What was the last significant American movie about the Viet Nam era? Stuck? Let me rephrase the question. Have there been any this decade? Here are your choices:
We Were Soldiers (March, 2002) : Mel Gibson
The Quiet American (February, 2003) Michael Caine
Word of Honor (December 2003) Don Johnson
Faith of my Fathers (May 2005) TV movie about POW John McCain
Rescue Dawn (July 2007) Christian Bale
American Gangster (November 2007) Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe
1968 Tunnel Rats (March 2009) Independent film
Forrest Gump and Dead Presidents were the decade's most notable offerings in the 1990's, and I do not mean to imply that a film had to be highbrow or highly political to be notable. Forrest Gump's importance is not what it has to say about history but as an early, high profile use of digital manipulation of historic film footage. Dead Presidents is just classic Blacksploitation revisited. Not a Deerhunter or Full Metal Jacket among them,nor yet a Rambo.
Since 9/11, the genre continues to be impoverished. Gibson's movie, filmed in 2001, is a continuation of the redemptive, heroic depiction of the service and sacrifice of American soldiers in Viet Nam - and their families at home - that arose in American society in the late 1980s and continues to this day. The Quiet American is based on a novel from an earlier era and is more notable for the Oscar nominated performance of Michael Caine than what the story itself has to say about American involvement in Southeast Asia. The rest are throwbacks of varying quality, but do nothing to carry the conversation about how we interpret the events of the fast receding past and that heavily value laden conflict.
Mainstream American films - aside for those that go direct to video - quite naturally tend to track with the tastes of contemporary American audiences. American films about Viet Nam will indicate how contemporary politics and society grapple with the memory of what amounts to a period of national trauma. A gung ho film like John Wayne's Green Berets gives way to the nihilism of Apocalypse Now, the morality play of Platoon, the revenge fantasy of Rambo. Depictions of the Viet Nam veteran progress from hero to outcast to perpetrator to victim and back to hero, and that is where we are left as a new generation of veterans emerges from a new series of conflicts.
Maybe there is nothing new for Hollywood to say about Viet Nam because we have come full circle, or perhaps we are stalled by contemporary events. Maybe when the first President Bush declared during the Gulf War that we have put Viet Nam behind us, it foreshadowed the second''s declaration of "mission accomplished". And maybe in another ten years, the memory of our current wars will inform how Hollywood revisits Viet Nam.
Either that, or we will get another pulpy Quentin Tarantino gorefest along the lines of Inglorious Bastards.