Lieutenant John Paul Vann (Bill Paxton) was one of America's most vociferous campaigners for military action in Vietnam to thwart communist expansion in Asia. His advice was taken and in the disastrous decade long war that followed, Vann continued to exert an influence, first as military adviser, then, after his resignation, as a civilian appointee of President Nixon. In charting the career of this controversial figure, the film exposes the errors of judgement and wholesale deceit that have left a permanent scar on the nation's psyche.
Based on Neil Sheehan's controversial book about the making of the Vietnam war, this HBO production is told from the perspective of Lt. Colonel John Paul Vann (played by Bill Paxton), one of the original military advisers sent in 1962 to prop up the fledgling South Vietnamese army against the Viet Cong. Battle-ready and enthusiastic upon his arrival, Vann quickly learns that political and social pressures are causing the South Vietnamese to doctor evidence of their victories and local military brass to take undeserved credit for overhyped battles. As the propaganda draws America ever deeper into a war most people clearly don't understand, Vann takes issue with the corruption and finds his career in tatters--only the beginning of a long journey that piles tragedies upon ironies.
Written and directed by Terry George (Some Mother's Son), A Bright Shining Lie
has a somewhat rushed and brittle quality to it, made all the more dry by passages from Sheehan's book read, documentary-style, by Donal Logue. But George also makes a case for Vann's more blatant personal contradictions--such as the casualness of his womanizing when he so clearly loves his wife (Amy Madigan)--that only grow as years pass and political myths supporting the war fold over onto themselves. (Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, more or less played in this film by Eric Bogosian, has taken issue with this depiction of Vann's character.) Sustaining the whole project is Paxton's focused, thoughtful performance, and an enduring public hunger to know just what it was that happened in Vietnam. On both counts, the film is well worth seeing. --Tom Keogh