Much of military life, especially the inhuman gauntlet of basic training, resembles fascism in its fierce regimentation, glorification of order, rigid hierarchy, and brute force. By contrast, much of combat, especially guerrilla warfare, resembles anarchy at its most raucous and out of control. Maybe that's why so many future veterans come into the service as clean-cut squares and exit as angry, longhaired, drug-taking hippies. This curious, paradoxical dynamic was explored memorably in Born On The Fourth Of July; it's revisited in Sir! No Sir!, an earnest, hokey documentary that's less an exploration of the military wing of the anti-Vietnam War movement than a gushing love letter to soldiers who took public stands against America's involvement in the conflict.
David Zeiger's directorial style is straight out of Documentary 101, with lots of talking heads, archival footage, black-and-white photographs, and a score that tries to recreate the spirit of the '60s in the most clichéd manner imaginable. But his conservative approach pays rich dividends. The contrast between the smiling young military men in the photos and the death-haunted old men they've become is haunting. Zeiger films some of the talking-head footage of vets in groups of two and three, a wise choice that underlines the camaraderie that's central to military life.
Of course, the parallels between Vietnam and Gulf War II are about as subtle as an ice pick to the frontal lobe. Much like M*A*S*H, Sir! No Sir! can easily be seen as a film that uses an unjust previous war to critique a current war. Zeiger's film isn't subtle, and he doesn't pretend to be nonpartisan—even Jane Fonda's much-reviled involvement in the anti-war cause is depicted in an unambiguously positive light—but for all its clumsiness, Sir! No Sir! movingly captures the raw excitement of grunts discovering their power and their voices in their ability to resist.