Missing: John Robertson” is almost a consumer warning film for families of MIAs in Southeast Asia: There are as many charlatans ready to take advantage of families searching for their kin as there are story angles to the Vietnam war. But this doc also goes to the heart of rumors and sightings with so much ease it makes the governments of the U.S. and Vietnam look either incompetent or conspiratorial.
Deborah Robertson Bardsley’s father, Col. John Robertson, USAF, was shot down over Vietnam when she was 11. As an adult, she headed to Vietnam with documentarian Carol L. Fleisher to follow rumors and sightings.
Their filmed quest follows paths in Vietnam and Russia filled with dead ends and empty promises, but these two women get right to the scene of where Americans were reportedly sighted or held. In fact, as Bardsley’s journey unfolds it becomes a search for any American — not just her father.
She encounters retired KGB general Oleg Kalugin, who tells Bardsley that the KGB, at the invitation of Vietnam, went to ‘Nam and interrogated American POWs being held there long after the war was over. He cannot remember whether Col. Robertson was one of those men (for that matter, he can’t relay any names).
Bardsley also visits Russian gulags and psychiatric wards where some say Americans were held or are being held. She never enters the gulags, but she and combat cameraman I-Li Chen enter a mental ward where more rumors surface, and one mental patient gives her the name of an American major. But the man’s schizophrenic and, as with most of the info she receives, she cannot believe it.
Back in Vietnam, she comes across Fred Kirkpatrick, an American who claimed during his run for the Illinois senate that he was approached by progressive Vietnamese who asked him to come to Saigon to arrange for release of Americans.
He claims to have seen an American held prisoner, and dangles the idea of Bardsley meeting her father in central Vietnam. But again, all falls through quickly enough, and, in this docu at least, Kirkpatrick and associates come out smelling like used car salesmen.
Undaunted, Bardsley heads for the jungles and the site of her father’s crash. There, villagers pretend to know of her father, but Bardsley admits they play to her emotion with generic details and unconvincing eyewitness testimonials.
It’s never shown if money is passed for information, but it seems to be the motivation for many whom Bardsley encounters.
But what looks like futility can be seen as success: Bardsley and Fleisher easily penetrate a seemingly difficult maze of Vietnamese and Russian runarounds. Production has a “60 Minutes” feel, with Chen’s omnipresent camera getting by guards and following Bardsley through her travels. And Bardsley, apparently an amateur investigative reporter, maintains the production’s intensity with her own emotion and desire for answers.
There are no Americans found in “Missing: John Robertson,” but Fleisher’s docu captures the unrelenting spirit of those who believe the book is not closed on American MIAs. And while no answers are provided here, more questions are certainly asked of this war that won’t go away.