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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Vietnam in HD Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Two years after the release of its landmark Emmy-winning series WWII in HD, The History Channel shifts its focus to a new generation and one of the most controversial chapters in American history, the Vietnam War.  Vietnam in HD will immerse viewers in the sights, the sounds and the stories of the Vietnam War as it has never before been seen.  Thousands of hours of uncensored footage – much of it shot by soldiers in action – will detail every critical chapter of the conflict.  The war will unfold onscreen through the gripping firsthand accounts of thirteen brave men and women who were forever changed by their experience in Vietnam.

Film (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)  

Much like their previous series WWII in HD (see my review here), The History Channel covers the Vietnam War by focusing on the stories of thirteen men and women who served there, rather than try to cover every aspect of the conflict.  By limiting its focus, it allows the viewers to gain a deeper understanding of the war through these men and women’s personal stories.  We meet Karl Marlantes a marine who was involved in some of the worst fighting in the war; Arthur Wiknik, a draftee who participated in the 10 day assault on Hamburger Hill; Bob Clewell, a helicopter pilot that was involved in extremely dangerous missions into Laos;  Charles Brown who bravely led his men into Pleiku and Dak To; Elizabeth Allen, an Army nurse who volunteered to serve on the front lines; Joe Galloway, a United Press International reporter who went to Vietnam twice to cover the war and ended up saving lives himself; Anne Purcell, the wife of the highest ranking prisoner of war; and Barry Romo who entered the war as a supporter and later ended up being a dedicated anti-war protester.
This series offers a comprehensive view of the entire war from start to finish, with a focus on both the hardships that faced the military personnel and the turmoil back at home.  The United States originally got involved in the conflict between the communist North Vietnamese (Viet Cong) and the South Vietnam forces as part of their policy of containing the spread of communism.  We see additional military advisers arrive to help the South Vietnamese and the escalation of the war that necessitates more and more personnel.  The draft is reinstated to achieve the required quota which is highly unpopular in the long run.  Unlike World War II, the American public now has a constant barrage of newsreel footage that dominates the news non stop which also fuels that anti-war movement.
Showing the horror and brutality of the war, galvanizes many people who start protesting in Washington, D.C. and at their colleges.  The public grew even more disillusioned with the President and the military after the Tet Offensive occured since they had been led to believe that the Viet Cong were crippled enough that they couldn’t ever mount an attack that large.  Ironically, we see that the political and public pressure to end the war, actually made achieving their military goals that could have ended the war quicker even harder to accomplish.  After finally allowing the U.S. forces to attack Viet Cong bases in Cambodia, the soldiers are told to stay within 19 miles of the Vietnam border which prevented them from attacking the suspected main Viet Cong base which was just outside of the directed limit.
It’s hard to compare the events onscreen to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, since there seems to be quite a bit of history repeating itself.  What set this war apart from say World War II, is that the enemy wasn’t easily recognizable. The Viet Cong didn’t have uniforms and they deliberately blended in with the civilian population.  As one of the soldiers  says, “We’re told the VC threaten these people with their lives unless they help them, so you gotta figure it’s not really their fault. But at the same time when you find a bunch of AK-47s hidden in some villagers’ chicken pen, you can’t help but feel that they’re the reason your buddy is dead.”  We also see the soldiers’ frustration with the Viet Cong strategy of firing on American troops while being shielded by civilians, since they knew any counter-attack by the Americans  would inevitably kill civilians and only make them more hostile to the U.S. forces.   This series does a great job showing the daily life of a soldier with their moments of leisure on white sandy beaches and then the sheer terror of being ambushed in the jungle.   The series also does an admirable job showing just how instrumental helicopters were in this war and we fly along with the pilots as they are being shot at or passing over hundreds of corpses below.
This six-hour series is narrated by Golden Globe Award winner Michael C. Hall and voiced by some of Hollywood’s top talents: Adrian Grenier as Barry Romo, Edward Burns as Joe Galloway, Kevin Connolly as Keith Connolly, Blair Underwood as Charles Brown, Tempestt Bledsoe as Elizabeth Allen, Jerry Ferrara as Raymond Torres, Zachary Levi as Karl Marlantes, James Marsden as Arthur Wiknik, Jennifer Love Hewitt as Anne Purcell, Glenn Howerton as Donald DeVore, Armie Hammer as Gary Benedetti, Dylan McDermott as Jim Anderson, and Dean Cain as Bob Clewell. While many of these people initially made me wonder why they were involved, but honestly they all did a good job portraying these real life heroes.  Here is the breakdown of the episodes as originally described:
  • The Beginning (1964-1965) - In 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder roars across the skies over North Vietnam and the first U.S. ground troops land in the South. American soldiers are outnumbered in the Ia Drang Valley, the first major battle of the war.
  • Search & Destroy (1966-1967) – American troops launch widespread “search and destroy” operations; body count, not territory, becomes the measure of success in Vietnam. Charles Brown fights for survival on the bloody slopes of Hill 875 and at home, the American public begins to question U.S. military strategy.
  • The Tet Offensive (1968) – The enemy gains ground when the massive Tet Offensive catches the Americans by surprise. At Khe Sanh and Pleiku, U.S. troops are under siege. Americans mount a counteroffensive but the shock of the assault ignites anti-war fervor at home.
  • An Endless War (1968-1969) – The turmoil of 1968 helps Nixon win the presidency. Troop strength in Vietnam peaks and the draft accelerates. Karl Marlantes endures bitter jungle fighting on Hill 484, and draftee Arthur Wiknik gets a grim introduction to combat on “Hamburger Hill”. But shortly after “winning” both hills, US troops abandon them.
  • A Changing War (1969-1970) – Troop withdrawals begin as the Americans train their ARVN allies to take over the war. Gery Benedetti patrols the hostile waters of the Mekong Delta. James Anderson leads a battalion into Cambodia after Nixon’s controversial order. Don DeVore struggles to survive a fierce night attack, and Anne Purcell gets promising news about her husband. Then, Bob Clewell’s helicopter crew comes under intense fire in one of the final operations of the war.
  • Peace with Honor (1971-1975) - Joe Galloway returns to Vietnam and in Washington, D.C., Barry Romo throws down his medals in protest. The last American troops return home and POW wife Anne Purcell awaits word of her husband’s fate. The fall of Saigon brings the unification of Vietnam.

Video (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

Like all of the other historical series, it’s hard to rate the video quality of the show because it varies so much due to the variety of film stock used to make up the show.  A lot of this footage was taken from 8mm home movies and film recorded out in the field, so the quality is as varied as the film stock used.  This 1080p (1.78:1) transfer looks rough in some parts and very good in others. The modern day interviews look sharp and in fine form but the older material has been stretched from 1.33:1 to 1.78:1 which doesn’t help.  For a transfer made up of old footage, this looks pretty good overall but it would have been better if they hadn’t stretched a 4×3 image to fit a 16×9 frame.

Audio (4 out of 5 stars) 

Vietnam in HD’s lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is very satisfying to hear especially when you consider that a lot of the footage was originally silent so the effects had to be added in later. The audio team does an excellent job bringing in accurate and realistic sound effects that makes the footage come alive.  The dialogue comes through clearly through the front channels, while the rear channels provide some nice atmosphere and directional effects.  One thing I will also mention is that throughout the show, the voices from the cast blend in with the actual voices of the people they are portraying.  It gives a nice reaching back in history vibe, but sometimes some of the dialogue is lost when the two voices are blending together.  Narrator Michael C. Hall does a decent job but I think someone else with more gravitas would have been a better choice.  There’s also a lot of period songs included in the series which help transport the viewers to that time period and they all sound great.

Special Features (0 out of 5 stars) 

Sadly, there are no special features on the Blu-ray edition which is really surprising since the DVD set comes with a bonus disc with an additional 51 minutes of extras.  The decision not to include them on the Blu-ray too is beyond me and will also hurt the set’s final score.

Final Thoughts (3 out of 5 stars) 

Because this war was extremely unpopular, the public resentment over the war has somewhat diminished the efforts of the military men and women who did their duty.  As Barry Romo points out, he’s glad the the Iraq and Afghanistan vets got a proper welcome home since he believes that the public at large now can separate their feelings between how they feel about the war itself and the military who were ordered to participate.  If you ever wondered what it was like to serve in Vietnam, this show gives you a pretty good idea of the stress, hardships, and the constant threat of death these men and women had to endure daily.  It also gives a nicely balanced view of the war in Vietnam and the public and political war that took place at home and how each affected the other.  Much like WWII in HD, this series will give you more of a reason to be thankful to those that served their country on Veteran’s Day.
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