The closing credits of a documentary typically include a list of film and TV clips, along with the sources that granted their permission to use them. At the end of “Erase and Forget,” the list is jarringly different: It’s a catalogue of clips lifted off of YouTube, listed by their URL addresses. The director, Andrea Luka Zimmermann, shot her own material over a period of ten years, but make no mistake: This is a new way to make a documentary, exploiting the bountiful public record of the Internet age. It isn’t always satisfying — at times, Zimmermann seems to be presenting the raw material for a documentary. Yet she has grabbed hold of the tail of a fascinating subject: the life of James “Bo” Gritz, the Vietnam veteran who enjoyed 15 minutes of fame in the 1980s (he was said to have inspired the character of Rambo), and whose exploits lead to the paranoid pathology of where America is today.
Gritz (rhymes with “rights”), born in 1939, enlisted in the Army in the late ’50s and served as a lieutenant colonel in Vietnam, where he was a U.S. Army Special Forces commander. He collected a glittering pile of medals, but a number of his military awards were called into question, and that’s just the first of many chapters in what’s dicey about him. Was he really the model for John Rambo? Not at the beginning. The novel that “First Blood,” the original “Rambo” film, was based on was published in 1972, and by the time it was brought to the big screen (in 1982), it had been altered enough so that the Sylvester Stallone character, a grease-painted survivalist renegade at war with the U.S. government, was mostly a screenwriter’s concoction.
Yet by that point, Gritz had already launched the scam that became the basis of his “legend.” It was a fantasy of heroism that merged with the movies. Convinced that America had abandoned POWs in Vietnamese prison camps, Gritz put together a series of “missions” to Laos and Thailand to try and rescue those soldiers. He secured equipment from the U.S. military, and he used questionable documents to raise money from two celebrity sources (Clint Eastwood gave him $30,000, and William Shatner bought the movie rights to his saga for $10,000). The missions were never completed, but Gritz, dicking around with his shadier contacts from the war, said otherwise.
Everything about this story — the notion that American POWs were ever abandoned, Bo Gritz’ attempt to save them — was an elaborate piece of fake news. But the news became “real,” or at least a real piece of entertainment, when the PR mythology of Gritz’ POW rescue was used as the jumping-off point for the smash-hit 1985 sequel “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” The Rambo character was now hunting for stranded POWs, and his war against the U.S. military became larger-than-life. At the time, it seemed a trivial irony that Rambo’s rage combined left-wing anti-government cynicism — a tic left over from the counterculture — with Middle American yahoo gun lust.
But who knew that Rambo was creating the future?
Do you tend to get your information about the world from high-testosterone, oily-muscled ballistic action flicks starring Sylvester Stallone? It would seem the height of absurdity to say yes, but 32 years after “Rambo,” it’s clear that for a lot of people — including Donald Trump and his apocalyptic right-hand man, Steve Bannon — the U.S. government has become nothing so much as a sinister mythological creature: a dragon that needs to be blown up. Any shred of information that feeds into that mythology is embraced as the truth. (Hillary Clinton is a killer? Sure. The U.S. military left POWs in Vietnam? Of course.) The point being that in a culture built on conspiracy theory, the fantasy that is fake news rules the day.
“Erase and Forget” is basically a feature-length collection of clips of Bo Gritz, served up one after another, with the time period almost never specified. Gritz became a media presence in the late ’70s, so that’s 40 years’ worth of footage, and the audience has to place them by scanning the videotape image or by looking at Gritz and trying to suss out, in each case, how old he is. Oh, this is the lean-and-mean ’80s Bo! Okay, he’s thicker in the middle, with grayer hair, so it must be the ’90s.
What doesn’t change much is his voice, which carries the emphatic ersatz-macho snap of a right-wing talk-radio host (in fact, he was one for a long time). Whatever era he’s in, Gritz is selling the (fake) myth of himself. He even has his own “military training” seminars and videos, all part of a course he called SPIKE (Specially Prepared Individuals for Key Events). He’s a snake-oil charlatan: a war veteran who trumped up his military service, then fused it with showbiz. At the time, Gritz’s actions seemed laughable, but in the age of the ultimate trumped-up reality showman (namely, Donald Trump), they seem like an early version of the virus that ate our sanity.
Bo Gritz is — in a word — a wing-nut, something “Erase and Forget” evokes without ever totally defining or capturing. Yet there’s one chapter of his saga that the film nails powerfully: the part he played in the siege at Ruby Ridge, in 1992, when he helped to end the 11-day stand-off between Randy Weaver and U.S. Marshals by convincing Weaver to give himself up. That didn’t stop Gritz from going out afterwards and selling the notion that the U.S. Marshals trying to arrest Weaver — for the possession of sawed-off shotguns, which is illegal — constituted an invasion. And Zimmermann, in the context of this story, puts together a journalistic coup: She shows a photo of Gritz giving a Nazi salute to a group of white supremacists near Ruby Ridge, a shot that he claims caught him in middle of waving. Then she produces a videotape of the same moment — and no, it’s not a wave, it’s a full-on Nazi salute. At that point, “Erase and Forget” becomes a true piece of documentary filmmaking, which made me want to say to Andrea Luka Zimmermann: More, please.