question ‘the facts’ that crop up.

So while I didn’t rate this film too highly, it was worth a watch simply because, for me, it doesn’t work. But I would really like to see someone tackle the topic, give PTSD the attention it deserves; after all men and women daily sacrifice their physical and mental health in war and we all live with its consequences. Make us sit up and listen! Or have I missed the point? Am I expecting too much? Let me know what you think.

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