In George Butler’s Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, we get a brief glimpse of the Winter Soldier press conferences that took place over three days in Detroit in February and March of 1972. Now, the 1972 documentary of these press conferences, Winter Soldier, is receiving a limited re-release here in DC and in a few other major cities (Kerry appears briefly in the 1972 documentary). During these press conferences, several panels of young soldiers reported on unimaginable atrocities committed by US soldiers in all branches of the military. The film opens with a brief voice-over explaining the source of the title, before immediately moving into pilot Rusty Sachs’ testimony, in which he describes watching as blindfolded Vietnamese prisoners are pushed out of airplanes, a practice he describes as routine. Other soldiers add to this picture, describing atrocities that were relatively common practice.
Visually, the film is stunning in its immediacy, using a cinema verite style to capture the sense of urgency these soldiers clearly feel. In many sequences, the filmmakers favor close-ups, with soldiers such as Scott Camil speaking directly into the camera about the atrocities they witnessed. The documentary is entirely in black-and-white except for fleeting color photgraphs (and perhaps some color Super 8 footage) of the fresh-faced soldiers in Vietnam, creating a stark visual contrast.
Winter Soldier was so controversial that it did not play widely on television or in theaters in the 1970s, playing primarily in smaller venues such as the Whitney Museum, and it’s worth noting that the film’s re-release was held back until after the 2004 Presidential election out of concern that it might negatively effect Kerry’s chances in the election.
This decision speaks to the film’s relevance even today. During one sequence, in which a soldier describes their (lck of) training in the Geneva Conventions, it’s impossible not to think about the actions of teh soldiers in Abu Ghraib, as Amy Heller points out in this interview with Anthony Kaufman. But aside from the press conference itself, I found many of the “backstage” moments utterly compelling, in particular one sequence in which an African-American soldier comments on the degree to which a history racism informs the treatment of Vietnamese people as less than human (Anne Hornaday, in an incredibly insightful review, also found this scene to be pivotal).
Hornaday also notes the degree to which several of the soldiers, particularly Camil, are struggling in front of the camera “not only with their experiences overseas but also with the very definition of manhood, whether as constructed by cultural mores or one’s own inner code.” Winter Solider is a powerful experience, not simply as an anti-war document (although that is certainly important), but also as a document of a certain moment in American history when the soldiers’ experiences in the war were forcing them to grapple with questions of race and masculinity.