There is a great movie hiding somewhere inside “A Bright Shining Lie,” a film that’s as disturbing and revealing as it aspires to be. Yet while it boasts superb production values that often incinerate the screen, and some jaw droppingly vivid scenes, this HBO Pictures dramatization of Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize wining 1988 book can’t get around the fact that its hero is an autocratic, womanizing thrill-seeker who embodies all the moral character of a serial statutory rapist. That Bill Paxton makes us care about this man at all is a tribute to his inherent likability as a performer.
HBO spent $14 million to recreate the corrosive environment of the Vietnam War, making this the single most expensive two-hour movie ever produced by the Time Warner payweb. The hefty investment shows. The explosions and combat footage are wrenchingly realistic. And the opening sequence that’s shot from the perspective of a chopper carpet bombing peasant villages and slicing through billows of smoke as Grace Slick wails the lyrics of “Somebody to Love” is spectacular.
But at its core, “A Bright Shining Lie” thinks it’s telling us more than it ever actually does. Ten years ago, when Sheehan’s bestseller was released, it was far less commonly acknowledged that the U.S. military often lied about casualty figures during Vietnam to foster support for the war from the American people. It was likewise less known that American troops were often fighting their conflicted South Vietnamese allies as fervently as they were the enemy Viet Cong.
A decade of government mistrust has rendered these revelations almost redundant, however. The film, thus, becomes the story of one man — Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann (Paxton) — and his improbable crusade to send the truth back to America even as his personal life is one lie after another. Vann is equal parts hero, renegade, tactician, motivator and scum bucket. And in adapting Sheehan’s impressive work, writer director Terry George struggles mightily to flesh out Vann’s complexities without reducing him to an overstimulated sociopath.
Vann logged 10 years in Vietnam (1962-72), his tour of duty ending tragically in a fatal chopper crash. But before he quit the scene, he left his considerable imprint on the war effort by exposing the falsified battle reports and various other deceptions to an American newspaperman named Steven Burnett (nice work from Donal Logue).
This gets Vann (while he’s alive, natch) into a whole heap o’ trouble with his superiors, and his brash contradictions of the official military line earn him a free trip back to the United States.
But Vann’s tongue isn’t the only part of his anatomy that’s loose. His long suffering wife (Amy Madigan) is forced to lie for him in order to avoid her husband’s being court martialed for sleeping with an underage Vietnamese girl.
He is also enmeshed in a fling with a comely Vietnamese teacher of English (Vivian Wu) and, after returning for a second tour, he impregnates and is forced to marry another Vietnamese girl just out of her teens. Vann returns to Vietnam as a civilian in 1965 and straightaway gets promoted and decorated and ultimately made a general for his role in helping blunt the Tet offensive. Paxton surely commands the screen with his multi-layered performance. But by the final half hour of the film, helmer George makes it difficult to figure out just who — or what — this guy is, and why he’s worth centering his own movie. We see that he didn’t even stay true to his principles as the 1960s came to a close, selling out watchdog ethics in seeming exchange for a few colorful bars on his chest. What makes “A Bright Shining Lie” palatable is Jack Conroy’s scintillating photographic work, feature quality cinematography and smart performances from Paxton, Madigan, Logue and Eric Bogosian as Vann’s civilian aid partner Doug Elders.
This may be one of HBO’s most expensive moments, but it’s far from its finest one.