My first thought when I learned there was a new documentary about the My Lai massacre was: Haven’t we heard enough about My Lai? Second thought: Could there by anything new on My Lai that would merit a 90-minute documentary? Thirdly: Were we in for another self-flagellating television event that turns the Vietnam War into one giant atrocity–and, by implication, portrays all 2.8 million Vietnam veterans as run-amok killing machines?
I had one other thought, though: This documentary would be a production of the PBS American Experience series, which for years has produced incisive, top-quality work. After watching the documentary, I am happy to report that the director, Barak Goodman, and his crew answered all three of my questions more than satisfactorily.
Although the My Lai story has been told frequently in the news media and in books and other docs (including the excellent 1993 book Four Hours at My Lai by Brit journalists Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim), this new documentary covers the entire story in detail from beginning to end. It features revealing new interviews with members of Charlie Company; with Larry Colburn, one of helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson’s door gunners; with Aubrey Daniel, the Army prosecutor of Lt. William Calley; with Army photographer Ronald Haeberle, who was on the scene; and with others involved in the case. Not to mention with several Vietnamese survivors of the massacre. And with Bilton and others who have wide knowledge about it.
Goodman mixes in excellent archival Vietnam War footage, not all of it of Charlie Company, naturally, but most of it very evocative of the events before and after what happened on March 16, 1978. And he makes good use of the reports of the case on the network news, from the time it burst on the news scene in 1969 to the courts-martial of Calley and Capt. Ernest Medina.
The testimony of the Vietnamese villagers and voices and words of the newly interviewed Charlie Company men (Thomas Turner, Thomas Partsch, Joseph Grimes, John Smail, Gregory Olsen, and Lawrence LaCroix) were revealing and effective. The men made you feel what it was like on the ground, especially in the weeks before My Lai happened. The Vietnamese made you feel what it was like during the horror of the massacre.
As for the My Lai-as-aberration-or-business-as-usual question, this thorough, engaging and well produced documentary stuck to the facts of this incident–and the Army’s attempted cover up of it. There was no attempt to deal with other massacres in the war (by either side). That is as it should be.
The American Experience My Lai documentary airs tonight, Monday, April 26, 2010, on PBS stations nationwide. Be aware that there are gruesome photos of the massacre. But also be aware that this is an excellent documentary that gives a full, complete view of the My Lai massacre.
PBS also has an very good, extensive web site with even more info on My Lai and the making of the doc.