By MIKE HALE
Published: April 25, 2010
The slaughter of hundreds of unarmed villagers in Quang Ngai
Province, Vietnam, in March 1968 an event that came to be known as
the My Lai massacre is both an open wound in the American psyche
and a cautionary tale at a time when we are once again fighting wars,
and killing civilians, on foreign soil.
The story of the killings and the subsequent cover-up is also vividly
theatrical: a three-act drama of idealism, horror and slow, fumbling
justice. It is told superbly by Barak Goodman in his documentary "My
Lai," a presentation of PBS's "American Experience" on Monday night.
The dense and complex tale goes beyond the actions of the American
soldiers from Charlie Company of the First Battalion, 20th Infantry
to explore the nature of combat in Vietnam. The documentary also
delves into faulty intelligence and failures of command (as well as
flashes of heroism); the cover-up, investigation and series of
trials; and the poisonous domestic politics of late-1960s America.
Mr. Goodman has had to leave out a lot, and many viewers may fault
him for this or that omission. But any reasonable viewer should be
amazed by how much he has been able to fit within the limits of a
90-minute television documentary. (Some will wonder why the role of
the journalist Seymour Hersh in exposing the massacre is not covered.
At a screening of the film last week, Mr. Goodman said that Mr. Hersh
turned down his request for an interview.)
The film employs the usual archival images and talking heads, as well
as audio recordings from the court martial of Lt. William L. Calley
Jr., who was convicted of ordering the killings. But Mr. Goodman has
gone well beyond that, persuading soldiers from Charlie Company, some
of whom had never spoken publicly about the events of March 16, 1968,
to sit for interviews.
They appear to be more interested in seeking understanding than in
expressing remorse. "The people of that village were Viet Cong or
Viet Cong sympathizers," says Kenneth Hodges, a squad leader. "Maybe
some see it differently. That's the way I see it." Often, though,
their words and their eyes seem to be telling different stories.
Mr. Goodman, an Emmy winner and Oscar nominee in 2001 for
"Scottsboro: An American Tragedy," also uncovered home-movie footage
of Charlie Company during its training and deployment (though not in
combat) as well as film shot in the My Lai area from the helicopter
of Hugh Thompson, the American pilot who intervened to save some of
the villagers. The story of the heroism of Mr. Thompson and his crew,
who at one point trained their door guns on Charlie Company troops to
keep them from killing more Vietnamese, is a stark counterpoint to
the savagery and lies that otherwise dominate the story.
Mr. Goodman and his team also went to Quang Ngai Province and tracked
down survivors of the massacre, most of them children at the time,
who recall watching as their entire families were killed. Amazingly,
one of them is Do Ba, then 4 years old, whom helicopter gunner
Lawrence Colburn pulled from among dead bodies heaped in an irrigation ditch.
For years now the Vietnam War chronicler Oliver Stone has been trying
to get his own My Lai project, titled "Pinkville" (the American
military designation for the My Lai area), off the ground. If it ever
happens, it's hard to imagine it will be any better or more moving
than "My Lai."
On PBS stations on Monday night (check local listings).
Produced by Ark Media for American Experience. Written, directed and
produced by Barak Goodman; Nancy Novack, editor; Jamila Ephron,
associate producer; WGBH Boston, series producer; Mark Samels,
executive producer for "American Experience."