Coldest 'Winter' ever

A little-seen, superb Vietnam doc explodes again today.

By Johnny Ray Huston

MADE IN 1972 , Winter Soldier has the otherworldly yet firmly earthbound immediacy of the best documentaries of its era, in particular, the black-and-white work of William Klein, Frederick Wiseman, and the Maysles brothers. Voices and faces are the main ingredients here: The participants in the Winter Soldier investigation testify to the atrocities they witnessed and took part in while in Vietnam. Combined, their statements become an overwhelming litany, one of the most horrifying and emotionally wrenching indictments of war recorded on film. This is no Oliver Stone leap into Samuel Barber-scored heroic tragedy, just an unflinchingly clear-eyed extended gaze at military-brand, all-American inhumanity – the racism, emotionally cauterized machismo, and governmental evil that results in mass bloodshed.

When 109 Vietnam veterans and 16 civilians gathered at a Howard Johnson's in Detroit to discuss a war that was still raging, the media reacted with skepticism, if at all. Only the local Detroit Free Press bothered to confirm the veracity of accounts and the credentials of participants. Television primarily turned a blind eye, and conservative publications like the Detroit News cast doubt on the allegations made without offering any specific proof of deception. If a collective of filmmakers – including people who've gone on to put history on celluloid in Harlan County, USA; Regret to Inform; and The Word Is Out – hadn't been present, the human impact of war would not have been captured. Instead of tears and the shell-shocked expressions of young men indoctrinated in mass murder, there would only be words on a page.

Not that those words lack wrenching impact. Winter Soldier cuts to the pained faces of onlookers as one soldier talks of phosphorus burning through the flesh of Vietnamese civilians. As the testimony rolls onward, the filmmakers increasingly turn to the event's slide presentation of still photos that give visual proof of the stories being told – a prisoner forced to sit by a pile of dead bodies, a starving old woman made to beg for slop. In a moment that calls Lynndie England's infamy to mind, one veteran confesses his shame about a photo of himself smiling by the body of a man he killed. Like many of his peers', his smile remains, though now it has contorted into something closer to a pained grimace.

The accusations echo, especially statements that any dead Vietnamese civilian was automatically considered a member of the Vietcong. The horrors accumulate: a boy stoned to death for throwing rocks, more little boys shot for giving the finger, a woman raped in front of her family before all of them are slaughtered, another woman gutted and then skinned by a higher-up in front of his grunts, that method of killing in exact accordance with the rabbit slaughter demonstration one speaker remembers as a typical lesson received just before being sent off to war. The unrelenting force would be numbing if the filmmakers didn't cannily choose to focus on particular faces, holding them in extended close-up. The most haunting belongs to much-decorated Scott Camil, whose Christ-like, bearded visage and delicate way of speaking take on an almost hypnotic quality as – with glazed, still-stunned candor – he's led by questioners through remembrances of his brutal training and murderous survival tactics.

When Winter Soldier received its initial limited theatrical release, the great Amos Vogel wrote (in a Village Voice review) that it must be shown on prime-time, national television. It should go without saying that statement holds true today. Unfortunately, both the movie and the event that spawned it have been used for campaign purposes by right-wing figures with no sense of shame or decency. John Kerry is seen briefly toward the beginning of the movie, and his participation in the Winter Soldier investigation became a conservative lightning rod last year, particularly when Steve Pitkin – another participant, who comes across as the most camera-ready and TV-eager – launched accusations [via an affidavit] that Kerry and others had bullied him into saying he'd witnessed atrocities when he hadn't. Pitkin doesn't refer to any specific crimes in Winter Soldier, and it's worth noting that, oddly, none of the other 108 military participants have come forward with similar claims. In addition Pitkin was recently forced to recant some of his affidavit when Camil filed one of his own noting that every statement Pitkin's affidavit made pertaining to Camil was false.

Such petty factual details matter very little these days, when Pitkin's about-face proliferates across the Internet, where a Bush apologist by the name of Scott Swett lords over a site called wintersoldier.com. Swett's site is happy to endlessly parse whatever minor falsehoods it can find, yet it remains interestingly mute – if not outright incorrect – when it comes to much of the actual content of Winter Soldier. You certainly won't find him responding to the fact that the movie contains photographic as well as verbal evidence, and the Purple Hearts, ribbons, presidential citations, and Crosses of Gallantry given to Camil alone matter little to him and others when they apply blanket "impostor" labels to the participants. Nothing could be easier than to blindly state that Winter Soldier is more a work of fiction than fact. It sure would help citizens of an ethically starved and immoral country that's repeating the outrage of Vietnam to sleep easier.

'Winter Soldier' opens Fri/2, Roxie Cinema, 3117 16th St., SF. $4-$8. (415) 863-1087.