Manic street preacher: What Would Jesus Buy? ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2007)

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Deck the halls with advertising, Fa la la la la la la la la

‘Tis the time for merchandising, Fa la la la la la la la la

Profit never needs a reason, Fa la la la la la la la la

Get the money, it’s the season, Fa la la la la la la la la

-Stan Freberg, from “Green Chri$tma$”

Joy to the world!

In the form of goods.

Consume! Consume! Consume!

-Rev. Billy and his choir

This week I thought we’d take a respite from holiday shopping to check out a new documentary called What Would Jesus Buy? Produced by Morgan Super Size Me Spurlock (who I like to refer to as “Michael Moore Lite”) and directed by Rob VanAlkemade, the film documents the public antics of improv performer/anti-consumerism activist Bill Talen, better-known as his alter-ego, Reverend Billy, the “spiritual” leader of the “Church of Stop Shopping”.

Talen honed his act in San Francisco, originally creating the stage persona of “Reverend Billy”, a flashy, big-haired TV evangelist who performs with the fearless, in-your-face conviction of a sidewalk preacher. The Reverend doesn’t preach traditional gospel, however. His “mission” is to rail against the evils of corporate retail giants. Talen calls attention to corporate sanctioned sweat shops, abused and underpaid store employees, and the cradle-to-grave brainwashing of American consumers by the advertising media-to anyone who will listen. His favorite targets include Disney (Rev. Billy considers Mickey Mouse “the Antichrist”), Starbucks and Wal-Mart.

In 2005, Talen and his troupe left their New York City home base to embark on a nationwide bus tour to spread the good word: “Stop shopping!” VanAlkemade and his film crew tagged along, as they executed their blend of street theater and social activism. The traveling church members stake out malls and retail chain stores, treating unsuspecting shoppers to impromptu sermons and Weird Al-style rewording of well-known hymns and Christmas carols. They also rent local public halls, where they stage “church services” and “revivals”. In one particularly inspired  church service, Rev. Billy exhorts attendees to come forward and have their credit cards exorcised; he collapses on cue for his  grand finale.

As the group treks across the fruited plains, they make stops at the likes of the behemoth Mall of America . We watch the performers repeat the same drill several times: Billy, armed with a megaphone and backed by his singing, hand-clapping choir members, plants himself squarely in center court and proceeds to call for an immediate cessation to mindless spending. Groups of shoppers, at first a little puzzled, eventually begin to gather, some clapping along and getting into the spirit of the performance, others watching but still blinking uncomprehendingly. By the time a crowd gathers, the ubiquitous teams of beer-gutted, walkie-talkie wielding mall security personnel converge to unceremoniously escort the group from the premises. The audience disperses, chuckling and shaking their heads on their way to the Orange Julius.

The final whistle stop is Anaheim, where the reverend and his flock descend on Disneyland. Just before he is (inevitably) escorted out by the Disney brown shirts (seriously-they are disturbingly fascistic in dress and demeanor), Billy delivers the best line in the film through his megaphone: “People! Main Street, U.S.A. is made in China!”

Mission accomplished? Hardly, but you do find yourself admiring Talen’s conviction and dedication to his activist principles, despite the fact that his message is apparently falling on deaf ears. When he is filmed making a purchase, it’s at an independently-owned, small town clothing store where he first checks labels to make sure his new sweater is “Made in the U.S.A.” You get a vibe that it isn’t a grandstanding gesture for the cameras, but a sincere effort on Talen’s part to literally practice what he preaches.

To my observation, Talen is the heir apparent to a style of guerrilla theater popularized by the likes of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Diggers in the 1960s, with a pinch of Abbie Hoffman. One scene in particular, where Billy and his flock perform an “exorcism” on a Wal-Mart store, reminded me of Hoffman’s crowning moment of political theater in 1967, when he joined forces with Allen Ginsberg and thousands of anti-war protesters in an attempt to “levitate” the Pentagon.

The film’s “Stop the presses! Christmas is crassly commercial!” revelation is as hoary as Miracle on 34th Street or A Charlie Brown Christmas. Also, there have already been several documentaries produced that frankly do a much better job covering the “corporate exploitation of workers” angle (Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and The Big One come to mind).  That said, I still admire Talen’s adherence to his “mission”, and it’s refreshing to see a Christmas holiday-themed film that might actually make people snap out of their Return of the Living Dead mall stupor. One immediate epiphany as I walked out of the theater: for two hours (counting previews) I didn’t charge one thing to my credit card. And that’s a good thing.

Of prose and cons: The Hoax (***1/2) & Color Me Kubrick (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 14, 2007)

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One of my favorite movie lines is from The Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” (Alas-if we could only remember that sage advice before writing our phone number on a cocktail napkin, signing on a dotted line, dropping coins into a collection plate or pulling on a voting lever.) Indeed, the art of the con is as old as the snake in the Garden of Eden. Hollywood loves con artists, probably because movie audiences never appear to tire of watching yet one more poor schmuck getting bamboozled. It makes us feel superior-“Oh, I’d never fall for THAT!”

Director Lasse Hallstrom has delivered a smashing entry in the genre with his new movie, The Hoax. The film is based on the story of Clifford Irving, a struggling writer who toiled in relative obscurity until he stumbled onto an idea for “the most important book of the 20th century”- the “Autobiography of Howard Hughes”. The book was the most hyped literary event of 1972, and would assure Irving the notoriety he craved. Hell, he even made the cover of Time. Unfortunately, his Time portrait was slugged with “Con Man of the Year”,  because as it turned out, the “autobiography” was a bit of a surprise to Mr. Hughes, because, you see, Mr. Irving made the whole thing up (oops). The books were unceremoniously yanked from the shelves soon after their debut.

Richard Gere tears through the lead role with an intensity we haven’t seen from him in quite a while (easily his best work since Internal Affairs). His Clifford Irving is a charlatan and a compulsive liar, to be sure, but Gere manages to make him sympathetic, in a carefully measured way that doesn’t feel like audience pandering. Even as he digs himself into an ever deepening hole, and you cover your eyes because you know the other shoe is going to drop at any time, you’ve just got to love this guy’s pure chutzpah. Compared to some other mass public deceptions that were brewing at the time (the Irving scandal was soon knocked out of the headlines by Watergate), his resulting fraud trial almost seems like malicious prosecution in retrospect (he did end up doing jail time).

Hallstrom does an excellent job at capturing the 70’s milieu; especially the insidious paranoia of the Nixon era (almost by accident, Irving uncovered documents that implicated Nixon family members and associates in defense contract bribery scams involving Hughes Corporation while Nixon was VP in 1956. It is suggested in the film that the 1972 Nixon White House was tipped off to the existence of the documents, and that it may have been an impetus for the Watergate break in. Hey-who knows?)

The outstanding cast includes Alfred Molina (in an Oscar-caliber turn as Irving’s researcher Richard Susskind), Marcia Gay Harden (sporting a Streep-worthy accent as Irving’s Eurotrash wife), and chameleon character actress Hope Davis (looking very Mary Richards as Irving’s agent). Also with Stanley Tucci, Julie Delpy and Eli Wallach.

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Another noteworthy new film examining the art of the con is Brian W. Cook’s Color Me Kubrick: A True…ish Story (concurrently on DVD and in theaters). John Malkovich gives a typically hammy, gleefully giddy performance as real-life con man Alan Conway, who flitted about England in the early 90’s, posing as the notoriously reclusive director Stanley Kubrick.

The irresistible hook in Conway’s story is the fact that he had virtually no idea what Kubrick was about, aside from the fact that he was a famous director. What is even more amazing is that he got away with it for as long as he did, scamming sex, money and accommodations with his hijacked nom de plume (ironically, had he actually bothered to watch Kubrick’s films, he could have picked up some pointers from fictional con men Barry Lyndon and Clare Quilty) His victims ranged from easy marks (aspiring actors, screenwriters and musicians) to those who should have known better (film critics!). His luck ran out when a New York Times columnist was tipped to his shenanigans and wrote an exposé.

Malkovich chews major scenery as he minces his way through the role, utilizing a variety of ridiculously funny accents and affectations. Director Cook worked with the late Kubrick, and ladles on the in-jokes with a nod and a wink (Kubrick aficionados should have a blast playing “spot the homage”). Good supporting performances, particularly from comedian Jim Davidson (one of Conway’s real life victims). Two notable cameos to watch for: Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore!) and director Ken Russell, who pops up as a mental patient (not such a stretch, if you are familiar with his work). Not for all tastes; but destined for cult status.

If it bleeds, it leads: Zodiac ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 10, 2007)

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In a deliciously ironic scene in David Fincher’s new crime thriller, Zodiac, San Francisco homicide investigator Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), skulks out of a screening of Dirty Harry. He is appalled at what he sees as Hollywood’s obvious and crass exploitation of a real-life case that has consumed his life-the hunt for the notorious and ever-elusive “Zodiac” serial killer, who terrorized the Bay Area for a good part of the 1970’s. (Clint Eastwood’s fictional nemesis in Dirty Harry was a serial killer who taunted the authorities and the media, and referred to himself as “Scorpio”).

That is one of the little touches in Fincher’s multi-layered true crime opus that makes it an instant genre classic. The director has wisely eschewed the broad brush strokes of Grand Guginol that he slathered on in Se7en for a meticulously detailed etching that is equal parts Michael Mann and Stanley Kubrick, and thoroughly engrossing.

The director’s notorious perfectionism serves the protagonists well-they are all obsessed individuals. The aforementioned Inspector Toschi and his partner Inspector William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards, making a nice comeback) are the type of dedicated cops that have could have strolled right out of an Ed McBain novel. A scene-stealing Robert Downey Jr. is perfect as Paul Avery, the cocky San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter who follows the case; his “partner” of sorts is the paper’s political cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is the first person to connect the dots (thanks to his obsession with cryptograms and puzzles). The nerdy Graysmith eventually becomes the most obsessed “detective” of them all, conducting an independent investigation over two decades.

Fincher has assembled a film that will please true crime buffs and noir fans alike. The combination of location filming, well-chosen period music and Fincher’s OCD-like attention to detail recreates a cinematic vibe that I haven’t experienced since the golden days of Sidney Lumet (think Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico or Prince of the City.)

Children of Morons: Idiocracy **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 10, 2007)

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If the 2007 Super Bowl commercials and ever-escalating voter participation in shows like American Idol are any indication, the dumbed-down “future” of America depicted in Mike Judge’s lightweight allegory, Idiocracy, is perhaps only belaboring the obvious.

Army librarian Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) loves his cushy job. It’s the perfect gig, because, as he tells a fellow soldier- “No one ever comes here” (I think I just heard every librarian reading this review say “No kidding.”). Much to Joe’s chagrin, however, his gravy train is derailed when he is “volunteered” as a guinea pig for a top secret military experiment.

Joe is assigned to spend a year in a suspended animation pod, a process the military is testing for typically nefarious reasons. Joe is not alone, however. A hooker named Rita from “the private sector” (SNL cast member Maya Rudolph) is also enlisted. When our intrepid pair finally awake, it’s a tad more than a year later. After a series of silly events, they in fact find themselves in the year 2505 (whoops!). Does hilarity ensue?

Well…the America of 2505 is not so much dystopian, as it is dys-stupido. As the droll narrator explains, evolution has favored those who reproduce the most (you know…morons!). The #1 TV show is called “Ow My Balls”, and the #1 film is “Ass” (kind of says it all). Anyone who conjugates a verb or speaks in complete sentences is accused of talking “like a fag”. In a nutshell, this is what would happen if the entire U.S. gene pool was whittled down exclusively to the descendants of Gallagher’s fan base.

If you’ve surrendered to the premise at this point in the film, you won’t flinch when the President, a former WWF champion (not such a stretch, considering former and current guvs Ventura and Schwarzenegger) ends up appointing Joe his Secretary of the Interior.

Judge isn’t really saying anything new here; beyond pointing out that we live in a dumbed-down culture (yawn). There are a few inspired moments; particularly the keen observation that the progressive reduction of America’s average IQ is directly proportionate to the ever-increasing square footage of the average Costco store.

There is a bit of irony I can’t get past; it was Mike Judge who created MTV’s Beavis and Butthead, which one might argue played its own part in the “dumbing down” of a generation that came of age in the 90’s (despite its satirical intentions, I think B & B ended up as role models for some, not unlike those good ol’ boys who completely missed the irony and merrily sang along with Borat’s “Throw the Jew Down The Well”… discuss!)

Gathering sheep and whacking the beard: The Good Shepherd (**1/2) & 638 Ways to Kill Castro (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2007)

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If spending an evening with the CIA is your idea of good times, have I got a double bill for you. (Break out the hoods and the water buckets; we’re in for a bumpy night!)

First up, Robert De Niro takes the director’s chair in his 2006 CIA epic, The Good Shepherd, recently released on DVD. Matt Damon stars as Edward Wilson, whose career as an agency spook begins with his enlistment into the OSS during WW 2 and continues through that organization’s metamorphosis into the CIA.

The film opens in 1961, at the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion. When we are first introduced to Wilson, it is quickly established that he is an officious and dedicated Company man. As the story begins to jump back and forth in time we begin to get a peek at what lies beneath Wilson’s somewhat inscrutable veneer.

We witness a looser and more outgoing Wilson during his college days at Yale in 1939, as he is inducted into the infamous Skull and Bones society. As part of the initiation ritual, he is directed to regale his fellow Bondsmen with the deepest, darkest secret from his past. The club members get more than they bargain for as Wilson relates a harrowing childhood memory of bearing witness to his father’s suicide. Moments before taking his own life, his father hands down a credo about “trust”, which becomes the key to unlocking Wilson’s motivations and inner workings for the remainder of the film.

Therein lays the problem with The Good Shepherd. There is an awful lot of internalizing going on (for 2 hours and 47 minutes). De Niro’s plus as a director (not surprisingly) is his willingness to give his actors plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters. His minus as a director is his willingness to give his actors plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters, if you catch my drift. There are some pacing issues with the film. Not that I was expecting car chases and stuff blowing up real good. After all, the reality of espionage does not necessarily lend itself to flash cuts and pop music montage. It’s generally a somewhat somber, mundane and unpleasant business.

Eric Roth’s script has its moments, but gets murky when it comes to the intrigue. It is tough to keep track of who is doing what to whom, and why (and at times, for whose “side”?). Granted, perhaps that is part of the point; torture is torture and murder is murder, no matter how one attempts to rationalize (a point that Steven Spielberg more than sufficiently bludgeoned us over the head with in Munich) but I GET it, already.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw in the film is Matt Damon’s unconvincing “aging”. There is not much discernible physical transformation between Wilson’s collegiate years and middle age. (Maybe some better prosthetic work could have helped?). At any rate, I just wasn’t buying it, and found it to be a major distraction. Damon is a fine actor, but I think he may have been slightly miscast here. History buffs may still find the film worth a look.

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History buffs (and conspiracy-a-go-go enthusiasts) will definitely want a peek at British director Dolan Cannell’s documentary, 638 Ways to Kill Castro (just out on DVD). Mixing archival footage with some knowledgeable talking heads (including a surprising number of would-be assassins-it’s hard to believe this many lived to tell their tale!), Cannell traces the evolution of Cuban politics via a recap of literally hundreds of attempts by the U.S. government to knock off Fidel over the years.

The number in the title (638) is derived from a list compiled by a couple of former members of Castro’s security team (they are among the interviewees). They even go so far as to crunch the numbers by U.S. presidential administration. In case you’re curious, here’s the breakdown (aren’t you glad I take notes?): Eisenhower-38 attempts. Kennedy-42. Johnson-72. Nixon-184. Carter-64. Reagan-197 (Ding Ding! We have a winner!). Bush (the 1st)-16. Clinton-21. (We assume they haven’t had a chance to tally the latest Bush’s numbers, although Cannell slyly bookends his film with footage of Junior’s smug and condescending “Cuba libre!” proclamation.)

The film begins its timeline in 1959, the year that the CIA received the first official go-ahead to take Castro out. The initial schemes sound like they were hatched by Wile E. Coyote and his Acme Intelligence Agency. The plans ranged from relatively benign subversion (making his beard fall out, spraying a TV station with LSD while Castro was on air, a contingency to accuse Cuba of zapping John Glenn’s space capsule with “magnetic rays,” had Glenn not made it back to Earth) to more ominous (a poisoned diving suit, booby trapping shellfish in Castro’s favorite scuba diving spot with dynamite, and most famously, planting poisoned and/or exploding cigars into his humidor).

Although Cannell initially appears to be playing for yucks (especially with the exploding cigar type shtick) the underlying theme of the documentary soon becomes much more sobering. The most chilling revelation concerns the downing of a commercial Cuban airliner off of Barbados in 1976 (73 people were killed, none with any known direct associations with the Castro regime). One of the alleged masterminds was an anti-Castro Cuban exile living in Florida, named Orlando Bosch, who had participated in numerous CIA-backed actions in the past.

When Bosch was threatened with deportation in the late 80’s, a number of Republicans rallied to have him pardoned, including Florida congresswoman Ileana Ross, who used her involvement with the “Free Orlando Bosch” campaign as part of her running platform. Her campaign manager was a young up and coming politician named…Jeb Bush. Long story short? Then-president George Bush Sr. ended up granting Bosch a pardon in 1990. BTW, Bosch had once been publicly referred to as an “unrepentant terrorist” by the Attorney General. (Don’t get me started.)

This is a fascinating film; the only criticism I would give it is the director’s “wacky” approach (that kooky CIA and their nutty ideas!)-it doesn’t quite match the subject matter at times. My favorite quote from the doc sums it all up quite nicely-when asked to explain the decades-long obsession about Castro by one administration after another, one pundit cracks “There’s just something about (Castro’s) Cuba that affects these administrations like the full moon affects a werewolf. There’s no real logic at work here.”

Stereotyped in America: Crash (*1/2) & The Landlord (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 16, 2006)

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I’m going to risk crucifixion here and confess that I only recently got around to viewing Crash, Paul Haggis’ 2005 Oscar winning meditation on racism in America. (Perhaps I was shamed into screening it after Michael Richard’s recent star turn on YouTube).

Crash takes the premise of 1993’s Falling Down and expands on it exponentially. Instead of one disenfranchised white guy going off the deep end and raging through L.A. as he blames every person of color he encounters for his own personal failures, Crash serves up an Altman-sized, multicultural cast of self-pitying whiners running around L.A. pissed off at everybody else. They hail from all ethnic and socioeconomic strata, they are all fuming about their (real or perceived) victimization by one societal injustice or another and (yeah, you guessed it) they are all on a ‘crash’ course, about to collide.

Structurally, Crash is a close cousin to P.T. Anderson’s (vastly superior) Magnolia, and operates on the same conceit. We are asked to accept an absurdly implausible series of “coincidences” in order for the story (or in this case, Today’s Lecture) to work.

The cast is talented, the performances are earnest and the film is slickly made, but the mind boggles as to how this condescending, contrived, PC-pandering mess earned a Best Picture Oscar. The Message (people are people and bigotry is colorblind) has been delivered numerous times before…and with much more panache (see review below).

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The late great Hal Ashby only directed a relative handful of films, but most, especially his 70’s output, were built to last (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Shampoo, Being There). In The Landlord, Beau Bridges is a spoiled rich kid who worries his parents with his “liberal views”, especially when he buys a run-down inner-city tenement, with intentions to renovate. His subsequent involvement with the various black tenants is played sometimes for laughs, other times for intense drama, but always for real. The social satire and observations about race relations are dead-on, but never preachy or condescending (are you listening, Paul Haggis?). Top-notch ensemble work, featuring a young Lou Gossett (with hair!) giving a memorable dramatic turn. The lovely Susan Anspach is hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister. A scene featuring Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant getting drunk and bonding over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a minor classic all on its own. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore-honest, bold, uncompromising, socially and politically meaningful, yet (lest we forget) entertaining.

Borderline cinema: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 30, 2006)

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The spirit of Sam Peckinpah lives on (sans slo-mo) in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. First-time director Tommy Lee Jones casts himself as a contemporary Texas cowboy named Pete who befriends a Mexican “vaquero” (the namesake of the movie’s title). Estrada is an illegal looking for steady work and a brighter future here in the land o’plenty. Jones utilizes flashbacks to illustrate the growing kinship between the two compadres, who bond in the usual “cowboy way”- drinkin’ and whorin’, sleeping under the stars, and reaching a general consensus that A Cowboy’s Life Is The Life For Me (as a great man once sang.) In the key vignette, Estrada confides that, if “something” should ever happen to him, he wishes to be buried in his home town. In half-drunken sentiment, Pete vows to see it through if the unthinkable happens. Guess what happens next?

When Estrada is mysteriously killed, Pete becomes incensed by the indifference of the local authorities, who seem reluctant to investigate. When he learns through the grapevine that his friend was the victim of negligent homicide, thanks to a bone-headed border patrol officer (Barry Pepper), he goes ballistic. He abducts the officer, forces him to dig up the hastily buried Estrada, and informs him that the three amigos are taking a little horseback trip to Mexico (and it ain’t gonna be anything like Weekend at Bernie’s).

Much unpleasantness ensues as the story evolves into a “man on a mission to fulfill an oath” tale…on the surface. Despite the simplistic setup, astute viewers will begin to realize that there is a deeper, mythic subtext; this is one of those films that can really sneak up on you. Although my initial reaction was more visceral than philosophical (I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likeable, it started to feel overlong, and I was repulsed by some of the more graphic scenes) I eventually realized that I had just been taken on an Orphic journey, and it suddenly all made sense. The film gives you hope that, despite the rampant cynicism that abounds in this world, there is something to be said for holding true to a personal code that covets friendship, loyalty and a deep sense of honor.

Incitement to mutiny: Sir! No Sir! ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 18, 2006)

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There have been a good number of excellent documentaries examining various aspects of the Sixties protest movement (The War At Home, Berkeley In The Sixties and the more recent Weather Underground), but none focusing specifically on the members of the armed forces who openly opposed the Vietnam war-until now. Sir! No Sir! is a fascinating look at the GI anti-war movement during the era. Director David Zeigler combines present-day interviews with archival footage to good effect in this well-paced documentary. Most people who have seen Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July were likely left with the impression that paralyzed Vietnam vet and activist Ron Kovic was the main impetus and focus of the GI movement, but Kovic’s story was in fact only one of thousands (Kovic, interestingly, is never mentioned in Ziegler’s film). While the aforementioned Kovic received a certain amount of media attention at the time, the full extent and history of the involvement by military personnel has been suppressed from public knowledge for a number of years, and that is the focus of Sir! No Sir!.

In one very astutely chosen archival clip, a CBS news anchor somberly announces that there appears to be some problems with “troop morale” in Vietnam (while in the meantime, behind closed doors, the US military was apparently imprisoning dissenting GIs left and right under “incitement to mutiny” charges, sometimes just for being overheard expressing anti-war sentiments). All the present-day interviewees (Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine vets) have interesting (and at times emotionally wrenching) stories to share. Jane Fonda speaks candidly about her infamous “FTA” (“Fuck the Army”) shows that she organized for troops as an antidote to the somewhat creaky and more traditional Bob Hope USO tours. Well worth your time. The film would make an excellent double bill with the classic documentary Hearts and Minds (available from Criterion).