If all you know about soldiers' participation the Vietnam-era anti-war movement involves footage of John Kerry giving speeches and maybe a late night viewing of "Born on the Fourth of July" you caught on cable years back, it's time to check out "Sir! No Sir!," filmmaker David Zeiger's in-depth documentary regarding protests from within.
The film is quick to point out just how forgotten that (quite large) portion of the war protests have become. Zeiger is eager to discuss what it calls a rewriting of history - that mutiny trials, troops' refusal of service, and protests held at military bases by soldiers themselves have long been purposefully ignored, claims the film. Such "rewriting" arguments aren't as properly formed as they should be; the popular tale of returning soldiers being greeted at airports by hippies spitting on them is debunked as an urban myth, with interviewees adamant that such events never occurred. Yet Zeiger refuses to interview anyone that might wish to support the story as true. More problematic, by debunking the myth, Zeiger seems to say that Vietnam vets had no problems at all upon returning home. (He never mentions post-war problems at all, minus a throwaway line explaining how one subject was homeless in 2004. The notion of GIs being ignored by their own government would not only make a valuable contribution to the film's point, but it's strikingly relevant today.)
And then there's the biggest irony: in discussing Jane Fonda's involvement in the protest movement, not once does Zeiger discuss the negative reaction to her visits to Asia, which could be read as a rewriting of history. We see clips of Fonda being welcomed with cheers from hordes of troops who've come to one of her many anti-war shows (the counterculture's parody of Bob Hope's own variety shows for the troops), and one could walk away from this film knowing nothing of the nickname "Hanoi Jane." This is not to criticize Fonda herself (quite the contrary), but Zeiger, who intentionally ignores a major part of the story. Why? The Fonda backlash would make an intriguing chapter, as it could help paint a picture of the problems those against the war had to face every day. Instead, Zeiger opts to not mention it at all, and the omission presents a world where Jane Fonda was greeted as a hero. What we have in "Sir! No Sir!" is a film so desperate to present its side of things that it fails to realize that offering up a more complete picture would only help its cause.
Yet for its flaws, the film is still quite effective, thanks to a scattershot approach that presents a series of wartime episodes as told by the veterans themselves. We see compact versions of stories detailing demonstrations held in military prisons, the boycott of a jewelry chain that preyed on naïve recruits, the rise of the underground press, the successes of Fonda's "Free Theater Associates," the use of "fragging" (tossing a grenade into a commander's barracks), and the decision by many intelligence officers to refuse to pass on key information. On occasion, Zeiger is forced to use footage from other, better films, most notably the powerful documentary "Winter Passage." Even with this cheat, the stories come across with a heavy impact.
Throughout, the same message is offered: these are men who refused to kill and who refused to take part in killing, especially for a purposeless war. It is then impossible to watch "Sir! No Sir!" without thinking of today's troops, thousands of whom have also refused service. While Zeiger does not include any mention of the Iraq war, the metaphor is obvious throughout.
Even without such between-the-lines comparisons, the film is sobering. Here are men who witnessed unimaginable horrors, and it becomes clear that every one of them has been affected to the core by their experiences. Not only by the horrors of war, but by the triumphs of their own later actions, of standing up for what they felt was right and standing by it no matter the consequences.
Video & Audio
A mix of new and archival footage, "Sir! No Sir!" understandably varies in video quality depending on the source. The new interview footage is as clean and crisp as you'd expect, while the older material presents no serious problems. Presented in the film's original 1.33:1 format.
The Dolby stereo soundtrack is rich with period music (plus a fine original score from Buddy Judge), without causing any issues with dialogue. No subtitles are included.
The disc is overloaded (in a good way) with bonus scenes and mini-features, helping round out the experience. It's a bundle of goodies that don't quite fit in the movie yet fascinate all the same. As the features don't really differ in quality at all (they're all pretty solid), and as their titles are pretty self-explanatory, I'll just provide a quick list of what's included:
"The American Serviceman's Union and Fort Dix Stockade Rebellion" (12:00)
"Carl Dix: From Protest to Federal Prison to Revolution" (12:03)
"Elder Halim Gullahbemi: Learning From the Vietnamese" (5:31)
"Jeff Sharlet and Vietnam GI" (4:17) (Vietnam GI was the first underground military newspaper.)
"Keith Mather's Escape" (3:10)
"The 9 For Peace" (:52)
"Keith's Scrapbook: From 9 For Peace to Presidio 27" (7:03)
"Joe Urgo: Behind the Winter Soldier Investigation" (7:39)
"Michael Wong: In Vietnam, We Were Doing What the Japanese Did to the Chinese in WWII" (3:18)
"Director David Zeiger and Sgt. Giacomozzi at the Oleo Strut" (5:41) (The Oleo Strut was a GI coffeehouse located in Killeen, Texas; Zeiger once worked there.)
"Pioneer Pirate Radio DJ Dave Rabbit Speaks!" (8:00)
"The Court Martial of Camilo Mejia: Iraq War Resister" (2:17)
"Cindy Sheehan and Jane Fonda on 'Sir! No Sir!'" (12:13) (The Mejia and Sheehan features link the film to the current war in ways the film does not; Sheehan speaks at a fundraising event for the film.)
"'Only the Beginning' - Vietnam Veterans 'Return' Their Medals" (3:36) (A clip from the 1971 documentary "Only the Beginning.")
"Newsreel: 'Summer of 68' - The Oleo Strut" (6:49) (Excerpts from the film "Summer of 68" by the film collective "Newsreel" that were not used in "Sir! No Sir!")
"Rita Martinson's 'Soldier, We Love You'" (4:36) (The complete performance of Martinson's song, in a clip from the documentary "FTA." The clip is presented in its original widescreen format.)
Also included is a text biography of Zeiger.
The power "Sir! No Sir!" has as a film overrides any problems it presents, and the abundance of supplemental features work to enhance the experience. This is a rare case of DVD extras making the main attraction better. Recommended.