Because it’s bolstered by proud memories of Vietnam vets who turned against the war, “Sir! No Sir!” rings with an exultant, even elated tone. Documaker David Zeiger (“Senior Year”) sacrifices some depth and detail for a panoramic view of the organized antiwar movement among vets, providing a gallery of warriors unlike those associated with combat valor. Perfectly timed with new doubts about the Iraq war and with the re-emergence of participant Jane Fonda — who hasn’t been so electrifying on screen in years — pic should do solid specialty biz after nabbing audience doc award at the Los Angeles fest.
John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign revived public discussion about the phenomenon of thousands of U.S. troops openly opposing the war they were being sent to (or, more often, returning from), and while Zeiger’s film clearly benefits from this re-opening of the controversial topic, it’s also notable that Kerry’s name is never mentioned. Instead, other lesser-known stars of the vets’ antiwar movement, such as Donald Duncan and Dr. Howard Levy (the latter a subject of a much-publicized court martial), start off the saga.
According to some of the more than two dozen onscreen participants, soldiers generally backed the Vietnam war until North Vietnam’s 1968 Tet Offensive exposed the U.S. mission as fatally flawed. This coincided with a further rise in the already well-developed antiwar movement at home, as well as a wave of domestic and racial unrest and political assassinations.
What “Sir! No Sir!” crucially restores are many specifics of the troops’ resistance, even as it dispels myths regarding rifts between vets and civilian protestors. AWOL vets chaining themselves alongside priests and civilians in a San Francisco church, and subsequent acts of civil disobedience and rioting in the Presidio stockade, underline how serious the antiwar mood had become.
Pic partly depends on the recollections of individuals, among them Louis Font (the first West Point grad to ever refuse service), Terry Whitmore (with his much-publicized Swedish exile) and Bill Short (whose tearful recounting of tallying “body counts” is extremely emotional).
Still, it’s group actions that best capture the period’s collective spirit — a loose network of vet-published underground antiwar newspapers or accounts of open defiance of authority in the field.
Clips from the “Winter Soldier” hearings organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (and employing footage from the stunning and long unseen docu of the same name) provide only a glimpse into the hearings’ accounts of savagery that far surpass the worst atrocities at Abu Graibh.
And while the pic tends to jump around from subject to subject without ever exploring any one aspect in depth, still such sidetrips can provide a service, such as author Jerry Lembcke quashing the myth of returning Viet vets being spat upon by antiwar activists at airports.
Fonda’s memories of performing the lead in the “FTA Show” in 1971 (an anti-Bob Hope open-air show whose initials were adopted to mean “Fuck the Army”) insert a giddiness into the pic that clues viewers in to the counterculture excitement of the era. Fonda is in rare form both in the present-day interview and in a generous range of clips that counter the dour Hanoi Jane stereotype.
Zeiger appears influenced by the swift style of documaker Stacy Peralta, whose taste for grabber sound bites and funky animated graphics is pleasantly all over the film. May Rigler, as co-lenser and editor, plays a major role in keeping things at a smart, entertaining clip. Narration by Troy Garrity is unobtrusive.
Future programmers will be wise to double-bill this, for stark stylistic contrast, with Emile De Antonio’s angrier and more bitterly ironic “In the Year of the Pig.”