With "Sir! No Sir!," filmmaker David Zeiger attacks what he believes to be the myth of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran (pacifists and women do not spit) as well as the idea that the era's peaceniks and soldiers shared no common ground. Zeiger, in fact, aims to reshape the way the Vietnam peace movement has come to be seen as well as stake some claims to current relevancy with regard to the wars America is now fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sounds like a tall order, huh? Zeiger only partially succeeds in fulfilling his ambitions, coming up short for many of the same reasons that hampered the equally well-intentioned anti-war documentary "Why We Fight," which opened earlier this year.
The strengths of "Sir! No Sir!" can be found in Zeiger's interviews with Vietnam vets and the amazing archival footage of soldiers rebelling, both out of conscience and expediency. The resulting portrait of protest is shaggier and much more free-wheeling than typically seen in solemn anti-war documentaries.
But Zeiger can't resist overstating the extent of the GI peace movement, and his singular focus in hailing the protesters creates more than a few blind spots in his movie. He spends several minutes of his film's brief 84-minute running time lamenting the case of Billy Dean Smith, an African-American GI unjustly arrested and charged with murdering a superior officer with a fragmentary grenade.
The practice was called fragging, and Zeiger asserts that by 1970, hundreds of officers in Vietnam had been killed by their own men in this fashion. Smith was a scapegoat, yes, but nowhere in the movie does Zeiger even bother to raise the question of the morality of murder, much less shed a tear for the families of those servicemen killed by fragging.
Likewise, Jane Fonda appears in "Sir! No Sir!," both in footage at a 1970 performance in an anti-war cabaret and in a self-satisfied present-day interview. (Fonda's son, Troy Garity, narrates the movie.) Conveniently, Fonda's support for North Vietnam's Communist regime is never mentioned.
But then, John Kerry's name doesn't come up, either, though his group, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, receives a small mention. Zeiger didn't want the distraction, saying that Kerry's story had already been covered in the 2004 documentary "Going Upriver." Besides, Zeiger says, "people who supported Kerry because of his anti-war stance during Vietnam saw how startlingly far he's gone in his ultimate betrayal of the stand he took in the 1960s."
True enough. But while dissent is as American as (pre-steroids) baseball and apple pie, agitprop like "Sir! No Sir!" doesn't do any great service to that legacy other than serving as a reminder of how history continues to be rewritten, in this case both for good and bad.
SIR! NO SIR!
2 1/2 stars
(Not rated: language, violent images)
Director: David Zeiger.
Running time: 1 hr. 24 min.
Playing: Laemmle One Colorado in Pasadena; Laemmle Monica in Santa Monica.
In a nutshell: Documentary refreshes our memories about the strength of GI resistance to the Vietnam War while soft-pedaling its unsavory aspects.