I was blown away a couple of years ago by History's WWII in HD. In my mind, it was the new standard that every war-based documentary should try to live up to - A coherent story was told through the personal journal entries of 12 American soldiers, ultimately allowing the audience to identify with war as opposed to merely being drilled with historical facts in dry readings of textbook material. For the first time ever, a documentary was able to introduce the terror, fear, glory and pride in a very real way to the generations that weren't around to experience the war, and it did so by tapping into our souls with a vital element that every documentary should hope to include if they ever dare to be as intriguing - The human condition. Forget textbooks and filmstrips; If you want to connect your audience with the subject matter at hand, you need to make them feel the emotions that were relevant at the time of the event, and WWII in HD did that. History had a real winner on its hands with its groundbreaking mini-series - showing us the battles as depicted in each journal entry with real footage taken by soldiers on the ground in the very same battles - and they knew it. Unwilling to wait and be outdone by someone else, History wasted no time in providing us with its follow-up, Vietnam in HD... but being that Vietnam was a very different war, both in how it played out as well as how it was perceived by the masses, how does that translate as a documentary?
Before dissecting what makes Vietnam in HD work and where it also seemingly misses the mark, there's something one has to understand first - I know for most of us today, seeing an ongoing conflict unfurl on the news day after day is no big deal, but what's become the norm for us was actually part of a new revolution during the conflict of Vietnam. The media industry had changed a great deal since World War II, and as a result, this major military action was able to be covered on a nightly basis for the entire world to see. Things were simpler stateside in World War II for numerous reasons, but in Vietnam, the presence of the media complicated the way political powers, and by extension, the way our military operated. Instead of merely being able to do whatever had to be done without the fear of 'losing' the general public in the process, the news changed all that. What followed was inevitable - Anti-war demonstrations, both peaceful and violent, became a dominant voice in the United States (and in some cases, even in foreign lands).
One could argue it began in 1964, when hundreds of students marched through Times Square, or when a dozen young men in New York burned their draft cards. That was only a taste of things to come. The number of students that protested grew to over 4 million by 1970, effectively shutting down high school and college campuses. A rally consisting of 30,000 people took place in Washington D.C. in 1969. As time went on though, violence at home became an increasing problem. Someone jumped to their death in order to make a statement. A van was exploded at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Most notable of all however was probably the police getting involved in a massive anti-war rally in Los Angeles, as they had to attack the crowds with billyclubs and tear gas... and two people died as a result. You see, the American public, nor anywhere else in the world for that matter, had never been exposed to the kind of information the media provided during the Vietnam conflict, and having never been exposed to so many ins and outs, well, let's just say there was some logic amidst the chaos. It should have been expected but, I guess hindsight is always 20/20, right? If you need stats to see just how big the media's hand was in the ever increasing disapproval in the war, I have that for you, too - In March of 1966, 59% were in favor of the war, but by May of 1971, only a mere 28% remained in approval. It's undeniable the media was a big catalyst (not the cause, of course) in how the public perceived the war at home. It was information overload to say the least, and regardless of how you feel about the media's portrayal of any war... their involvement at this point in our history was a game changer, for then and ever more.
So with that being said, Vietnam in HD taps into the stateside reception of the conflict quite a bit, and rightfully so. However, it's in this respect that Vietnam in HD tends to go off the rails a little, at least for me. Although I can't deny the importance of presenting us with the drastic stateside reaction that swelled over the years, its depiction here tends to be overkill as we already get a good sense of it through the first-person accounts that serve as the makeup for the series. It's these accounts of personal inner-turmoil where Vietnam in HD really shines, too - Although the soldiers were proud to serve their country, they weren't entirely sure they were doing the right thing. It's probably easier to march into battle when you actually believe in something, but to march into a battle where your life could be the cost and you're not even sure you believe in what you're fighting for? That's something else entirely, and in my opinion probably the highest form of bravery there is (although I'm sure others would merely consider it stupid, at best). It's this very conflict within each soldier that truly defines Vietnam, and is ultimately that 'human condition' that allows us to connect with the war emotionally, such as we were able to in WWII in HD. History's latest mini-series does such a good job with this in fact, that the constant focus on the stateside reaction, again, feels overbearing at times and hinders the real meat of the personal histories presented to us.
Although this 6 part mini-series is pretty much what you would expect (that is, if you're already familiar with the likes of its predecessor, WWII in HD), one thing I think I appreciated even more this time around was the narration by Michael C. Hall (Six Feet Under, Dexter). I'm a big fan of Hall's work on both of the series he's most noted for, yet when I heard he was going to be providing narration for such an important documentary, I was skeptical as to how it would turn out. The only narrative I've ever heard the man do was that of Dexter Morgan, so I wasn't sure I'd be able to hear him in my mind as anything other than a serial killer. Good thing I have such an open mind, because Hall's approach is appropriately serious yet never dry or monotone. The way he presents the information makes me believe he's almost an expert on the subject matter, as opposed to merely reading a script, so the weighty material is never cheapened. A slew of celebrities also voice the journal entries from the troops - Jerry Ferrara, Zachary Levi, Kevin Connolly, Dylan McDermott, James Marsden and Jennifer Love Hewitt are only a few of the celebs on the list - and all of them do a good job at making the 'average Joe/Jane' entries seem realistic and appropriately non-sensationalized.
In short, the integrity that was on display in WWII in HD has not been lost in History's new mini-series by any means. Everything that made Vietnam in HD's predecessor such an enthralling experience - The 'in the thick of it' footage, the personal stories that pull on our heartstrings and riddle our intellect, the inner-turmoil (albeit very different turmoil for different reasons this time around) - Is here and just as effective as it was before, and in fact, probably a bit more haunting due to the issue of doubt everyone had in regards to the war, both on the field and off. If you were a fan of the content in History's previous effort, there's no reason not to give Vietnam in HD the 6 hour investment it practically demands. As far as documentaries go, I guarantee you there's nothing else out there that's going to make you feel the Vietnam war as accurately as this depiction will.
Honestly, I'm baffled. I truly am. The presentation of WWII in HD was magnificent - It actually seemed like I was watching old film footage projected on my television set. It was an integral illusion that really sold the whole 'authentic' feel of the documentary as a whole, but Vietnam in HD often breaks that illusion with images that are stretched out as opposed to being cropped. I guess this shouldn't come as any surprise considering History consistently puts out DVD's to this day with a non-anamorphic transfer, but here's what's especially troublesome in regards to Vietnam in HD - The stretching is seemingly by design. Interviews and plenty of film footage are accurately shown and matted for 16x9, yet plenty of other shots were stretched for some reason... and it's painfully obvious.
The questions that immediately come to mind are - Why? Why in the world would certain shots be selected for stretching while others are matted appropriately? I mean, the cropped imaging worked well enough in WWII in HD, didn't it? So why change things up now? Did they honestly think people wouldn't notice?
History has shown over the years that they've been nothing less than ignorant in the video department, providing the consumer with half-assed releases that could have been better if only things were transferred properly. Things were looking up with the release of WWII in HD but it's now becoming clear that they just don't care to do consistently good A/V work because they think that we're ignorant. For this reviewer's dollar, that's enough of a reason to keep me from making a purchase.
Anyway, with all that being said, the 1080p AVC encoded transfer (1.78:1) looks about as good as could be expected. Much like its predecessor, the footage is mostly comprised of old 8mm and 16mm film stock, and the condition of the footage on display varies wildly (which is to be expected). A lot of this was taken in the most intimate, and dangerous settings that any 'conflict' or 'war' could offer, and I highly doubt any film amateur was willing to carry equipment that would have been larger than that. So yes, the footage is jumpy and yes, some of it is in rough shape. In contrast though, some of it looks so much better than one would expect considering the conditions the source footage arose from. In the end, despite the fact this doesn't look like some sort of Hollywood production, the encode preserves the original film elements flawlessly. Yet again, with the exception of the stretched images, this really does look like a film being projected on your television set, and anyone who can overlook the major flaw in History's video production should be content with how Vietnam in HD looks (as it most certainly comes off cleaner than how it looked over the air).
Well, at least the sound design here is worthy of its Blu-ray encode! The sound design team has put together an excellent DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 presentation, really. Documentaries often get the shaft in this department, but the sound effects that have been placed over the silent film footage practically brings modern day Hollywood sound to the war. This was quite a pleasant surprise, as I was expecting a minimalistic, lossy stereo track to accompany the series, but I was absolutely floored. Almost everything sounds realistic enough to make you feel like you're there, a detail that's critically important for the series, as that's what it really set out to do in almost every perceivable way (make it authentic). The severity and terror of everything that happens is only enhanced by the realistic sound design, as the sound effects are nearly pinpoint in their precision. Not to mention, the LFE is actually more impressive than I thought it would have been, and the dialogue is crisp and clear throughout... unless the original source doesn't allow for it, of course. Despite the troubled video presentation, the audio here is a surprisingly satisfying experience for one of the most memorable documentaries in recent memory.
No subtitles are included on this release.
Unfortunately, no extras have been included on this release.
With WWII in HD redefining what a war documentary should be, Vietnam in HD was the next logical step for History to take. I was skeptical if a mini-series about Vietnam would have been anywhere near as gripping as its predecessor, but History has struck gold once again... at least when it comes to the content and how it's all pieced together. But, this Blu-ray release doesn't reflect the contextual quality of the series. There are no extras provided this time at all, and I suspect History is probably going to hit us with a large Collector's Edition boxed set. The even bigger drawback however is the fact that History is apparently beginning to stretch old 4:3 film stock for its documentaries, as opposed to cropping like they've done previously. I'm recommending this release for the content itself, but for me personally, History's lack of quality control in the video department is disturbing enough to keep me from buying. Next time a major series like this is on the air, I'll make sure to DVR it instead.