Based on the true story of Peg Mullen, whose son was killed while he was serving in the Army during the Vietnam War, Friendly Fire depicts the relentless efforts of Peg (Carol Burnett) and her husband Gene (Ned Beatty) to determine the truth about the death of her son, Michael E. Mullen (Dennis Erdman). The Army tells Peg that the death was "friendly fire" during "non-combat operations", but their willingness to elaborate on what that means is limited, and when someone is willing to offer an explanation, it often changes and conflicts with the explanation someone else provided. Their efforts take them from Army offices to the newspapers and eventually into the streets of Washington, as their protest against the Vietnam war and the needless death of more Americans catches the attention of the nation at large.
Adapted from C. D. B. Bryan's book, which itself was based on Bryan's New Yorker interviews with Mullen, Friendly Fire is a compelling drama about bureaucracy standing in the way of truth in the middle of a war zone. In some ways, it feels like a premonition of Costa-Gavras' Missing, which would be released the following year. In place of that film's ideological debate between a distraught father and an impassioned girlfriend, the conflict in Friendly Fire revolves around the idea that protesting the Army's explanations about Michael represent an un-American sentiment, that to argue that any aspect of the Army might be corrupt or conceal the truth would be a betrayal of country. The film, written by Fay Kanin and directed by David Greene, walks a pretty tricky line along that divide, careful not to portray Peg as any sort of a radical but simply a distraught parent desperate to know what happened to her child.
For a film that runs 146 minutes, it might be surprising that the first word that comes to mind in describing Friendly Fire is "economical." Although there's no way to know without reading Bryan's writing how much was pulled from Peg's words verbatim, it certainly seems like her screenplay pulls a complex and lengthy battle into a film that is balanced, well-paced, and nails its points without harping on them too much. There are moments (especially the ominous commercial breaks) where the film gets a touch melodramatic, but for the most part, it shies away from hysterics, with Burnett and Beatty downplaying the film's most emotionally obvious moments with stillness and an internalized anger. The film also features Timothy Hutton as the Mullen's other son, in an impressive early performance. It's the little injustices that infuriate the Mullens: the dithering generals with folders and numbers, the squirming politicians, the clicking phones.
The same economy of storytelling also applies to Greene's direction. Greene knows that the power is in the story and the performances, and he wisely keeps the focus on them. Scenes of Peg interrogating a suit at the Capitol ("Farmers read. The war has gotten back to Iowa."), or an intense recollection by one of Michael's fellow soldiers (Hilly Hicks) focus on people's faces, yet other scenes out at the farmhouse give enough of the landscape and surrounding environment to make sure Friendly Fire doesn't feel like it's boxed in. Most impressively, Greene allows Peg's passion to drive the story rather than the memory of Michael. He's present for about 15 minutes near the beginning of the movie, and then for another five or so minutes through voice-over, reading his letters home. Another director might've had trouble resisting including scenes or flashbacks to Michael's life throughout the film, in order to make sure the audience "liked" him enough to support Peg, but Greene holds off.
About two-thirds of the way through, Friendly Fire takes an interesting turn when Sam Waterston enters the picture as C. D. B. Bryan, who comes to write his New Yorker articles, and then, his book. By incorporating this aspect of the story, the movie grounds itself back in the real world, reminding the viewer that these aren't meant to be characters, but a look at real people. As the film draws to a close, Greene finally allows a chance to see the the situation on the ground in Vietnam. The dramatic conflict that the film builds to in its final few moments is surprisingly complex, unafraid to add moral ambiguity to even Bryan's objectives, taking a moment in which one might view him as acting overly philanthropic or saint-like in his desire to tell Michael's story and wisely puncturing it.
Scorpion brings Friendly Fire to DVD with painted VHS artwork intact, depicting Burnett, flanked by Beatty and Waterston, gripping the American flag to her chest, looming over a split horizon featuring the farm, the battlefield, and the Capitol building. The single-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Amaray case (less plastic, no holes), and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.33:1 full frame and with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio, Friendly Fire isn't eye-popping, but it does look thoroughly decent for a TV 35-year-old TV movie. Details are pretty stable, exhibiting an impressive amount of texture and clarity amid a filmic softness. Colors are the area in which the image is most lacking, often appearing drab and clearly having drifted some due to age. The sound is surprisingly clear (if just short of "crisp"), and offers nice separation. The movie contains minimal "combat" footage, including multiple pieces of stock footage, which sounds fine, and the rest is dialogue -- not exactly a challenge for the mix to handle. No subtitles or captions are included on the disc.
None. Trailers for Saint Jack, The Last Days of Chez Nous, and Quest For Love are also included.
Friendly Fire isn't just an impressive balancing act for a TV movie, it's an impressive balancing act for any movie. It presents its story with a level of objectivity that stands out, especially given the sources used to bring the film to life. Recommended.
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