Vietnam in HD (US - BD RA)
Gabe starts catching up on post-holiday reviews with this sobering documentary...
Following the success of WWII in HD, History Channel set to work on a follow-up series entitled Vietnam in HD. This series, which is narrated by Michael C. Hall, chronicles the history of the Vietnam War in the form of hard facts and personal stories from 13 American participants, who sometimes speak for themselves and other times are voiced-over by actors, including Barry Romo (occasionally voiced by Adrian Grenier), Joe Galloway (occasionally voiced by Edward Burns), Keith Connolly (occasionally voiced by Kevin Connolly), Charles Brown (occasionally voiced by Blair Underwood), Elizabeth Allen (occasionally voiced by Tempestt Bledsoe), Raymond Torres (occasionally voiced by Jerry Ferrara), Karl Marlantes (occasionally voiced by Zachary Levi), Arthur Wiknik (occasionally voiced by James Marsden), Anne Purcell (occasionally voiced by Jennifer Love Hewitt), Donald DeVore (occasionally voiced by Glenn Howerton), Gary Benedetti (occasionally voiced by Armie Hammer), Jim Anderson (occasionally voiced by Dylan McDermott), and Bob Clewell (occasionally voiced by Dean Cain).
The Beginning (1964-1965)
This section covers the genesis of the war, and gives us a chance to learn a little about each of the real people we’re about to follow through the war period. This sets us up for the documentary’s style, which intersperses hard historical facts with personal stories that exist outside the politics. Personally speaking, this was my favourite part of the entire series, as I hadn’t ever learned a lot about the build up to the war outside of the most basic facts. At the same time, my lack of knowledge left me wanting more about the politics of the situation, which even here are a bit simplified. The pre-troop drop stuff fills all of 15 minutes. Once the conflict officially begins, the doc builds from the easygoing, largely peaceful early days to the real awful crap, and the sense of dread is palpable.
Search & Destroy (1966-1967)
This section covers the massive increase in troop numbers and begins with the statement that for the first time in US history victory in war won’t be measured by area taken, but by body count. The escalation leads the series to further dread, and the horror stories increase as a result of the Viet Cong’s guerrilla war tactics. The producers could’ve easily lost the personal angle here, but for the most part manage to hold tight to the people they’ve chosen to follow through the combat. Still, the more historically based aspects tended to engage me a bit further, and I had trouble connecting the interview subjects with their historical footage counterparts. Though I enjoyed the celebrity voice-over work, it seems that not using the interview subjects’ own voices for the footage acts to widen this gap. As the episode continues the gap shortens. The stories become more personal and descriptive, and the filmmakers edit them together to create a better narrative. Again, I appreciate the political discussion, especially the brief explanations of the good the war did (or attempted to do) for the Vietnamese people. Though this too just sets us up for another emotional downfall in future episodes.
The Tet Offensive (1968)
This section covers the Viet Cong’s surprise attack over the Tet holiday, which many see as the real turning point against American forces, who were beginning to ‘win’ the battle. This is a relatively well-documented moment in the war, but the doc still does well to cover the bare facts more through Hall’s narration than the personal stories of the 13 participants. The terrifying, explosive material is plenty effective even without the constant benefit of recognizable faces, and the narrative discussion still maintains the personal touch, especially for Raymond Torres. This section also covers the increase of full colour news reports, which are the first uncensored images of war to ever be seen on American television, which are used as a segue into stories about the people left at home (including Anne Purcell’s 8mm home movies, and audio letters sent between her and her husband Ben). These threaten to grow mawkish, but are left relatively brief for the most part. The most wrenching pieces of footage are taken from battlefield hospitals, which are described from the point of view of Elizabeth Allen.
An Endless War (1968 – 1969)
This section starts two months after the Tet Offensive, and delves quickly into the mass protests that started cropping up all over the US, along with the increase in draft numbers. This sets up the basic theme of the section, which is that of weakened morale, including political assassinations, domestic unrest, and the Viet Cong’s brutal tactics. The tension is somewhat lessened by the inclusion of personal stories of R and R. The series gracefully re-introduces more personal drama into the story at this point too, following the more faceless horrors of the previous section. The Hamburger Hill section is particularly riveting, but the home front news stuff, especially the terrible reception the soldiers got when they returned from the war, is the most moving.
The Changing War (1969-1970)
This section continues looking at the American public’s dwindling support, including Nixon’s exit strategy, and the process of training the South Vietnamese to take the place of the US soldiers. US soldiers resent the South Vietnamese, the draft increases despite the steady clearing of troops, and the Nixon and Kissinger talks stall out, which lowers morale and leads troops to experiment with drugs. The boat related warfare is also introduced here (drawing obvious memories of Apocalypse Now), along with more depressing Purcell family home movies, which are set against the news that he’s gone from MIA to POW. Meanwhile, Woodstock and Kent State occur, Ho Chi Min dies, and Nixon starts bombing Cambodia, all of which leads to more protests. At this point the series started to really fatigue me, which I assume is more or less the point. I found the awkward fades between actors and interview participants a little more annoying, but also found the strange tone-poem style more potent.
Peace with Honor (1971-1975)
This final section brings about the end of the story. Nixon’s policies move along, peace talks continue to stall, heavier pressure is put onto the remaining US troops, and the war is steadily lost over a series of years. Helicopter combat is covered, leading into battles to destroy supply caches – the first real test of South Vietnamese soldiers. This was a period of the war I knew almost nothing about, and found this section of the documentary to be over-littered with the continuously tiring personal stories. Still, for the most part the pacing remains sharp, and the battle footage is shell-shockingly grim. The John Kerry footage is a nice addition.
The whole title of Vietnam in HD may imply something spectacularly sharp and clean, but the truth is that this footage is a real part of a spectacularly unsharp and unclean era. This footage looks much better than I ever though such footage could look, but it shows its age, the wear inherit in war zone footage, and is usually either 8mm or 16mm in origin. Every frame is rife with print artefacts, heavy grain, and often heavier issues like tracking lines and burns. The only real problem with the footage outside of the basic damage, which I’m not going to complain about, is the fact that a lot of it is slightly stretched to fill the 1.78:1 frame, either from an 1.33:1 or 1.66:1 original aspect ratio. I understand most home viewing audiences are happy to have their widescreen sets filled, but stretching images is never preferable to black bars on the side. The modern time, HD photographed interviews look nearly perfect, though the soft-focus, blown-out white look isn’t exactly the clearest thing ever.
The sound designers on this project threaten to overextend themselves with this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track at every turn in an effort to modernize the largely silent footage, but when they’re on things sound pretty great. The additional war-based sound effects are the major source of stereo and surround design, and shift between the ridiculous and the real throughout the series. Even when the effects sound canned or too digital (the sound of footsteps in the brush, crackling trees, shuffling clothing, for examples), the general quality of the mix is plenty aggressive and generally comparable to the average modern Hollywood war flick, minus the breadth of fictionally created battle scenes. Directional effects don’t often connect specifically to any onscreen images, but the movement throughout the channels during fire fights, and the front to back flood that follows many explosions acts well to immerse the audience in the thick of the battle. The sound design also works well when it contrasts dynamic extremes, creating frightening punch from near silence. The score is derivative, but very well produced, and intricately shuffled throughout the action.
There is noting in the way of supplemental material on either disc.
I can’t imagine myself watching Vietnam in HD again any time soon (it was exhausting enough watching it on TV and on Blu-ray), but the producers and directors took a unique approach with their material, and overall the series is pretty riveting, though exhausting. The video quality is about as good as one can expect based on the age and condition of the footage, though it loses points for stretching some of the images to fit the 1.78:1 frame. The modernized DTS-HD soundtrack is mostly great, with only a handful of awkward moments. There are no extras.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality, but are accurate to the frame stretching that occurs throughout the series.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 6th December 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Easter Egg: No
Cast: Michael C. Hall
Length: 282 minutes
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