Like Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Winter Soldier is less documentary than in-the-heat-of-conflict document, too close to the bone for “distance.” No less a wake-up call, however, the film dispenses with their indoctrinating montage to focus more plainly on the raw material and rawer nerves of its subject—namely the atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War, given voice in the historic testimony by more than 125 ex-Gis at the Detroit Winter Soldier Hearing in 1971. The first time ‘Nam vets publicly testified about their experiences, the event was briefly glimpsed in last year’s doc Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, and indeed a 28-year-old Kerry puts in a quick appearance early on, though the grainy lenses remain squarely, as they should, on the men trying to come to terms with the horrors they have seen and committed abroad.
The testimonies build up a mosaic of carnage before a stunned audience, or, as Amos Vogel put in a vintage Village Voice review, “a criminal, cosmic jigsaw puzzle”—Vietnamese prisoners thrown out of helicopters as part of bets among grunts, women raped and disemboweled, villages burned down to “show we’re not fucking around,” children blasted for giving the soldiers the finger, ears and limbs sliced off to boost the body count. Shot in vérité black and white in deliberate auteur-anonymity (footage was supplied by 12 activist-filmmakers, including future acclaimed documentarian Barbara Kopple), the film opens on a Thomas Paine quote (“These are times that try men’s souls”) and proceeds to extract startling political points from the soldiers’ devastating speeches, an indictment of the institutionalized indoctrination of bloodlust emerging out of a former grunt’s off-the-cuff comment about masculinity ideals enforced since school (“I wanted to see for myself whether I’m a man or not”).
The old word vs. image argument might be brought up apropos of Winter Soldier‘s “artlessness,” yet the fact remains that Private Camil’s first, frontal close-up, recounting boot-camp training up to his first kill overseas, compresses all of Full Metal Jacket into seven minutes. Ultimately, the film’s trajectory is spiritual as well as political (“Won’t you forgive me for my sins,” goes the blues refrain over the final credits)—the men, their robotic crewcuts since grown into beards and manes, come together for a therapeutic, even exorcizing, moment of communal demons acknowledged and transcended. Numbness to the suffering of others may give way to healing tears and even an understanding of the racial and historical aspects of the issue (voiced by a pissed-off Black Panther and a tearful Native American), though judging from our current involvement in the Middle East, history seems to inevitably repeat itself. “The more things change,” and all that, yet it is fitting that one of the screen’s strongest antiwar tracts arrived at the beginning of a nation’s most self-inquiring decade, when the medium could be seen as capable of inciting change.