The search for one of the last missing G.I.’s in Vietnam proves a long and winding road into a sad heart of darkness in helmer Henry Corra’s “The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan.” Provocative mix of docu and experimental film elements can’t quite dissipate an uncomfortable whiff of exploitation, suggesting limited exposure beyond fest play and select tube sales.
In 2006, haunted vet Dan Smith may have seen Texas native McKinley Nolan, officially AWOL from the Army since 1967, on the street while revisiting wartime haunts near Vietnam’s Cambodian border. This piques the interest of journalist Richard Linnett, who’s been researching Nolan’s odd case for a dozen years.
Together with Corra, the pair approach the soldier’s wife, Mary, and his brother, Michael, who have been waiting patiently and asking questions for more than four decades. Though the Army’s official line is that Nolan “went native,” anecdotal information is conflicting and the government refuses further comment. “If he was dead,” reasons his brother, “wouldn’t nobody be nervous.”
With Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee running political interference for visas, the four men fly to Ho Chi Minh City and begin an investigation that leads from the soldier’s second family to the killing fields of Cambodia and the long shadow of the Khmer Rouge.
Though assembled as a thriller and punctuated with hauntingly edited images of period conflict footage, pic gradually morphs into what Corra has admitted is an examination of Michael’s mourning process. Unfortunately, Linnett’s gung-ho mindset and Smith’s unvarnished anguish throw the pic’s delicate emotional balance out of whack and rob it of the resonance that should echo from their discovery.
Visceral tech package reflects pic’s on-the-fly nature. No editor is listed, though the closing crawl leads with “filming team” of Corra, producer Celia Maysles, cameraman John Romeo and Amar. Consulting producer on the project was Cambodian docu helmer Rithy Panh, whose films focus on the effect and aftermath of Pol Pot’s brutal rule.