Arts of War
BY MARC LEEPSON
The moving film Music Within at its heart is a message movie,
which often does not make for an entertaining movie. Filmmakers
with messages tend to be heavy handed, and their messages
often destroy good plotting, rich characterization, and
believable dialogue. In this film, which won a slew of
awards at film festivals earlier this year and hit the
multiplexes on October 26, the message, fortunately, does
not get in the way of the filmmaking.
Director Steven Sawalich
tells the true story of Richard Pimentel (capably played
by Ron Livingston), an upwardly striving guy with a rocky
home life who joins the Army in a fit of pique, goes to
Vietnam, and all but loses his hearing after getting his
eardrums blasted out during an enemy attack. He comes home
to the same world the rest of us Vietnam veterans came
home to: indifference at best to our service and hostility
Add in his disability, and Pimentel must overcome
long odds to live a normal life. He does that and also becomes
one of the leading national advocates for the disabled. Pimentel,
in fact, was among the handful of activists who influenced
Congress to pass the pioneering Americans With Disabilities
Act in 1990.
Most of the time, this story plays out on film
believably and compellingly. The standout in the acting department
is Michael Sheen who does an astoundingly realistic job portraying
the real-life Art Honneyman, a pal of Pimentel’s who
suffers from cerebral palsy. Sheen is a British actor best
known for playing Tony Blair in The Queen. Here you cannot
hear any British accent because you can barely decipher most
of what Sheen says, which takes not a whit away from this
gutsy and endearing performance.
Yul Vazquez does a creditable job as Mike Stoltz, an angry
Vietnam veteran fighting an uphill battle against the ravages
of PTSD. Vazquez (whom you’ll recognize from many film
roles and as a recurring character on Seinfeld) makes this
character more than a caricature of the violence-prone, mentally
unstable Vietnam veteran we’ve seen too often on film.
Yes, he’s unstable, but the character is fully fleshed
out and multi-dimensional.
More good news: VVA member Dale
Dye, who took military technical advising to a new dimension
when he pioneered the art two decades ago, does the honors
on the Vietnam War in-country scenes, which were shot at
Subic Bay in the Philippines. As usual (as he has done in
Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Saving Private Ryan,
and a bunch of other movies), Dye makes everything military
look and feel just right. It’s
one more first-class achievement of this fine film.
Tommy Lee Jones’s face is the star of the taut Iraq
War-themed drama, In the Valley of Elah, which hit the nation’s
multiplexes in mid-September. And what a face it is. It has
more lines than a road map of the tunnels of Cu Chi. The
huge bags under his 61-year-old eyes sag deeply and despondently.
this bleak film, director and screenwriter Paul Haggis (best
known for his Oscar-winning screenplay of the Clint Eastwood
boxing flick Million Dollar Baby and for writing and directing
Crash, which took home last year’s Best
Picture Oscar) hones in relentlessly on the despondency,
frustration, and anger etched in Jones’s face.
Jones, in what The New Yorker film critic David Denby called “the
role of a lifetime,” has much to be unhappy about.
He plays a retired Army career MP—who did a tour of
duty in Vietnam in 1967— forced to perform the gut-wrenching
task of helping solve the murder of his twenty-something
son. The young man went missing not long after returning
from a tour of duty in Iraq. Not long after that, his dismembered
body turns up outside his stateside Army base, the fictional
Fort Rudd in New Mexico. The scene in which Jones, after
hopping in his pickup and driving all the way from his home
in Tennessee, arrives in New Mexico and identifies his son’s
body is all too bone-chillingly realistic.
On the surface,
what plays out after the murder is a police procedural, complete
with jurisdiction disputes (between the local cops and the
MPs), civilian interference (from Jones), red herrings, and
flashbacks to incidents in the war zone that may or may not
have had a direct impact on the murder. Haggis displays many
filmic strengths here, including an understated but accurate
depiction of military life. He gets great performances from
Jones and from dressed-down Charlize Theron as a civilian
cop who is a single mom. The always-great Susan Sarandon
has very little to do as Jones’s
The film quietly illustrates the unintended
consequences that have a way of arising after every war—consequences
related to how warriors fare emotionally after they return
to “normal” everyday life. There is a blunt message
here: taking part in a war is hell, and the current war is
no exception to that all-too-true axiom.
This film, which
is loosely based on a 2003 incident (the death outside of
Fort Benning of Army Specialist Richard Davis, whose father
was a career Army MP who had served in Vietnam), is not entertaining
in the usual sense. When you come out of the theater, you
won’t be in the mood for
a festive, five-course dinner, drinks, and dancing. But you
will take home the fact that wars do not end for participants
when the shooting stops or after they come home.
ARTS IN BRIEF
The psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who has specialized in studying
PTSD in Vietnam veterans, in September was one of 24 people
selected for the 2007 John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur
Foundation Fellowship, the so-called “genius awards.” The
$500,000 MacArthur grant, which you do not apply for, is
paid out over five years and is designed to help grantees
further their work. Dr. Shay has been working with Vietnam
veterans since 1987 when he started counseling at the Vet
Center in Boston. “The veterans simply kidnaped me,” he
told The Boston Globe. “They saw something in me that
I didn’t see in myself, and they utterly re-directed
That re-direction led Shay to look closely
at the classical works of Greek epic poetry, The Iliad and
The Odyssey, and to tie them to the real-life stories of
Vietnam veterans. Shay wrote two pioneering books based on
those subjects: Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the
Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma
and the Trials of Homecoming. Shay said he will use the grant
to continue his study of how to improve the way the U.S.
military handles PTSD.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center,
the ambitious museum and education center that is slated
to be added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington,
took one more step toward realization on October 18 when
the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts gave its conditional approval.
Congress passed legislation in 2003 authorizing construction
of the center on 5.2 acres across the street from The Wall,
on a tract that sits just north of the Lincoln Memorial.
As was the case with the Memorial, the funds for constructing
the center will be privately raised.
The Vietnam Veterans
Memorial Fund, which raised the money for The Wall, will
build the center, and the National Park Service will administer
it. The first design concept for the center, which was unveiled
at the October 18 hearing, includes 10,000 square feet of
exhibition space that is set two stories into the ground.
The center will have a bookstore, a resource facility, and
an elaborate, multi-level display area. The estimated cost
is $75-100 million; the VVMF has raised some $14 million
to date. Groundbreaking is scheduled for 2010.
not looking rosy at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum
in Chicago. The city of Chicago, which owns the renovated
factory in the South Loop that has housed the museum since
1996, wants the building back for city offices. Adding to
the woes: the one-of-a-kind museum which houses some 1,500
works of art from 125 veteran artists is in deep financial
trouble. “The situation is very dire,” said Jim
Holtzman, the museum’s treasurer. “At this point,
we’re trying to help stem the bleeding.” Also
on the horizon: opening the museum to art from veterans of
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and changing its name to
reflect that situation.
The museum is working hard to raise
funds to try to, as it puts it, “continue to bring
in new artists and their work and to support ongoing operating
costs.” For more
information on that effort, go to www.nvvam.org
latest exhibit, “Memories of an Era:
Reflecting Our Time,” which opened November 10, contains
thirteen large oil paintings by Jeanine Hill-Soldner. The
work represents the artist’s memories of her girlhood
in Hawaii when her father, Army Sergeant Dan L. Hill, shipped
out to Vietnam. The large paintings include images drawn
from her father’s photographs in Vietnam, juxtaposed
with 1965-66 era portraits of Hill-Soldner and her siblings
and mother on the home front.
“I hope many people connect
with this exhibit,” the
artist told the suburban Chicago Courier News. “It
was hard for me to paint. But there is healing in art. Before
I couldn’t talk about these things without crying,
but now after finishing it, I can.” The exhibit runs
until next June. You can see images of some of the work on
the NVVAM’s web site.
The 25-minute documentary film
Gene Boy Came Home had its world premiere in August in Montreal.
This National Film Board of Canada production, directed by
Alanis Obomsawin, tells the story of Eugene Benedict, an
Odanak Indian from Quebec, who joined the U.S. Marines, served
a hellish tour in Vietnam, and came back to Canada to a rocky
homecoming. Todd David Schwartz of CBS Radio called the film “a
work of quiet power” and “a compelling and heart-rending
look at one man’s struggle to hold on to his humanity
in the aftermath of his military service.” For more
info, including upcoming screenings, go to http: //www.nfb.ca/
More than 120 veterans attended the VA’s
National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in St. Louis, October
22-28. The veterans, all of whom are receiving care at VA
medical facilities, were selected from among other musicians,
dancers, actors, and artists after a year-long competition.
The week consisted of rehearsals and workshops and culminated
in an art exhibit and variety stage show on Sunday, October
John Brennan, who served as a Flight Operations coordinator
in 1970-71 with the Army’s 114th Aviation Helicopter
Company in Vietnam, is collecting nicknames that in-country
Army helicopter crews painted on their aircraft for a future
book. He has a thousand names so far and is looking for more.
Brennan plans to turn the data over to the Army Aviation
Museum and to the Vietnam Archive at Texas Tech University
after the book is published. If you’d like to help,
send an email to email@example.com
Margaret Brown is putting
together a book containing a glossary of terms from the Vietnam
War focusing on infantryman-speak. She also is looking to
add art from Vietnam veterans, especially drawings and photos,
to the book, as well as poetry. For more information, email
firstname.lastname@example.org or write to 100 Village Del Prado Way,
St. Augustine, FL 32080.
Christopher DeMaio at the Pennsylvania
Veterans Museum is looking for stories of Dustoff crews’ humanitarian
missions in the Vietnam War. “Most of the research
I have done has only scraped the surface of this with minor
notations in texts that were very vague,” he tells
us. So send your stories to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org and type “Dustoff Vietnam” in the subject line.
Tell them you read about it in these pages.
The Viet Art Center
Foundation in Garden Grove, California, is running a photographic
competition for Vietnam veterans for a 2008 exhibit entitled “Memories
from Viet Nam, 1959-1975.” For more information on
how to submit your photos electronically by the December
8 deadline, go to http://www.vietartcenter.ne