According to “Vietnam: Stories From the Wall,” the best war story ever written is a mere three sentences. “A bunch of us went to Gettysburg,” an anonymous Civil War veteran wrote. “Some of us didn’t come back. And if you weren’t there, you’ll never understand.” True, most people will never be able to really understand the pain and trauma endured in battle, but this documentary comes close.
According to “Vietnam: Stories From the Wall,” the best war story ever written is a mere three sentences. “A bunch of us went to Gettysburg,” an anonymous Civil War veteran wrote. “Some of us didn’t come back. And if you weren’t there, you’ll never understand.”True, most people will never be able to really understand the pain and trauma endured in battle, but this documentary, a collaboration between ABC News and the Learning Channel, comes close, by putting a personal face on some of the more than 58,000 names that adorn the Vietnam Memorial. Executive producer Lisa Zeff’s timely piece runs the gamut of emotions in its fast-moving hour, an experience not unlike visiting the Wall itself. Far from ordinary, the four stories told here seem hand-picked for dramatic value, but when delivered by the families and friends, and in one case the veteran himself, the stories transcend the maudlin. One of the most interesting is the 16-year battle that was fought to have Richard Fitzgibbon Jr.’s name added to the Wall. According to the Pentagon, Fitzgibbon’s death in 1956 preceded the beginning of the Vietnamese conflict. His family’s persistence led to the discovery of a photo depicting the transfer of anti-Communist forces from French troops to the U.S. soldiers five weeks before his death, thereby changing the accepted history of the war. But, as we learn here, once a name is added to the wall, it cannot be taken off. That came as a shock to veteran Dan Ouellette, who saw his name next to those of his fallen comrades. Ouellette, wounded in action, suffered severe post-traumatic stress syndrome from his Vietnam experience, and his trip to the wall marked another setback in his long recuperation. Throughout the docu, Zeff explores the public’s reaction to the memorial, including a look at the more than 65,000 offerings left there by family and friends. These offerings, collected by park rangers and stored in a government facility, are stories in themselves, and Zeff cleverly incorporates that into this piece. Colette Kunkel’s footage research is impressive, and the docu includes a tremendous amount of images ranging from still photos, news and home-movie footage, which help to propel interviews and narration. Music by John Hodian tends to overpower the piece, which is already wrought with enough emotion. A subtle touch would have worked much better with such powerful words and images. Tape reviewed lacked final technical credits, although Harlan Reiniger’s agility as editor brings the docu great continuity.