Vietnam in HD, DVD, by Lou Reda
Productions, for History channel, executive producers Scott L. Reda, Lou Reda, 2011

Here’s what’s quite good about Vietnam in HD, the six-hour documentary from Lou Reda Productions that appeared on the History channel last November and is now out on DVD: The enhanced high-definition video footage. As you watch these clips from in-country home movies taken four decades ago, the images are so crisp and clear it’s almost as though you’re taking in a 21st-century, state-of-the-art Hollywood film about the Vietnam War.

Also in the good vein: the filmmakers’ objective, fact-based presentation of the overall military and political picture of the American war in Vietnam. Although the film concentrates heavily on explosive in-country military action, there is just enough background on homefront politics to frame the battlefield action in its proper domestic political context.

Adding to the documentary’s strength are first-person contributions from participants in the war who tell their stories throughout the six hours. There are 13 in all, but five stand out—and are relied on the most heavily. All are articulate, perceptive and insightful.

A good amount of screen time goes to former United Press International correspondent Joe Galloway, who is best known for his coverage of the 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, but who also offers his eyewitness account of Operation Lam Son 719 in 1971, as well as his thoughts on the war in general and those who fought in it. The other excellent contributors are one-time Army infantry Lieutenant Barry Romo, who went on to become active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War; former Marine Lieutenant Karl Marlantes, the author of the acclaimed Vietnam War novel Matterhorn and the nonfiction book What It Is Like to Go to War; Anne Purcell, the wife of Vietnam War POW Army Colonel Ben Purcell; and Arthur Wiknik, a draftee shake-and-bake Army infantry sergeant who fought at Hamburger Hill, among other places.

Each episode concentrates heavily on one or two large in-country engagements: Ia Drang, Dak To, Khe Sanh, Tet 1968, Hamburger Hill, the Cambodian Incursion, Lam Son 719, the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive and the final NVA push in 1975. Each features a rock ’n’ roll sound track, technologically spruced-up home movie footage, archival footage and present-day interviews with a participant of each engagement. Most of the time the images match the personal descriptions.

The filmmakers—director and supervising editor Sammy Jackson, producer and head writer Liz Reph, and executive producers Lou and Scott L. Reda—provide action from the beginning and throughout much of the six hours. Many, many scenes zero in on graphic images of the worst that war has to offer. This is not a film for the faint of heart; if you watch, you will see countless close-up images of wounded, dead and dying soldiers and civilians, along with all sorts of ordnance in action in Technicolor—from flamethrowers to napalm and seemingly everything in between.

The narration, by actor Michael C. Hall (star of TV’s Dexter), is spare and for the most part accurate and to the point. The computer graphics—mainly maps with moving parts—work well.

What doesn’t feel quite right, though, is the filmmakers’ decision to have other Hollywood actors (including Adrian Grenier, Kevin Connolly and Jerry Ferrara from Entourage) voice the words of the 13 participants—usually directly before and after we see the real person speaking. It’s not that the actor-speakers aren’t good. But it’s more than a bit off-putting to see and hear the real Barry Romo, for example, talking in his living room, and then watch as the sound track morphs to Grenier using Romo’s words to describe the action.

Another shortcoming is that while Vietnam in HD does a decent job with the war’s domestic political component, we get very little or nothing on geopolitics. Granted, it would be impossible to put every aspect of the war in a documentary—even one that spans six TV hours. But in Vietnam in HD, the 1945-54 French war, a critical stepping stone to American involvement in Vietnam, is not mentioned. And there’s precious little on the important roles of the Soviet Union and China supporting North Vietnam, and nothing on South Korea’s huge military role in the war.

We are given only cursory reminders of South Vietnam’s political situation, another vital component of the war’s big picture. There’s not a word, for example, on the assassination of South Vietnam Premier Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, nor anything about such pivotal figures as Ngo Dinh Nhu, Nguyen Cao Ky, Nguyen Van Thieu or Duong Van “Big” Minh. We also get virtually nothing on the role of U.S. support troops and only a brief mention of American women who served.

That said, Vietnam in HD is a worthy addition to the cinematic history of the American War in Vietnam—so long as you realize you’re in for six hours of almost nonstop American battle action.

—Marc Leepson