Saturday, January 5, 2008

Movie Review: Winter Soldier

Marine Scott Camil, image from

Winter Soldier
A film by the Winterfilm Collective, 1971, undistributed in the United States until 2005
DVD, Milliarium ZERO, 2006

[Note: I wrote this review at 4 a.m. this morning, unable to sleep after watching this movie I contend is "dull."]

"These are the time that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
--Thomas Paine, winter 1776. Opening lines of Winter Soldier

It is notoriously difficult to make a film about horror that is not titillating.
Horror films play on the power of danger and death to snap awake our animal senses—I think of the hunters and the hunted on the savanna––and sell the pleasure of feeling afraid in safety.

Films that want to convey the degradation not the pleasure of horror have a hard time doing so without calling up a whiff of attendant lust. A rare scene of sexual degradation that manages to convey repulsion without that whiff of eroticism is in The Lives of Others, when a slug of an East German state official coerces an actress into letting him fuck her in the back of his chauffeur-driven car. The woman’s total passivity in the face of what is essentially rape works like playing dead if a bear attacks is supposed to work: it neutralizes the fear/aggression response, even the muted voyeuristic one. Remaining passive while being attacked is pretty hard to pull off in life and it’s hard to pull off the equivalent in film too.

One of the most disturbing, morally challenging, and exciting films I’ve ever seen is Apocalypse Now (1978). The seductiveness of horror is consciously one of its central themes. It drives the narrative: as the protagonist Capt. Willard travels upriver in Vietnam during the war, deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness, he is drawn toward the sucking thrill of power exercised without restraints. Finally he arrives at Col. Kurtz, whom he has been sent to “terminate with extreme prejudice.” Willard recognizes in Kurtz the logical conclusion of our attraction to horror––becoming horror ourselves––and he recognizes himself. Director Francis Ford Coppola imbues the culminating ritualistic slaughter with ballet-like power and grace.

The film is rife with the visual and aural eroticism of violence. In a famous scene, American gunners come riding in out of the skies on the swelling strains of Wagner pumping out their helicopters’ open doors to spew the villages below in a triumphal release of pent up fire.
It’s impossible even to write about this thoroughly satisfying scene without getting charged up by the descriptive words’ kinetic energy.

I've heard Apocalypse Now called Aphrodisiac Now, but that is not to take away from its power and its truthfulness. On the contrary. A vet friend told me that he considers it the best, most truthful film he has seen to this day about what it felt like to be in that particular insanity.

The film’s pornography is a barrier, however, a contraceptive. The film stirs and even satisfies the libido, but I, the viewer, know full well that I face no risk of anything as pedestrian as pregnancy. I remain at a remove. Yes, the ugly, brutal, shocking images still disturb me to the point of sleeplessness. They were effective in making me, at seventeen, question my moral virginity. I am also aware that I am being, even against my wishes, entertained.

Tonight I saw a different kind of film: one that is disturbing, challenging, insightful…and dull.

Winter Soldier is an adrenaline flatline. The film records the testimony of U.S. soldiers who committed war crimes in Vietnam. The "Winter Soldier Investigation" hearings were voluntarily held in early 1971 by the veterans themselves, who said that atrocities committed against civilians, such as at My Lai, were SOP (standard operating procedure). More than 125 of these young men gathered at the behest of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) to put on record and to tell the public of the internationally illegal actions they had committed or witnessed in the war (which would continue for four more years).

Panels of vets are seated at long tables on a dais, facing an audience of journalists and other interested civilians. One after another, with little emotion, the men speak about how they tortured, raped, destroyed homes, mass murdered men, women, and children. They say they were brutally trained to kill. They say they wanted to be men. They say they were so frightened they didn’t care who they killed. They say they were bored out of their skulls. They say all this, these guys, for the most part not terribly articulately––these aren't college boys––in a conference room at a Howard Johnson’s motel in Detroit.

A documentary-making collective filmed the proceedings along with some interviews on donated black and white film stock that had passed its due date. The sometimes rough quality adds to viewer’s awareness that this is a film, a document, not a pretense of reality. No music, no Jimi Hendrix, and no dulcet toned voice-over intrudes on what we see and hear.

When I say the footage of talking heads is dull, I’m not saying it’s not horrifying. It is. I fast-forwarded through certain speeches so I wouldn’t have to finish hearing the details, for instance, of how some soldiers skinned a Vietnamese woman like a rabbit. But it doesn't offer a sick little thrill, it doesn't titillate, not even under the table, in some way I might be ashamed to admit. Because these men, they weren’t entertainers. Their faces… well, their very lack of emotion or their struggle not to show emotion or the occasional flash of an emotion inappropriate to civilized society, such as childish pride, as they talk about what men do at war conveys simply what war does to men. It’s not a movie I ever want to watch again, the way I watch “Apocalypse Now” every so often.
But you should see it.

Winter Soldier's lack of erotic charge leaves its stories imaginable, normal. The vets, too, are obviously normal guys. In this normalcy is the true horror, the banality that Hannah Arendt realized at the Nuremberg trials fuels evil.

Apocalypse Now is art. It is one of the greats. Winter Soldier is not—it’s a scrap of film off the junk heap of history. It is, however, oddly more devastating and by far a more effective antiwar film. We may recognize ourselves in extremis, our powerful, dangerous, edgy selves, in Kurtz or Willard. But we recognize our everyday selves, our normal, unentertaining, unsexy selves in these vets, these poor schumcks who went off to be Achilles and ended up in an abattoir.

"I just wanted you to know about it," one of the young men says.
His and his compatriots bravery in serving their country by speaking out deserves our love and thanks––then and now, in this time that once again tries our souls.


augustan said...

My dear little coblogger. You deserve highest honors for your truly awe inspiring review of "Winter Soldier." It took my breath away that an American woman could write so incredibly BRITISH..even better!!!!!

fresca said...

Thanks, Augustan.
Must be all those hours reading the British "Economist" paying off!