‘Frontline,’ AE’s ‘My Lai:’ Why PBS Still Exists

If you need a reminder why public television still has utility and value, look no further than “Obama’s Deal,” the latest edition of PBS’ “Frontline,” airing on April 13; or “My Lai,” a riveting “American Experience” documentary on the Vietnam massacre of civilians, set for April 26.

FLNObamasDeal_Photo In cool, detached, meticulously reported strokes, the “Frontline” documentary (from the team of Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore and Mike Wiser) goes about chronicling the history of the issue, the sacrifices the Democrats made to complete its passage and the unanticipated side effects of reform — many of them, especially in the political arena, still unknown.

Compared to much of the reporting and commentary on healthcare — much of which has resorted to scare tactics and name-calling — it’s a complete breath of fresh air.

What emerges, foremost, is a portrait of the president as a pragmatist and deal-maker — far from the ideologue that conservatives paint him as, or many liberals would like him to be. That includes recognizing, as the narration notes, that with the White House’s hopes under siege, “a war with the insurance industry was just what the doctor ordered.”

Speaking of Obama’s victory in securing a bill — even one that many on both sides see as flawed and imperfect — Washington Post reporter Dan Balz noted, “There is a realism that it has come with a cost. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the November elections. … But there’s no question that this health care battle has put his party at risk.”

Ultimately, the Democrats decided no guts, no glory. And “Frontline” keeps reminding us that without public TV and radio, there would be precious few havens to provide this sort of detailed, dispassionate reporting.

Mylai As for “My Lai,” it’s a beautifully executed look at a still-open wound from the Vietnam War, the one that helped put the terms “U.S. soldier” and “baby killer” into the same shouted taunts.

In the 83-minute film, director Barak Goodman manages to cover the preamble to events, the massacre and its aftermath, including the cover-up, eventual trial of Lt. William Calley and its impact on politics in the U.S. The interviews range from members of Charlie Company and journalists to villagers who survived — many of whom lost the rest of their families.

It’s a painful memory all around, especially for those who like to think that the U.S. military can do no wrong. Yet given recent disclosures regarding civilian casualties in Afghanistan, the project seems timelier than ever, contemplating what we can fairly expect of military personnel thrust into such situations in far-away locales.

Of course, PBS does a lot more than this, particularly by catering to two undervalued demographics — old farts (with arts programming) and pre-schoolers. Sober documentaries, though, are also an endangered species beyond the confines of HBO, and occasionally Discovery.

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  1. Check out our new alternative to “old farts” arts programming for PBS. It’s called SOUND TRACKS: Music Without Borders, and the idea is to cover music (but no Lawrence Welk) in the U.S. and all over the world for a younger, more diverse PBS audience.
    Our pilot episode aired in January. PBS just gave us a green light for a 6-episode series for next year. We are now raising matching funds.
    We really do hope to revitalize arts progmming on PBS — long over due!
    And I say this has a longtime former producer and senior producer for the still great “Frontline” series.

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