"I feel like I'm going down in a plane. I can crash with it and burn up or jump and die." – President Lyndon Baines Johnson, regarding Vietnam and the toll it has exacted on himself and his administration.
Those words are spoken by Lyndon Johnson (Michael Gambon) well into Path to War, the typically ambitious and almost wholly successful recent HBO production, and in many ways it succinctly - and pointedly - summarizes the film's main concern. The film addresses the escalation of America's involvement in Vietnam during Johnson's first full (and only) term as President, through the lens of Johnson himself and his two most trusted advisors: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Alec Baldwin), who helped guide President John F. Kennedy through the Cuban Missile Crisis and initially advocated increased involvement and a resolute plan of action; and Clark Clifford (Donald Sutherland), long-time Johnson friend and Kennedy advisor who was never convinced that involvement was well-advised, but ultimately acquiesced and tried to guide Johnson and his administration though the political minefield once the entrenchment reached the point of no easy return. Beginning on the eve of his inauguration in January of 1965, Path to War effectively charts both the increasing involvement in Vietnam and the demise of what Johnson sought to be the primary focus of his administration – the Great Society.
Fueled by the promise of ushering in a new era from his pulpit, Johnson sincerely desires to confront hunger, poverty, healthcare, and civil rights and begins to do so in earnest – his first year in office is characterized by a flurry of bills forwarded to the Hill, and indeed, the political focus is as he directed. However, as McNamara warns from the outset, the conflict in Vietnam simply has to be addressed as American advisors are increasingly under attack by galvanizing forces. Johnson, who wants nothing to distract him (or the Congress and the public) from his vision, believes that he merely needs to know what is necessary to win decisively and to get out. Under McNamara's advisement, he commits more firepower, then troops, all to no avail – the resilience of the Vietcong proves extraordinary. As the military budgets - and, more importantly, the human cost - begin to increase, Johnson realizes that he will eventually have to take this matter to both the Hill and the public.
As Johnson becomes increasingly distracted from his beloved Great Society and the needs of his party, he begins to lean even more heavily on the advice of McNamara relative to the conflict. Knowing his brinkmanship and influence on President Kennedy may have very well helped America avoid an almost unthinkable nuclear catastrophe, his reliance is perfectly understandable. McNamara, as presented here, is not rendered a mere hawk – although he advocates escalation, his ideas do not adopt the air of abstraction. He challenges Gen. William Westmoreland (Tom Skerritt) and Gen. Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Frederic Forrest) for empirical data, not military speculation. Clifford, on the other hand, is one of the few who initially warns of the dangers (actual and political) of increased involvement – that it will take far more troops than anyone seems willing to acknowledge, far more wounded and killed, and a far greater political cost for a war that appears increasingly implausible to win in any traditional sense of the word. Along with Undersecretary of State George Ball (Bruce McGill), Clifford repeatedly attempts to sway Johnson from the seemingly impenetrable pull of McNamara. Here too, Clifford is not presented merely as a prescient dove - he is a pragmatist as well as an ideologue (as is McNamara), and his primary concern rapidly becomes protecting his old friend. Path to War continues throughout its 165-minute duration to explore the motivations, intentions, and responses of these three men through to Johnson's stunning speech wherein he conceded personal and professional defeat by announcing that he would not seek - nor accept - his party's nomination for reelection.
The script, written by Daniel Giat, and the production, aided by research from historian Michael Beschloss (who acted as consultant for this production), certainly sounds, looks, and feels authentic. Apparently, the production teams were instructed to employ a relentlessly exacting eye – even the maps and photographs of Vietnam used as references for the President and his Cabinet were those actually used during the conflict. Archival footage is also used, sparingly but to excellent effect: Dr. Martin Luther King's second march from Selma; Sen. Robert Kennedy's opposition to Johnson and the war (invoking the specter of John from which Johnson never thought he would emerge, perhaps correctly); anti-war and peace demonstrations as they grew in both size and vitriol; and, finally, the largely mechanized, horrific images of the bombings.
The three leads all deliver thoughtful, carefully constructed performances brimming with subtlety. It can prove easy to forget how effortlessly effective both Sutherland and Baldwin can be – they have appeared in many lesser works not worthy of their particular talents, but here they excel. As representatives of initially opposite positions, they understand these are intelligent, powerful men not always above or removed from their own strong personalities. There is a great exchange between the two after a pivotal Camp David meeting wherein McNamara's position has prevailed over Clark's: as the men speak, McNamara is proud, but not smug, almost as though he has just been victorious in a trying game of chess against a worthy opponent; Clark, realizing his defeat, tries to ascertain if McNamara honestly believes in his mind and heart that this is the right trajectory for his country and his President. This is intelligent, rewarding stuff.
Gambon, the acclaimed British actor knighted in 1992, is more than equal to the task at hand. His Johnson is a wily, smart, and heartfelt creation, not far removed from historical accounts of the man himself: intelligent, but deeply suspicious of intellectuals; well-intentioned, but prone to bossing and outright manipulation; cocksure, but somewhat insecure deep below the surface; a man of his own ideas and action, resentful of his associations to (and comparisons with) the Kennedy clan, and rendered politically impotent by his choices. We are essentially witnessing the self-imposed downfall of a proud and powerful individual, and Gambon infuses his performance with an even physical gravitas. As the film progresses we see Johnson ruminative, vengeful, contradictory, confused, saddened, enraged, etc. That Gambon makes all of this so palpable more than suffices for his lack of mastery of Johnson's accent. Lastly, though certainly sympathetic to Johnson and cognizant of what he might have accomplished, the film does not let him off the hook in any way – as spoken by Clark, Johnson (and we) are pointedly reminded that although Johnson was certainly advised, the decisions ultimately rested on his shoulders alone.
The cast is rounded out by a stable of solid, entertaining supporting players: Felicity Huffman as Lady Bird Johnson; James Frain as speech writer Dick Goodwin; Chris Eigeman as Press Secretary Bill Moyers; John Alyward as Dean Rusk, Secretary of State; John Valenti as Jack Valenti, Assistant to the President (yes, that Jack Valenti); Philip Baker Hall as Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen; Cliff De Young as McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor; and, lastly, an unbilled Gary Sinise as George Wallace, reprising his role from Frankenheimer's previous George Wallace of 1997.
Video: Presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, the Path to War DVD simply looks fantastic. For a cable television production made on a modest budget, the film never appears less than genuine – from its production design to the sets themselves, the overall attention to period detail is extremely impressive, as is Stephen Goldblatt's cinematography. Director (and four-time Emmy award winner) John Frankenheimer, old pro that he was, directs with verve and sound judgment. Employing a static camera, the occasional tracking shot, handheld cameras, and thoughtful composition, he directs so effortlessly that it's easy to not notice what he is doing and fall easily under the drama's spell. For a film such as this, that's about the highest compliment I can give. The transfer is excellent – flesh tones are perfect, black levels are deep and solid, and with the exception of a scene or two, there is no evidence of graininess or damage to the source print.
Audio: Path to War includes three DD 2.0 tracks, in English Surround, French Stereo, and Spanish Stereo. The DVD sounds great – although there are only a few instances of intentional sound design that calls attention to itself (gunfire, bombing raids, passing cars), they are rendered effectively. The score by Gary Chang never really moved me (which is too bad – with more effective music, Path to War may have bordered on the sublime), but it sounds appropriate and fitting in the way that we have grown to expect soundtracks for this sort of film to sound. Bass tones are rich, and there is never any tininess or lack of depth apparent. Dialogue, obviously the largest concern of a film such as this, sounds great.
Extras: There are quite a few interesting extras to be found in HBO's release of Path to War, especially those done in conjunction with TIME magazine:
TIME Magazine extras: Milestones on the Path to War, which provides a broad yet useful outline of the conflict; Path to War: Verbatim, which proffers some quotations from historical figures regarding Vietnam; Vietnam by the Numbers, which offers some statistical insight, from the number of draftees to the number of conscientious objectors to the war; L.B.J. & Vietnam: Public Opinion, which illustrates America's increasing disenchantment with the war through Gallup polls from September of 1965 through February 1968; L.B.J. Slideshow, comprised of a dozen or so photographs with brief written commentary; and, lastly, a Questions and Answer session (in writing) between director John Frankenhimer and TIME Magazine.
DVD-Rom features: Also prepared with the cooperation of TIME Magazine, Path to War includes links to articles and additional information regarding the history of the conflict: "Path to War Timeline and Strategy Simulator"; Understanding America's Longest War"; "the Best and the Brightest"; "Lessons of a Lost War"; and "Back in TIME".
HBO Featurettes: Lastly, there are some brief, slick featurettes on board: Behind the Scenes Featurette (3:57), which is essentially a promo piece but not without some modest value; Cast Interviews, also promotional, which lasts for 1:40; and Director Interview which lasts 1:20.
Although the extras included do not quite live up to their billing (it seems like there is much more here than there actually is), the TIME extras do help add context and answer some additional questions that the film may raise. Director Frankenheimer died unexpectedly last year, and it's too bad that some of the main actors could not have been called in to discuss their experience working with him – I do not know what sort of schedule HBO was working with, but it would have been an extremely valuable addition.
Final Thoughts: It is a rare film indeed that can enthrall and rivet viewers when the outcome is already so widely known. Path to War, with the help of a highly literate, intelligent script by Daniel Giat, does exactly that. Further, it resists the all too seductive tendencies of employing either revisionist history or flat, hollow characterizations that often plague films with such explicitly political concerns. The film never adopts a superior or smug attitude toward the events and the players that shaped them – the policy makers presented here are unquestionably patriotic and have what they believe to be their country's best interests in mind. That their policies ultimately failed, and that they advocated their positions so ardently, only adds to the all-too-recognizable human dimensions of the characterizations.
Boasting a triumvirate of stellar, fully realized and multi-dimensional performances by Michael Gambon, Alec Baldwin, and Donald Sutherland, as well as the vigorous direction of the recently departed John Frankenheimer, Path to War is a resounding success. One need not be a political fiend or policy wonk to enjoy this film – its drama and characterizations unfold in such a tragic, understandable manner that it renders the work both emotionally affecting and intellectually respectful. Very highly recommended.