A Bright Shining Lie (1998)

 

 

 

Director:     Terry George.

Starring:     Bill Paxton (John Paul Vann), Bo Eason (Officer Tally), William L. Mansey (Officer Conroy), Karina Logue (Barmaid), Amy Madigan (Mary Jane Vann), Robert L. Hull (Bureaucrat Soldier), Donal Logue (Steven Burnett), 'Josh' Somsak Orajan (Vann's ARVN Driver), Harve Presnell (MACV General), Robert John Burke (Frank Drummond), Bill Whelan (Ron Dray), Kay Tong Lim (Colonel Cao Huynh Van), Seng Kawee (VC Leader), Kajie Khan (Madame Nhu), Vivian Wu (Lee), Van Thoa Trinh (VC Commander), Richard Montgomery (General's Aide), Andrew Borba (Reporter #1 - Nick), Michael Markovitch (Peter Vann Age 12), John Patrick Markovitch (Jesse Vann Age 9), Kathleen Markovitch (Patty Vann Age 7), Richard DeRusha (Protocol Officer), Richard Libertini (Marriage Counselor), James Bigwood (Office Manager), Ed Lauter (General Weyand), Kurtwood Smith (General Westmoreland), Eric Bogosian (Doug Elders), Jon Marsh (British Reporter), Les J.N. Mau (Colonel Dinh), David Warshofsky (Terry Pike), Thanh Nguyen (ARVN Translator), Xuyen Dangers (The School Teacher), Tom Hong (ARVN Captain), Wannipa 'Aoi' Navapan (Child's Mother), Pichariva Narakbunchai (Annie), Somboon Phutaroth (The Housekeeper), Phillip Roope (Red Cross Man), Graham 'Grace' Walker (Pastor), Robert Miranda (Vann's Cousin), Colin D. Smith (American Commander), Jim Pearson (Army Sergeant), John Higgins (CIA Man), Vu Dinh Nguyen (Lieutenant Tran Ngoc Ba), Chang Ching Peng Chaplin (Annie's Father), Apichart Chusakul (Sergeant Muek), James Rebhorn (Ambassador), Robert Pross (Reporter #2 - Bobby), Robert J. Szempruch (Vann's Helicopter Pilot), Chris Webster (Vann's Aide), John Lafayette (Major Jones), Rory J. Aylward (Bomber Command), Todd Sible (Jesse Vann Age 19).

Made for TV series.

true story of John Paul Vann who became a little too gung-ho in the Vietnam War

 

 

Spoiler Warning: 

The funeral for John Paul Vann.  A journalist, Steve Burnett of the Times, attends the funeral.  He comments:  "I'd come to say goodbye.  Vietnam tore us apart.  We went there believing in freedom and democracy, but somehow we lost our moral compass.  How did we let it happen?  A decade ago, things seemed so much clearer."

Flashback.  John Paul Vann is looking forward to seeing combat in Vietnam.  His fellow officer buddies laugh at him, but John says that Vietnam is the war of the future.  He goes over to the bar and flirts with the female bartender.  He comes home late and is all excited about going to Vietnam.  His wife Mary is mad at him for choosing to go to Vietnam.  John says he is sure to go up in rank going to a combat area.  He hugs and kisses his wife and she tells him that he smells like perfume. 

Saigon, March 23rd, 1962.  A military plane lands and Lt. Col. John P. Vann reports for duty.  Behind him is Steve Burnett.  Steve strikes up a conversation with John, and John gives Steve a ride in a jeep. 

As narrator, Steve says:  "After the French were defeated in 1954, Vietnam was divided between Ho Chi Minh's communist north and the southern regime of Ngo Dinh Diem.  The communists launched an insurrection to capture the south, so America sent 11,000 advisors to bolster Diem's army."

John attends a briefing by the general.  He says that each one of the men will be assigned to a division of the South Vietnamese Army to act as senior advisors.   The general praises the bravery of the South Vietnamese army and talks about the high body counts they have achieved on the battlefield.

John reports to his division and goes to see Colonel Cao.  The new advisor gets an immediate shock from a dish of reality.  A number of dead enemy troops are photographed with the South Vietnamese that killed them.  Once the photos have been taken, four out of the six dead, suddenly get up off the ground and walk around.  The photo is a fake.  Instead of six dead, there are only two dead.  Col. Cao now comes over to meet John.  The colonel says that they killed many of the enemy, but the enemy took many of the dead off the battlefield, so they added living men to the photo to give a more accurate account of the enemy dead.  John asks Colonel Cao how many men does he have?  The answer is 500.

John asks American Major Frank Drummond what does intelligence report?  A  Vietcong instructor has infiltrated and trained new recruits at the village of Than Binh.  John wants to go out with the troops, but Colonel Cao insists that he stay at headquarters with the commander.  He also rejects John's suggestion that they block off any escape route from the back of the village. 

The South Vietnam forces reach the village and the Vietcong wound one of the South Vietnamese in the leg.  Some of the Vietcong are killed with a burst of machine gun fire.  When John hears this, he runs out of headquarters and commandeers a helicopter for a ride to the battlefield.  The enemy is heading out the back door.  So, John orders the pilot to come up to the village from the back way.  John shoots two of the Vietcong soldiers and captures two others. 

The Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry doesn't go to Lt. Col. Vann but to Col. Cao who did all he could do to let the Vietcong escape.  Steve Burnett says to John that there's been talk that Diem's men are unwilling to fight.  John rejects that idea outright. 

One day John is driving down a street in Saigon and he sees a very pretty Vietnamese girl.  She is a teacher at the English language school.  John stops his jeep and goes over to talk to her.  He says he needs a translator to translate enemy documents.  The next thing we know, is that John is having a fancy dinner with the woman at a nice restaurant.  He has a diary from one of the dead men he killed and he shows it to the young woman.  She translates one part of the diary where the author describes the Americans as soft or decadent.  She soon realizes that John didn't bring her to the restaurant to translate.  The next scene is in a hotel where the woman is taking off her clothes while John watches her while he sits on the bed. 

Steve says John came to claim that the South Vietnamese were kicking the enemy's ass.  He adds:  "It wasn't so much a lie as something he knew he could make happen."  John was doing well for awhile. 

Col. Cao is going to assault Than Binh.  John reminds him that they already cleared Than Binh.  The colonel says that the village must be cleansed thoroughly.  John says:  "This is ridiculous."  The Colonel takes John aside to tell him that he must follow the orders of his Vietnamese superiors.  Otherwise his own Vietnamese family will be in danger.  Cao says his superiors told him:  "No casualty."   He goes on to say that things here are not as simple as in America. 

In bed with his girlfriend Lee, John listens as she translates the diary.  Later, she asks him to tell her about his wife.  John says he and his wife are separated.

Col. Cao is going to attack Ap Bac, but this time John is going up in a spotter plane and see the battlefield for himself.  John flies in the plane but passes right above the camouflaged enemy without seeing them.  Steve as narrator says it was Ap Bac, January 2, 1963.  The Vietcong studied the American movements for a year.  Now they have decided that they are ready to attack the Americans.  John tells the helicopters where to land, but he's about to have them land very near the enemy hiding in the tree line.  John shouts that the choppers are too close to the tree line.  And now the Vietcong open up on two of the helicopters.  The two copters have to set down. 

John orders his plane to land at headquarters.  He is really angry and he tells Cao that he will order the infantry to fight to save the soldiers in the helicopters and in the armored personnel carriers.  A second copter brings more wounded and dead soldiers into headquarters.  John helps with the wounded.  He's asked what happened and John says the Vietcong knew the South Vietnamese wouldn't fight, so they stood their ground.  Charlie kicked our ass!

One of the American advisors has been killed in battle. 

The commanding general, at John's request, comes to speak to John.  And now John learns that the general is playing the same games that Col. Cao is playing.  He is angry at John for saying that they were beaten by the Vietcong.  He says:  "We control these areas.  . . .  Now you get this straight.  The outback was a victory.  We took the objective.  We drove off the enemy.  Everybody knows ours had beaten theirs."   He threatens to court-martial John, if he spreads this defeatist talk. 

John goes to meet with Steve.  He is going to spill the bad news to Steve.  He says:  "South Vietnamese Command has no interest in fighting the communists.  . . .  the officers' priority is to protect Diem's regime rather than to stop communist insurgency."  He adds that  the numbers the reporters are getting from the military are all phony.  They are made-up numbers.   The South Vietnamese attack areas that the V.C. have already vacated or they leave the enemy an escape route.  And the Americans supply the peasants with weapons and they just turn around and give them to the V.C.  In short, the U.S. Advisory Program is a sham, totally ineffective. 

The men's talk is interrupted by a Buddhist protest.  One of their monks has gasoline poured over his body.  He then uses a cigarette lighter to light himself on fire.

The general reads in the Times what he knows is information provided by John, and now he wants John busted and thrown out of of the army.

John is going back home.  He runs into Steve who says the story is the shit storm John's articles caused back home.  And now Diem has put his boys onto Steve for reporting on Project Outback. 

Back home John gives talks on his experiences to various groups of the military.  He says that Ho Chi Minh will give gave back the rice lands to the peasants, whereas Deim takes the rice paddies.  They must give the peasants back their land.  He says they will have to fight the communist revolution with the peasant revolution. 

Lt. Col. Vann is going to give his talk to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  He comes to meeting ready and willing, but he is now told that his briefing with the Joint Chiefs has been canceled.  It was a conflict in schedule, but the chairman is anxious to hear Vann's briefing at a later date.

Steve comments that the Old Guard closed ranks and shut Vann out.  Vann resigned, his military career was ruined.  And then Vann starts having marital problems with his wife calling him a liar and a cheater.  She also says he screwed himself out of his career years ago.  They go for couple's counseling, but the wife is so filled with rage against John, that it doesn't go very well.  She brings up so many cheating incidents, and then she she wants her husband to tell the story of the relationship between John and his mother Myrtle.  John gets so mad that he storms out the door. 

President John F. Kennedy is killed as he was driven through the streets of Dallas, Texas.  Vice-President Johnson now becomes the president.  Then he exaggerates a non-incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam into a call for a major war.  John Paul Vann telephones General Weyand from his civilian job.  He says he's just dying here at his job.  He wants to get into the action in Vietnam. 

The general gets John a job in the Civilian Aid Program back in Vietnam. His wife says that the family will get abandoned again.  John says he has go over to Vietnam because he knows how to win that war. 

Saigon, March 20th, 1965.  In civilian clothing John arrives and drives the jeep again as the designated driver sits in the passenger seat.  John enters the office of General Fred Weyand.  Weyand is happy to see John, but he has to warn John that he has to learn to keep his mouth shut.  Weyand agrees with Vann's briefings that they have to win the peasants over to them.   And with the aid program, John can have a chance to put some of his ideas to work. 

John attends a briefing with the press corps.  Steve happily greets John.  John introduces his assistant Doug Elders to Steve.  Commander Westmoreland introduces the aid program to the press.  It's a very short speech.  Weyand introduces South Vietnamese Col. Dinh to Vann and Elders.  Dinh is their regional commander. 

As soon as John has some free time, he goes to meet his first Vietnamese girlfriend, the English teacher and translator.  She and the male and female students are all dressed in western clothing and many have western hair styles.  The teacher sees John and she dismisses her students.  The two talk together for awhile, and then they hug and kiss each other.

John and Doug ride in a jeep to Bau Trai.  They meet a civilian workers named Terry Pike.  Pike says that this place is gone.  He points out a group of young men and says they're Vietcong.  "Now, our defenders either work for them or pay them off."  Col. Dinh is the man in charge.  "I don't know if Charlie works for him, or he works for them.   Don't matter much though, 'cause nobody works for us." 

Doug looks around the place and declares the place a mess, but soon John starts sending out aid supplies to the surrounding areas.  Doug sees that the local school has terrible water leaks in the roof.  Soon John has the military men working on fixing the roof. 

Col. Dinh arrives and he is very unhappy seeing the work on the local school.  Dinh explains to John that he did not pay the colonel for the cost of the materials he used.  John says this is free material from the aid program.  Dinh explains that, no, all the aid materials belong to him:   "This is my region.  It is my Aid material, and you must pay."  John now slaps Dinh very hard across the face twice.  Dinh looks around and glares at the Vietnamese translator working for the aid program. He and his men leave. 

At night the Vietcong arrive at the aid station.  They tell a guard to leave the scene.  He leaves.  Then they cut the tongue out of the translator's mouth and throw it onto Doug while he's sleeping.  That scares the hell out of Doug.  He asks John what is that and learns that it's a tongue.  The two men grab their automatic weapons and check out the station.  In the barracks tent, they find four Vietnamese soldiers with their throats cut. 

John and Doug ride out to confront Dinh, but the officer in charge says Dinh went to Bau Trai to punish the village.  So, the two men race to Bau Trai.  A group of Vietnamese and American soldiers have a check point outside the village.  John stops to ask the sergeant what's going on?  Dinh has ordered an air strike on the village.  John tells the sergeant to have the air strike canceled and charges down the road.  It's too late.  The planes drop what looks like napalm on the village.  Several villagers run down the road to get away from the napalm.  John slowly drives his jeep to see the damage done to the village.  There are still many villagers left in the village, but most of the village is destroyed.  Doug tries to help safe the students of the school, but the school teacher chases him away.  John and Doug are devastated. 

The two men go to complain about Dinh to General Weyand, but he says his men just ran into the North Vietnamese army:  "We lost 230 men!  So don't come here telling me about one corrupt ARVN colonel!"  Then he tells John that since John knows the locals, he wants John to get together his own squads and clean out these villages. 

CBS anchor Walter Cronkite announces:  "Our casualties in Vietnam in a single week have exceeded the average weekly rate of dead and wounded in the Korean War.  240 Americans killed, 470 wounded.:  Most of the the casualties occurred in the battle of la Draug Valley. 

John tells Doug that he's in love again and it's with an 18 year old Vietnamese girl.  Then John learn that his mother has died.  He tells Doug that his mother was a whore and he was her bastard.  She was killed by someone hitting her over the head with a whiskey bottle.  Nevertheless, Doug urges John to go home and bury his mother.

John attends the funeral, but afterwards, his wife tells him that she wants a divorce.  She says she just has to get away from him. 

Steve comments:  "1967, the year of delusion.  465,000 American troops fought major battles from the Delta to the D.M.Z., while Westmoreland declared the end was coming into view."  Doug is upset when he sees the school teacher's dead body being put next to two other dead Vietcong men. 

John starts a verbal argument with Steve, saying that Steve is spreading that defeatist crap about  the war.  The argument stops when the father of John's girlfriend and his daughter come to speak with Vann.  Dad says that his daughter is now pregnant.  John says he loves his daughter and he will take care of her.  And John does marry his pregnant girlfriend.

Westmoreland asks for another 100,000 troops to come to Vietnam. 

John visits Doug in his hospital bed.  Doug tells him that he's leaving Vietnam.  He's going home.  Doug says:  "We're losing our souls here."  As John starts to leave, Doug tells him:  "Don't get killed."

John tells Westmoreland that the enemy is about to attack Saigon.  Westmoreland says they are wrong.  The enemy is going to strike at the marines at Khe Sanh to score a great victory. 

John's former girlfriend Lee wants John to go away with her for the Tet celebration of the Vietnamese New Year.   He tells her that he really can't go. 

It's Tet and John attends a party to celebrate the New Year.  John tells the American ambassador that his intelligence tells him that the enemy is going to attack Saigon soon.  Since Westmoreland didn't notify the ambassador, the man just tells John to try to relax tonight.

The next morning John awakens to the sound of gunfire.  He looks out his gate door and sees a Vietcong shooting from his gate.  He puts his pistol near the back of  his enemy's head and fires.  He then motions to an armored personnel vehicle to come pick him up.  He orders the vehicle to head for the American embassy. By the time they arrive, the Americans are trying to retake the embassy.  John gets out and runs to find who's in charge here.  The American ambassador calls John over to him.  The ambassador tells John that the enemy has taken over the radio transmission and is about to take care of the palace. 

John calls Weyand, who tells him that he kept six battalions is reserve and he is sending four to Saigon.  John now tells the ambassador that they've got the men to hold the city.  A report broadcasts that 232 G. I.s have been killed..

President Johnson says that he will not seek or accept the nomination of his political party for another term as president.  Republican Nixon becomes the next president.  Gen. Abrams replaces Gen. Westmoreland as head of the ground forces.  Second in command is Gen. Weyand.  And now they emphasize the role of the South Vietnamese in being the primary force to drive the enemy out.  Weyand announces that he has made John Vann his deputy for military functions.  He is making Vann the equivalent of a general, and he will be in charge of 10 divisions of South Vietnamese troops in the Central Highlands.  The Americans are pulling back and the South Vietnamese are moving forward. 

Steve comments:  "Nixon ordered all American combat troops out of Vietnam by June of 1972.  The South Vietnamese, although backed by American air support advisors, would have to fight the war themselves.  Ten years down the road, we were back to where we started, but this time John Paul Vann was in charge."

Five divisions of North Vietnamese are headed south, but John stays optimistic, saying that the South Vietnamese might turn the whole situation around for South Vietnam.  John says he's been waiting to get an opportunity like this one his whole life.

Steve comes in to see John and tells him it's just wrong to use the B-52 bombers to destroy the Kontum area.  John just get mad at Steve and ignores his comments. 

Kontum, June 1972.  John arrives and gives a briefing.  He says that they are going to hold the line north of Kontum at Tan Canh.  Their forces will pull back as the enemy troops push south toward Kontum.  As the enemy moves south, they will be bombarded by B-52s.  They will wipe out the second, third and fifth divisions of the North Vietnamese army.

Things don't go smoothly for John.  His enemy, now Gen. Dinh, is taking over the command of the South Vietnamese troops.   John now jumps into a helicopter to go where the North Vietnamese are closing in on an American firebase.  The South Vietnamese start running from the base, but the fields through which they run are mine fields and many soldiers are killed.  Frank Drummond is killed when he steps on a mine.  John helps get a lot of men onto the helicopter.  The North Vietnamese tank just misses hitting the helicopter as it gets back into the air. 

Back to another base, John orders the B-52s to bomb next to the American base.  The planes arrive just in time and the North Vietnamese are hit really hard with carpet bombing.  And now John is a hero.  He gets introduced to President Thiew, who thanks John for what he did.  John doesn't stay long.  He tells Weyand that he's going back to the combat zone.  Steve stops John to show him a newspaper article about his one-time assistant Doug who is now a leader in the anti-Vietnam War cause.

John gets into the helicopter and the pilot warns him:  "Boss, we really don't have the weather."  John says:  "Come on, let's go."

Steve gets a phone call that John Vann is dead. 

Back to the present.  Steve says:  "John Paul Vann was America's warrior. He personified our good intentions, our arrogance, our courage and ultimately our folly.  He had fought to redeem the unredeemable.  To salvage the doomed enterprise called South Vietnam.  In death he had triumphed over defeat, while the rest of us are left to ask, why?"

John Paul Vann died on June 9, 1972 when his helicopter crashed in a rainstorm.  Three years later, the USS. Ambassador fled by helicopter from the roof of the embassy in Saigon, as the North Vietnamese Army entered the city.

58,209 American soldiers died in the war in Vietnam.  John Paul Vann was not counted as one of those soldiers.  The number of Vietnamese dead is estimated at over one million.  

 

 

John Paul Vann was a great army officer who tried to lead the army to victory in the Vietnam War.  John was a super gung-ho soldier.  In the end he was too gung-ho and died in a helicopter crash under bad weather conditions.  John ignored the pilot's warning that storm was too much to fly in.  John was a bit too honest and got himself dismissed from the army by exposing the corruption of the war effort in Vietnam.  He was right in what he said, but the Americans were working with the corrupt system.  John went too far when he leaked his observations to a newspaper reporter.  John had to find a civilian job, but he was miserable having to sit at a desk while a war was raging in Vietnam.  So John contacts a general who knows how good John is as a combat officer.  The general gets him a civilian job in the Civilian Aid Program back in Vietnam.  Again John runs into corruption.  Once General Westmoreland leaves, John's ally general makes the civilian John an acting general to handle the South Vietnamese army in battles up north.  John makes himself a hero on the battlefield but soon takes himself out of the battle by being too gung-ho to see that the weather was too rough for a helicopter flight.  John may have been a great soldier, but he was a terrible father and husband, ignoring his wife and children.  John was a womanizer and had Vietnamese girlfriends.  He even married one of the Vietnamese girls he got pregnant.  So John was both good and bad, but always a bit too gung-ho. Bill Paxton (as Lt. Col. John Paul Vann) was terrific as usual.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

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