Path To War Movie Essay

This is a good movie, and includes some very good performances. It is not a great movie, however. While the writer understood that the complexity of the Vietnam "problem" lay in the various individuals involved in "The Path to War," he misunderstood where the contradictions and conflicts of those characters lay.

For example, given the material, and in spite of a peculiar attempt at LBJ's Texas accent, Michael Gambon acquits himself well as LBJ. He has the mannerisms down pat. And the writer does appreciate LBJ's vulgarity (which could be quite offputting, and was for many people). However, in his attempt to lionize LBJ, he misses the point. LBJ was a politician who got himself elected as a populist candidate with the concept of "The Great Society," but was always supportive of the actions in Vietnam. (For example, the writer conveniently places the *pivotal* Gulf of Tonkin incident outside the scope of the movie and it is only mentioned once, briefly, in an aside. As a result, based on this movie's version of events, and without being aware of the consequences of the Gulf of Tonkin, both domestically and in Vietnam, a viewer would think that LBJ was some kind of benevolent monarch, which actually does him a disservice.)

The writer makes LBJ seem like a victim of circumstance, when in fact he was very much of control of events, witnessed by the amount of legislation he put in front of Congress in five-plus years. This is noted in a conversation LBJ has with Lady Bird in the movie, but it is made to seem like LBJ placed the legislation for philosophical and principled reasons, when his primary motivation was based on two things: His best years were as a legislator and he knew that side of the government best, and it was politically advantageous for him to do what he knew best.

One could also say that he was dogged by the memory of JFK. He knew he had been elected on JFK's bootstraps, so to speak, and the writer does pay some lip service to this issue. Yet, the writer does not touch on the shame and guilt LBJ felt about JFK's death, which, while he was not complicit, he knew had been politically motivated within the government. And for all his professed desire for social change, he never once called the Warren Commission to task for their idiotic findings, and he was always conflicted about that, as well. It was politically expedient to let it "die," but it was not the right thing to do, and he knew it.

All through his Presidency, he felt the Kennedys nipping at his heels, so, for example, he knew if he pushed the Voting Rights Act, he'd not only look good next to the Kennedy legacy, but also have a slew more voters to vote for him the next election. (In one kudo to the writer, he does appreciate LBJ's dislike of Bobby Kennedy, who was, ironically, as political an animal as LBJ himself was. In fact LBJ's assessment in the movie of Bobby as not being "One-tenth the person his brother was" is actually considered by many to be true, and also plays on the truism that we tend to dislike in others what we most dislike about ourselves.)

The tragedy, if we look on LBJ as a tragic hero, is that there was no next election for him because of Vietnam. The problem is that the real LBJ had the tragic hero's fatal flaw (in his case, a problematic mixture of indecisiveness and arrogance, which led to poor leadership skills), so when the tragedy comes, it does not bear the poignancy it should. The only time we actually get a glimpse of LBJ's character defects is during one conversation with one member of his staff. (Some might argue that his questions of his cabinet would also demonstrate this deficit, but that was actually one of his strengths: When he did not know something, he was not afraid to admit it and go to the person who did know. This "consensus-building" aspect of his personality was one of the things that made him an excellent legislator.)

Did LBJ have some commitment to social change? He did, and it was best demonstrated during his tenure in Congress, representing the people of Texas, not during his tenure as President. The writer does make a brief pass at this when he refers to his regrets at ever associating himself with the Kennedy Presidency, that it was his political undoing. (And many historians do, in fact, believe this is true.)

Another character the writer fails to fully grasp is McNamara. McNamara was always full of conflict regarding Vietnam, and yet we don't start to see this in the character until the very end of the movie. Alec Baldwin plays the writer's version of McNamara well, but it was not an accurate portrayal of McNamara, at least not in the eyes of his contemporaries. That is not Baldwin's fault, but the writer and director's fault.

Another lost opportunity is Felicity Huffman's portrayal of Lady Bird Johnson. This is an excellent actress who has done the best with what she's given, but she's given so little, when there was so much more to Lady Bird's character at this period in history. The only hint we see is when she reminds LBJ that the footsteps she's following "didn't die." In fact, the offset between Lady Bird's presence as First Lady and LBJ's as President is contradiction that is not even explored - while Lady Bird continued in her desire to see social change (she is rightly credited for having a strong, positive impact on the growing environmental movement, for example), something she had shared with her husband for many years - LBJ is buffeted by political forces that actually pull him away from some of the social idealism that many saw in him in Congress, including his friend Clark Clifford. That juxtaposition would have not only made a stronger movie, but would have been more historically accurate.

As for Clifford, that is the one character that comes through fully realized, convincing and true: Donald Sutherland's portrayal of Clark Clifford. (Who was a family friend to our family as well.) The writer has presented his character, and his contradictions, very well, and, as a result, Donald Sutherland, always an able actor, is able to not just make the best of the material, but take it to the award-winning level he achieved.

Frankenheimer's direction, as always, is good. But this is not his best movie. It has pacing issues, some throwaway scenes, and some scenes that should have been included and weren't. As a result this is not the best political movie you will ever see. Although, if you consider that the brush used is broad, it does show how complex and political our slippery slope into Vietnam generally was.

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''You also have a president today who has American troops on foreign soil, you have a president who's facing an enemy, he doesn't know who they are,'' said Mr. Frankenheimer. ''You have a president who wants to be re-elected, you have a president who's not expert on foreign affairs and is dependent on his advisers. The similarities are tremendous.''

There are obvious differences. In contrast to Vietnam, the country today overwhelmingly supports the president and the war in Afghanistan. But the film still carries resonance. Just last week it was reported that the Bush administration was debating whether it should shift more attention to domestic concerns -- an issue that dominated the Johnson White House, especially as the war escalated.

The film begins on Jan. 20, 1965, at an inaugural ball at the Sheraton Park Hotel in Washington -- two months after Johnson's unprecedented landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. In the film, Johnson describes, with delight, his aides and cabinet members: ''I've got three or four Rhodes scholars, four or five graduated of Harvard, a couple from Yale and why there's even one here tonight from Southwest Texas State Teachers College. And don't you know that one rules the roost.''

The film ends on March 31, 1968, when Johnson, beleaguered by the war, unexpectedly announces that he will not seek a second term. The film shows Johnson, bewildered and frustrated, finally accepting that the war is unwinnable. At first, he is furious and blames his advisers. Eventually, he accepts his own responsibility.

''How can you not like this man?'' Mr. Gambon asked as he stood near his dressing room trailer, just a few blocks from the Civic Auditorium. ''He had a heart, a big heart, and he genuinely wanted to do something about civil rights and improving the lives of people. But then he got trapped by the war and he didn't know how to get out of it.''

Mr. Gambon, who played an American tobacco executive in ''The Insider,'' examined Mr. Johnson's television appearances and read numerous biographies about him. ''He was surrounded by Harvard graduates,'' Mr. Gambon said. ''He admired them, but part of him didn't like them at all. Beneath it all, beneath the bluster, he was insecure, he had a chip on his shoulder.''

The screenplay depicts the administration's internecine battles -- especially between Robert S. McNamara, the defense secretary, played by Alec Baldwin, and George Ball, the deputy secretary of state and an opponent of the war, played by Bruce McGill. In the film, Ball compares McNamara, other hawks in the cabinet and the joint chiefs of staff to ''buzzards sitting on a fence discussing the price of carrion'' -- a line paraphrased from his 1982 memoir.

In an imagined scene, a furious Ball gazes at McNamara at a cocktail party at the home of Secretary of State Dean Rusk. ''Look at him,'' Ball says. ''His wife's got an ulcer, his kid's got an ulcer -- everybody's got Bob McNamara's ulcer but Bob McNamara. Sometimes I think it's just an academic exercise to him.''

By the end of the film, however, McNamara is, like Johnson, a broken man.

Mr. Giat said it was unfair to blame any one person for Vietnam. ''I believe that McNamara is contrite,'' Mr. Giat said. ''I believe he's in deep, deep grief over what happened.''

Mr. Giat, 46, said his fascination with Vietnam began when he was very young. ''My bar mitzvah was in May 1968, two months after Johnson said he wasn't running and cutting back on the bombing,'' said Mr. Giat. ''I remember at the time thinking, 'This is wonderful; the war will be over for my bar mitzvah.' That's how naïve I was. The war went on for another five years for the United States.''

The film itself took more than 10 years to research and produce. In June 1991, Mr. Giat teamed up with Howard Dratch, a classmate from his days at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. The two men had just read excerpts in The New Yorker of ''Counsel to the President,'' Clark Clifford's memoir of his career as a presidential adviser.

''It's a drama that everybody thought they knew but nobody really did,'' said Mr. Dratch, who became a producer of the film. Their journey was marked by detailed research, constant script revisions and vain efforts to snare actors like Gene Hackman to play Johnson and Ed Harris to play McNamara.

Mr. Dratch and Mr. Giat interviewed numerous members of the Johnson administration. (Mr. McNamara declined.) Many White House aides, including Joseph Califano, Richard Goodwin and Jack Valenti (now president of the Motion Picture Association), as well as several historians, read the script and said it was an accurate portrayal of the White House decision-making.

The source list for the drama covers eight pages, including books, newspaper and magazine articles, and Congressional documents as well as papers and oral histories from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Tex. (In a 1997 letter to Mr. Dratch, Lady Bird Johnson wrote that she hoped the project worked out and suggested that perhaps Tommy Lee Jones could play her late husband).

Colin Callender, president of HBO Films, said that he first heard about the screenplay seven years ago when he was a lower-level executive. Edgar Scherick, a veteran producer, showed up at a lunch date with Mr. Giat and Mr. Dratch and an unusual film treatment. Not only was the story detailed, but the pitch included a visual presentation of about 20 photographs, mostly of Johnson meeting his advisers. Beneath each photograph were historical quotes that were later used in the screenplay. For instance, the screenplay paraphrases Johnson's famous quote, ''We're going to turn the Mekong into a Tennessee Valley.''

''What I responded to was the way it drew back the veil from the way in which we go to war, the way in which decisions are made by the generals in the hills, with the footsoldiers in the valley,'' Mr. Callender said. ''I see this actually as a war movie.''

The usual Hollywood dickering delayed the project -- Mr. Giat did more research and script revisions; HBO had new executives and other priorities; there were overtures to other cable networks. And then there was the material itself.

''This has been very long in the making because we wanted the history to be right, and turning this into a dramatic shape was a real challenge,'' Mr. Callender said.

In 1999, Barry Levinson agreed to direct, and he cast Mr. Gambon in the role of L.B.J. Two years later, Mr. Levinson asked for a delay in filming. HBO declined and offered the director's job to Mr. Frankenheimer, who had read the script and was eager to do it. The actors themselves -- some of whom demonstrated against the war -- said the characters were almost all complex men overwhelmed by events.

Donald Sutherland plays Clark Clifford, who served as defense secretary in the final months of Johnson's administration. In an early version of the script, ''it looked like Clifford was responsible for those final three years of Vietnam under Johnson, and he was not,'' Mr. Sutherland said. ''His advice to Johnson since '64 was to get out of there. He kept giving that advice, and Johnson took the other advice. His whole job was to get Johnson re-elected. So he was labelled a hawk by some. He wasn't.''

Mr. Sutherland said the role of Clifford in the screenplay was altered, and he accepted the job.

Walking to the film set a few blocks away from his trailer, Mr. Gambon said that he had become fascinated with Johnson after he left the White House. Johnson, who had a heart condition, died in 1973.

''After Johnson left the White House he went back to his ranch and sat there,'' said Mr. Gambon. ''I saw a film of him giving a speech at a college shortly before he died. He was popping pills. And you see photographs of him with long hair, long gray hair. As soon as he retired he let his hair grow. Just like the people who were standing outside the White House shouting at him.''

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