Though the country is more than 8,000 miles away and US involvement in the war ended 40 years ago, we are still not all that far from Vietnam, notwithstanding the title of the 1967 multi-auteur collaboration, “Far From Vietnam.” Iraq, Afghanistan, and the specter of Syria suggest that the United States has yet to learn its lesson about entering distant, unwinnable conflicts, whatever the humanitarian or ideological motives.
But we are, for better and worse, far from a cultural period in which so many world-class filmmakers would put their politics and aesthetics on the line in an effort such as this. Alternately strident and eloquent, muddled and incisive, “Far From Vietnam” remains compelling both as artful propaganda and as a prophetic historical artifact.
It begins with images that might have been shot anytime in the last 10 years, and may well be repeated in the near future in Syria. Bombs are loaded onto a US aircraft carrier, followed by a sequence showing endless fighter bombers taking off to drop their payloads on Hanoi. In a pattern repeated throughout the film, this example of US wealth, technology, and power precedes a cut to the primitive but indomitable resistance of the Vietnamese as Hanoi residents fashion crude concrete shelters to withstand the attack. Point made, but just in case you don’t get it, Chris Marker in voice-over recites the party line that US imperialism strives in vain to defeat a resolute, impoverished people.
More effective are the sequences presented without comment: antiwar demonstrations in which the grotesque ignorance and jingoism of the hecklers counters the sometimes fatuous idealism of the marchers; an American woman discussing with chilling equanimity the death of her husband, who immolated himself to protest the war.
In all, the film consists of 11 chapters (plus introduction and epilogue) each ushered in by the headline-like, sometimes cryptic intertitles that reveal the hand of Jean-Luc Godard. In one of the film’s simplest and most effective episodes, he appears manning a camera, explaining in voice-over that he cannot, in good conscience, say anything about the war since he is so removed from the experience (though he does include clips from his then latest film, “La Chinoise,” also from 1967). Though Marker put this package together, Godard’s playful, skeptical touch helps transform what could have been (and sometimes is) a partisan screed into something close to art.