The collective memory that most of America has about the Vietnam War is that the soldiers were on one side of the fence while the anti-war protesters were on the other. The anecdote that always comes up is of a protester walking up to a soldier home on leave and spitting in his face.
The engaging documentary "Sir! No Sir!" argues that such stories were deliberately promoted to cover up an uncomfortable truth: There was a powerful and burgeoning anti-war movement within the military ranks as well. GIs published and distributed underground newspapers from their barracks. Thousands cheered as Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland spearheaded "FTA" ("Free the Army" was the polite term) rallies near their bases. Hundreds were jailed for their anti-war activities.
It's a chapter of Vietnam War history that I've never seen told on screen, aside from the third act of "Born on the Fourth of July." What makes "Sir! No Sir!" so engaging and powerful is how it goes back over old ground that everyone thinks they know and discovers new and surprising things there.
Filmmaker David Zeiger is no neutral bystander; during the war, he was closely involved with many of the GI-driven protests and worked at a coffeehouse near a Texas military base that was a safe haven for anti-war soldiers. So "Sir! No Sir!" is unabashedly partisan and gives no time to soldiers who supported the war.
But the upside is that Zeiger's close connection to his subject matter is that his film has a wealth of archival footage to choose from, whether it's copies of those crude but powerful anti-war leaflets or footage of Fonda singing joyfully off-key at the rallies. Fonda will always be "Hanoi Jane" to some, but "Sir! No Sir!" resurrects the image of her as a powerful and motivating symbol for anti-war GIs, and she remains committed and charismatic in present-day interviews with Zeiger. (Her son, Troy Garity, narrates the film.)
There's plenty of interesting ground that Zeiger nimbly covers, from the notorious "Winter Soldier" hearings, where Vietnam War soldiers testified about atrocities they had witnessed and committed, to a campaign by sailors in San Diego to get local residents to vote on whether their aircraft carrier should be sent to Vietnam. And Zeiger goes over the infamous "spitting" story in great detail, concluding that it's likely an urban legend, even though as authoritative a source as Rambo cites it in "First Blood."
What's striking about these uniformed protesters is that they're not pacifists who believed armed conflict is never the answer; they joined the military, for heaven's sakes, either voluntarily or were willingly drafted. The soldiers' disillusionment at what they saw in Vietnam is palpable, and Zeiger does a service by bringing their stories out of history's forgotten files and into the light.