Found-footage films largely fail because they value gimmick and style over character and theme. We’ve seen it time and again ever since 1999’s The Blair Witch Project revolutionized the formula, paving the way for Paranormal Activity and countless other knockoffs striving for very little beyond schlock and awe. Shaky camera work, calculated jump scares, and cheesy special effects have all but become stock in trade for this genre of filmmaking that’s left audiences numb from overexposure and unoriginality.
But don’t mistake that for intolerance, as two of the best films of the last 25 years use the found-footage model to dissect and subvert popular genres to dizzying effect. Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde’s horrifying Man Bites Dog gives its serial-killer narrative an omniscience sense of dread by largely examining the culpability of the filmmakers (and audience) during a charming psychopath’s monstrous and sadistic rampage through the French countryside. Even more impressive is Patrick Sheane Duncan’s 1989 masterpiece 84 Charlie MoPic, a scathing Vietnam War-set film that finds an army cameraman embedded with a small infantry platoon on their final search-and-destroy mission.
So what makes these two films, specifically 84 Charlie MoPic, such striking examples of found-footage cinema while so many others pale in comparison? First, by giving the camera operator a real-world purpose, Duncan strips the medium of any privilege, situating style within the same tense realm as the characters themselves. The image’s very existence, much like the soldiers, could end at any time. Secondly, and most importantly, the film’s visuals mimic the emotional rollercoaster ride of guerrilla fighting: long stretches of calm followed by sudden bursts of violence. It’s one of the few war pictures that perfectly understands the warped sense of temporality within combat situations.
84 Charie MoPic opens with a dedication to different Army Airborne divisions, “wherever you may be.” By using this particular wording, Duncan immediately establishes a melancholic tone. Folky guitar notes only adds to the overall wistful tone. But any hint of sober reflection is immediately replaced by a pop in the film’s soundtrack and film leader counting down. A young man’s voice fills the space; date, location, purpose, and participants are all cited in standard military tone. His parting words, specifically the name of the cameraman who shot the footage, are drowned out by the deafening sound of a helicopter’s blades.
While 84 Charlie MoPic is deeply political, locating early fissures in overall military morale and ideology, the film explores these ideas through its characters’ camaraderie, however deformed it has become by the rigors of battle. In the opening sequence, each man sounds off during roll call, speaking directly to the cameraman. Their diverse personalities instantly make an impact: Easy (Nicolas Cascone) is the wisecracking veteran from New Jersey who is only a month away from being sent home, Cracker (Glenn Morshower) is a quiet weapons specialist heralding from the American South, Pretty Boy (Jason Tomlins) thinks he’s been blessed with universal luck, Hammer (Christopher Burgard) is itching to kill as many of the enemy as possible, and O.D. (Richard Brooks) is the war-torn officer that glues them all together.
Complicating things is the insertion of a new officer into the group, simply referred to as L.T. (Jonathan Emerson). He and the cameraman, who gets the nickname of MoPic, have been assigned to the outfit as part of the “Lessons Learned Project,” an attempt by the military to document hostile situations for teaching purposes back stateside. The ironic futility of such an endeavor isn’t lost on the men as they forge deeper into Viet Cong-controlled territory. O.D. scoffs at the idea: “Out here the bush is the boss.”
As the grunts get more comfortable with the presence of both L.T. and MoPic, Duncan structures the film loosely around extended interviews with each man. They exude humor, doubt, fear, desire, and a multitude of other emotions while on camera. When L.T. asks Cracker if he had a problem being led by O.D., a black man, he responds with a brilliant retort: “That’s a real-world question. We got no time for real-world questions.”
What’s being addressed isn’t so much race (and other social issues), but the inadequacy of such concerns when confined to the otherworldly haze of war. Duncan clearly separates societal stigmas from the contradictory experience brought on by combat. All these men have is each other, and any other facet of their regular lives means nothing. When asked about his past, O.D. sternly says, “That’s my private life. Army got no business with my private life.”
In a way, though, the camera is capturing a different kind of private life for these men, one their families back home will never understand. Very few edits interrupt the inherent quiet of each image. The viewfinder casually shifts from the soldiers’ haggard formation to capture a blooming flower or a field of tall grass. The shielded intimacy these men feel for each other, which comes splashing out late in the film, is patiently observed by the ever-present MoPic. Yet the constant threat of violence gives each reflective moment an immediacy and inherent terror. The end can come at any moment, a fact proven by the recurring motif of booby traps littering the trail.
When the blood does start to flow, Duncan films it mercilessly. Unlike Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which often slows down its carnage for maximum surrealist effect, the combat situations here happen quickly, with enemy combatants hidden off screen, their bullets striking the American soldiers without any indication of direction or proximity. The final 20 minutes of 84 Charlie MoPic descend into madness so quickly one is hard-pressed to think of a more devastating cinematic critique of the Vietnam War. In the end, as the camera itself is finally being airlifted out from a brutalized rural village, what’s most harrowing isn’t the field of bodies filling the frame, but the realization that the footage itself will invariably be misused (and edited) by the army to contort the events presented. There will be no lessons learned.