Just when I conclude a topic has been sliced far too thin to make a decent meal for a movie, along comes a smart, impassioned director to prove otherwise.
David Zeiger's "Sir! No Sir!" was an unexpected gem at last fall's Starz Denver International Film Festival, taking on an aspect of Vietnam War opposition that I had never seen on screen. Now it returns to the Starz FilmCenter, more relevant than ever as high-ranking military officers publicly question U.S. strategy in Iraq.
"Sir! No Sir!" tells the little- known story of the anti-Vietnam War movement that emerged inside the military in the late 1960s. From AWOL soldiers chaining themselves to priests in San Francisco, to the coffeehouse morale tours of Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda near dusty U.S. military bases, to fragging episodes and the Winter Soldier meetings, Zeiger brings an era back to life with understated skill.
Zeiger has an argument to make, but he largely saves his polemics for the production notes rather than planting them inside the movie. He wants the documentary to speak for itself, to show forgetful Americans that opposition to the war didn't take place solely on the streets of Berkeley or Chicago.
Zeiger claims the image of "spat-upon" Vietnam soldiers is a myth created by the right to stifle opposition to that war, or to the Iraq conflict. He believes that the slow-building soldiers' protests helped get the U.S. out of Vietnam, and that "hippie" protesters worked side-by-side with uniformed objectors in a meeting of minds never acknowledged by hawks.
Two of Zeiger's most dynamic characters, past and present, are former Green Beret Donald Duncan and "deserter" Keith Mather. Mather was one of the San Francisco soldiers who locked themselves in a church, then staged protests at the military stockade in the Presidio. The Presidio mutiny, captured here with dramatic footage, so worried officers that the mutineers faced death-penalty trials.
"I had nothing to lose, and I had no idea what was going to come," Mather says, talking to Zeiger decades later. "That's a free place. You don't know what's going to happen, you don't know where you're going, but you know what you're doing."
"Within two days of hitting the stockade, I was facing a death sentence for singing 'We Shall Overcome,"' says former Army medic Randy Rowland.
Fonda, vilified to this day for going to North Vietnam during the war, discusses her support of the military protesters in engaging interviews that show why her star power was vital to the movement.
Fonda, Sutherland and others created an alternate-USO tour in Killeen, Texas, and other Army-base towns where some soldiers hungered for anti-establishment views. As Zeiger points out, the mutual affection between soldiers and Fonda puts a new spin on lingering accusations that her war opposition "betrayed the troops."
More obscure, but even more impressive, are the protests of Air Force interpreters who rode spy planes intercepting North Vietnamese communications. Disgusted by lies told to Americans about the bombs they watched exploding below them, some went on strike during the 1972 Christmas bombings.
"The lies were so stark, it challenged your own dignity, it challenged your own loyalty, it challenged your own humanity," one interpreter tells Zeiger.
And Zeiger helps redeem that humanity through one of humankind's most basic instincts: to seek the truth, and put it on display.