Vet nonfiction helmers Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders’ “Return With Honor” is a potent look back at the experiences of American POWs in North Vietnam, one made strikingly immediate by the unprecedented amount of hitherto unavailable enemy propaganda footage. One Vietnam War docu that — for better or worse — scarcely references the big question of whether U.S. involvement was justifiable , pic features highly dramatic content and neutral politics that may attract a larger-than-usual aud for this genre in theatrical release, with broadcast showcasing sure to follow.
Coming out in the same year that boasted such Oscar-unnominated docus as “Hoop Dreams,” Mock and Sanders’ prior artist portrait, “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision,” stirred some controversy over its winning of the 1995 best documentary feature award (not least because Mock was doc committee chairman during the previous two years). Their latest, however, deserves all the prizes that pro, but unexceptional, feature reaped.
After initial sequences (reprised at the end) showing latter-day U.S. military personnel in training, pic dives into the recollections of its eight or so principal interviewees, now in middle age or older. These onetime POWs include several high-ranking “top guns,” like Korean War ace Robbie Risner — whose capture was a particular propaganda coup for the Viet Cong — as well as lesser-sung servicemen. Starting with Ev Alvarez, the first American shot down in North Vietnam (on Aug. 5, 1964), many recall vividly the terror of abandoning their attacked plane or ship to wind up on the ground instantly surrounded by weapon-bearing citizens.
That was just the beginning, however, of a behind-the-lines stay that for some would last as long as eight and a half years. Cut off from all contact with superiors, family, the news or even one another, the prisoners housed at their infamous “Hanoi Hotel” prison were subjected to lengthy beatings and torture.
Despite such will-breaking conditions, many found ways to resist, such as one man’s painting a cell wall with his own blood, or another’s signifying the word “torture” with his eyebrows when made to recite pro–Ho Chi Minh dogma for the cameras. All developed elaborate codes for communication (mostly by tapping on cell walls) so that the prisoners eventually knew one another quite well — often without having any visual contact whatsoever.
Perhaps reflecting their extensive training as primarily high-level military personnel, the subjects here are surprisingly composed, even casual as they recall often gruesome experiences, becoming emotional only when recounting their homecoming. Latter event occurred in February ’73, when negotiations led to the release of all 462 U.S. servicemen still being held captive.
This vocal testimony would be powerful enough abetted only by the still photos and Western military footage seen here. But “Return With Honor’s” most stunning element is its additional deployment of reels only recently released by the now-friendly Vietnamese government. The wartime-era North Vietnamese propaganda minster believed such extensive visual records were an inestimable tool in boosting morale.
So from planes being downed to ground capture, on through their cell life and rare public moments (e.g., being paraded through the streets of Hanoi for heckling, debris-throwing crowds), POW experiences are often shown exactly as recalled. Of course, Viet Cong filmers refrained from preserving torture sessions — though the medieval-looking restraints and devices are duly spied by contempo documakers visiting the abandoned prison sites.
Stories are deftly woven into one reasonably clear, chronologically ordered narrative. A significant sidebar gives air to several military wives, who remember being kept from speaking publicly about their husbands’ whereabouts or status (when known), though they finally organized to petition for greater government openness and action re American POWs.
With opinions still bitterly divided a near quarter-century after this protracted conflict’s end, “Return” may invite criticism for avoiding politics. At the same time, while the men’s stories are inspiring as examples of courage, loyalty and endurance, pic is careful to avoid overtly connecting those qualities to any stock patriotic jingoism.
Tech package is straightforward and accomplished.