How does one watch "Winter Soldier?" It is one of the most difficult films to get through, yet it is also one of the most important films you may ever see.
The film is a document of the Winter Soldier Investigation, held at a hotel in Detroit from January 31 through February 2, 1971. For three days, Vietnam veterans reported to the world the many atrocities that they witnessed - or worse, performed. It was a chance to put into the public record what the public did not want to hear, revealing that the My Lai massacre was not an isolated incident, that soldiers were being told to ignore the Geneva convention, that our young men were having their lives destroyed by being turned into soulless killing machines.
A group of eighteen filmmakers - who at the time remained anonymous under the credit of "Winterfilm" - captured every moment of these three days. The film opens with the former soldiers being given preliminary interviews by the investigation organizers (watch for a young John Kerry in one shot); it's a way to prepare the young men, to help them clarify their thoughts, but it's also a way to warm them up to the idea of talking openly about things they have kept secret for years. (As one filmmaker says on a documentary accompanying the DVD, it's likely that these men never repeated these stories again. We could be watching the only time such truths were ever revealed to anyone.)
The rest of the film slams us with a startling simplicity: we're merely watching these speeches unfold. Some are captured in brutal close-up, others are given the treatment of the cold distance of a piece for the nightly news. Occasionally a photograph of a soldier from his war days or film footage of wartime destruction will pop onto the screen. But for the most part, it's all just the sight of these damaged men talking about the things that haunt them, as delivered in the harshest of black-and-white photography.
The stories told here are the kind that will haunt you, and for that reason, I will not cheapen them or dilute their effectiveness by repeating them here. These are tales that must be heard from the soldiers themselves, tales of how they were conditioned to believe the enemy was not human. This is ninety minutes of the darkest, coldest, most vile aspects of warfare, and it comes at you with a desperation that demands you learn of the horror. Most shocking here is how young these men are; consider, then, that while they're so young, this is after they're returned from war. They were just boys.
The object of both the investigation and the film that captured it, we are told, is not only to tell the world about the secret evils of this war, but to question the very intents of the war itself. In scene after scene that will strike the viewer as eerily familiar, we see men talk of how they believed in the cause, that they honestly felt that by fighting the Viet Cong, they were defending their country. Some talk of how they enlisted to help pay for college. One man tells of how he "was sufficiently brainwashed" not only into signing up, but reenlisting for a second tour. And as one organizer says in an early scene, these statements must be made so we can question our leaders as to how our country got to this point in the first place.
Short versions of the film, produced while the feature was being edited, were rushed together to be used to help rally anti-war protestors and to build support for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the organization which led the Winter Soldier Investigation. The full-length version of "Winter Soldier" premiered in 1972; it toured the festival circuit (including a notable performance at Cannes), opened in some art house theater somewhere for too short a time, ran a few times on public television, and then disappeared. Unlike later films dealing with the ghosts of Vietnam, "Winter Soldier" apparently proved too much to take.
Milliarium Zero chose 2005 as the perfect time to finally rerelease "Winter Soldier," obviously as a comment on the too-familiar state of affairs in Iraq. And yes, it's all too tempting to watch this film with the somber knowledge that history is doomed to repeat itself just because some of us shamefully refuse to learn the lessons of the past. Even the title, which refers to Thomas Paine's notes on "the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot," serves as a "support our troops" rallying cry. Then, as now, it is not the soldiers but the war that angers so many. (Granted, the poor treatment of Vietnam vets then has gotten people today to trip over themselves to make sure their war protests are not directed at the troops themselves, but that only makes the film and its title even more powerful today. We're disgusted at the idea that these men were not treated with the same respect that we give to their present counterparts, and we're more willing to listen to and understand their plight.)
But even without comparing the film to current events, it resonates. It perfectly captures a key moment in our nation's history, a first-person account of what has since become emotionless words in a textbook. It pays tribute to men who spoke up at a time when it was dangerous to do so. "Winter Soldier" is daring, upsetting, and one of the most important films ever created.
Considering the movie was shot with aging, leftover film stock scavenged from wherever the filmmakers could grab it, the video is allowed to be a bit on the less-than-impressive side. Besides, the heavy film grain and harsh contrast (which in a few shots douses the soldiers in a sea of white) only goes to enhance the film's effectiveness. In its own way, this is exactly how such a film should look. Presented in its original 1.33:1 full frame format.
The mono soundtrack is all that's needed to capture the words of these men. Considering the on-the-fly manner in which the film was produced, it's surprising that it sounds this clear. French and German optional subtitles are offered, and the film begins with a text announcement that English Closed Captioning is available.
"Winter Soldier: A Conversation With the Filmmakers" is an 18-minute roundtable discussion with several of the formerly anonymous Winterfilm members. Obviously heavily edited down from a lengthy reunion, this provides some brief, essential insight into the movie's hectic production. It's all we really need in terms of a making-of.
"Seasoned Veteran: The Journey of a Winter Soldier" takes a closer look at Scott Camil, the vet whose long, haunting monologues play a vital role in the film. The 40-minute documentary catches up with Camil, who's spent a lifetime as an anti-war activist.
"Americal Division" and "First Marine Division" are two short films produced while "Winter Soldier" was being edited together. These were the shorts used in anti-war rallies and Vietnam Veterans Against the War meetings. Both contain footage from the final movie, but also feature some unused shots and different introductions, making them essential companion pieces.
An audio presentation of Graham Nash's 1973 song "Oh Camil!" (a protest tune dedicated to Scott Camil) is a nice inclusion, although you'll probably be better off running out and buying the CD.
Finally, a trailer for the film's 2005 release and a comprehensive stills gallery are also included, and those of you who enjoy DVD-ROM extras are treated to a collection of text files, mostly testimony documents.
Harsh, horrific, and nearly impossible to get through in one sitting, "Winter Soldier" slaps you with a brutal honesty missing in too many news reports, both then and now. But no matter how difficult the movie may be to watch, few films can call themselves as important. This is something everyone should see, and a disc you'll be demanding everyone you know to borrow. "Winter Soldier" couldn't have resurfaced at a better time. Highly Recommended, without hesitation.