I don’t recall learning about the My Lai massacre in school. At least not in high school, during our study of the Vietnam War. It’s not terribly surprising, though. The American education system by and large doesn’t teach our nastiness or failings, our exceptions or hypocrisies. It teaches the grace notes and snow-capped peaks, and more or less lets students find the rest on their own, allowing the conservative punditry class to then take aim at the notion of broader truths by labeling them “liberal.”
For PBS’ American Experience series, writer-director Barak Goodman returns to the Vietnam War and the small village of My Lai, where in 1968 the blood of nearly 500 civilians was spilled by the hands of American soldiers. In My Lai, the infamous massacre is revisited in heart-crushingly direct fashion, and the result is a supremely relevant and indispensable historical document that showcases how morality can come unglued in combat.
Featuring new footage, uncovered documentation and compelling and exclusive interviews from both American soldiers who were on the ground during the event and innocent Vietnamese who watched their entire families get brutally slaughtered, My Lai takes viewers into the trenches of the Vietnam War, asking tough questions that America depressingly seems to revisit on an almost generational basis. In this case, the chief questions is what drove a company of soldiers — ordinary young men from all across the country — to commit the worst atrocity in American military history? Were they “just following orders,” as some later declared? Or did they crumble under the pressure of a vicious war in which the line between enemy soldier and civilian had been intentionally blurred?
Goodman lays out the facts of the event in straightforward, unbiased fashion, letting interviewees like photographer Ronald Harberle, squad leaders John Smail and Kenneth Hodges and team leader Thomas Turner tell their stories. Some, like Hodges, seem relatively unaffected by event, while others are obviously haunted. Regardless, what isn’t under dispute is the event’s subsequent cover-up (the company responsible for the terrible raid gone wrong was ordered not to speak to any press, and then sent directly into the jungle for 54 days), and the heroic efforts of a small group of courageous soldiers who broke ranks to first try to halt the atrocities — the heroic efforts of American helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, who intervened and saved at least a dozen Vietnamese women and children from advancing U.S. soldiers, are something to ponder — and then bring them to light. A warning note to potentially squeamish viewers: some of the images in My Lai are graphic, but the descriptions are even more heartrendingly violent.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, My Lai comes to DVD in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English language 5.1 Dolby digital surround sound audio track. It has a static menu screen, and is divided into 10 chapter stops, but has no additional supplemental features beyond a clickable link that displays some information about the PBS web site. It’s a shame, because some sort of further talking head contextualization of the various parallels between this terrible incident and other American military cover-ups (just wait until Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story hits theaters this fall) would have been a knockout blow. As is, though, this powerful documentary definitely leaves an emotional mark. To order a copy of My Lai or other PBS titles, phone (800)PLAY-PBS, or click here. Alternately, to purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. A- (Movie) C- (Disc)