There’s a vogue these days for the secret history, which deciphers an intricate conspiracy in terms that are—and this just might have something to do with its appeal—satisfyingly tidy. Hollywood has long embraced such tales, and this week it unveils one of the most anticipated: The Da Vinci Code. The secrets this film contains are so shattering that Columbia Pictures declined to show it to critics in time for the Washington City Paper’s deadline. (If only there were a book we could have read to reveal its mysteries.) So for now, we must turn to the personal-meets-political revelations of Sir! No Sir! and The Lost City. Vietnam and antiwar-movement veteran David Zeiger’s powerful documentary is a rejoinder to the largely successful attempts to delete GI resistance to that conflict from the record. Actor-turned-director Andy Garcia’s fictionalized account of his native Cuba’s 1959 revolution is more romantic and less urgent, perhaps because its political message—Castro is a bastard—isn’t exactly breaking news.
A conventionally assembled and structured documentary, Zeiger’s film takes a largely chronological passage from a few prescient ’60s military dissidents to the wider antiwar campaign that had developed by the early ’70s. But in its final segment, Sir! No Sir! expands its critique to include right-wing efforts to depict Vietnam vets as an abused minority, victimized by leftist elitists and other unpatriotic creeps. This argument is so crucial that it rallies “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, long silent on the war, to speak out once again. (Or maybe she’s involved because her son, Troy Garity, is the movie’s narrator.)
The doc opens with footage of napalm bombing—Apocalypse Now for real—and then introduces Dr. Howard Levy, who spent three years in prison for refusing to train medics heading to Vietnam; Susan Schnall, a Navy nurse who organized an antiwar leaflet drop over San Francisco; and Louis Font, who graduated with honors from West Point but announced he wouldn’t serve in Southeast Asia. These people were trouble, but their positions could have been (and were) called “isolated.” Things became trickier for the U.S. military, and for presidents Johnson and Nixon, when antiwar soldiers, sailors, and airmen began working together.
After an inmate was shot in the stockade of San Francisco’s Presidio in October 1968, other prisoners staged a sit-in, which led to 27 convictions of mutiny. Established near military bases, GI coffeehouses provided places for men on their way to Vietnam to meet antiwar activists, many of them veterans or still on active duty. The underground GI press began an antiwar USO alternative whose acronym officially stood for Free Theater Association—but also, in an ironic use of a military recruitment slogan, for Fun, Travel, Adventure. And, of course, for Fuck the Army. Black nationalism arose within the ranks, and, the film alleges, African-American soldiers at Fort Hood were arrested and beaten for refusing to work as riot-control forces at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In 1971, the Winter Soldier conference assembled Vietnam vets to recount atrocities they had witnessed—and committed.
The standard line is that the war was lost at home, where protesters undermined the morale of troops at the front. Sir! No Sir! contends that the soldiers themselves were a much bigger impediment than the demonstrators. Vietnam brought more than 500,000 incidents of desertion, as well as the phenomenon of “fragging,” in which hated officers were simply killed, sometimes by the fragmentation grenades that gave the practice its name. Whole companies began refusing to fight, which, according to Zeiger’s sources, forced Nixon and Kissinger to switch to an air war. No wonder today’s battle planners prefer a stretched-thin volunteer force to a reintroduction of the draft.
Only 84 minutes long, Sir! No Sir! doesn’t have time to fully develop its concluding topic. But Jerry Lembcke, a Vietnam veteran who’s now a sociology professor, debunks every aspect of the story of the spat-upon vet, which has passed into popular myth thanks to the Rambo films and their ilk. Its setting at a commercial airport is wrong, he asserts, because returning vets didn’t arrive there; so is the common claim that the spitter was female, because, in U.S. culture, spitting at others is an overwhelmingly male behavior. Offscreen, in his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, Lembcke makes many other interesting connections, including the fact that proto-Nazis spread similar stories of spat-upon veterans after World War I.
Lembcke’s book is highly critical of movies, including plenty of now-obscure ones, for establishing the image of the Vietnam vet as damaged goods, betrayed by his country and capable of being redeemed only by another war—which both Hollywood and the Pentagon were happy to arrange. Sir! No Sir! even includes a clip from First Blood derived from the kind of script Lembcke says is common after “lost” wars: “I did what I had to do to win. But somebody wouldn’t let us win.” The way Zeiger chooses to counter this mythology, however, is a credit to his medium: He doesn’t give Rambo the last word.
Andy Garcia has a special connection with Cuba, certainly, but he’s hardly the first American filmmaker to conclude that what happened in late-’50s Havana is a ready-made Hollywood scenario. The fall of one dictator and the rise of another in a city known for glittering nightlife promises the sort of glamour, romance, and violence that could, if all goes well, evoke Casablanca.
Alas, Richard Lester’s dynamic but muddled Cuba, Sydney Pollack’s stilted Havana, and even the vapid Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights all got there first, and director/star Garcia has little to add. He reportedly worked 15 years to get The Lost City made, but his zeal for the project doesn’t translate to passion on the screen. Although Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Bill Murray all make appearances, Garcia and scripter G. Cabrera Infante (a Cuban-born novelist who died last year) conceived the film as a family saga. What happens to Cuba happens to the Fellove clan, who embody the circa-1959 Cuban bourgeoisie’s various impulses: hedonism, propriety, and revolution.
This would be a sturdy dramatic framework if all the Felloves were drawn with equal definition. But the only characters endowed with any detail are suave nightclub owner Fico (Garcia, of course) and his lovely sister-in-law Aurora (Spanish model Inés Sastre, who was part of Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds harem but is probably better known for her Lancôme ads). Fico’s younger brothers, Luis (Nestor Carbonell) and Ricardo (Enrique Murciano), are merely pistol-packing, Batista-hating plot devices.
The Lost City is rendered in chiaroscuro that wouldn’t have worked in black and white, but nothing else in this deliberately old-fashioned movie would have surprised audiences—or censors—in the ’40s. Fico is the only one of the brothers who’s unmarried, and it’s gently suggested that he’s something of a playboy. But the raciest sequences are tame floor-show numbers set to Afro-Cuban rhythms and sometimes cross-cut with scenes of violence, an editing scheme standard in Havana-in-1959 flicks.
Fico’s indulgence, it turns out, isn’t sex, booze, drugs, or gambling; it’s an eccentric pal known only as the Writer (Murray). The Writer is sort of an absurdist Robert Benchley, attempting to interject some mid-20th-century wit into the proceedings, even if Murray’s delivery is better suited to Meatballs than the Algonquin round table. For what it’s worth, he isn’t as bad as Elizabeth Peña, who has a couple of crime-inducing scenes as a revolutionary factotum who announces a ban on the saxophone because it’s somehow connected to Belgian imperialism in the Congo.
Fico is thrust into the political fray by another genre staple: The revolution comes to him in the form of a beautiful woman. Luis joins a failed assault on Batista’s palace and is tracked down and killed. This leaves Aurora bereft, and Fico’s filial duty to look after her quickly turns to discreetly depicted romance. (In one post-coital moment, the couple lie in bed together, seemingly dressed for a Sears underwear spread.) After Castro’s triumph, Aurora is feted as a revolutionary widow, which she greatly enjoys. As Fico makes plans to leave Cuba, Aurora must decide if she loves him more than her new status.
Yes, Garcia includes the waves-crashing-on-seawall shot seen in every Havana movie—even those that, like this one, were shot in the Dominican Republic. But in large part, it’s the imagery that sustains The Lost City through its 143-minute running time. Even when the story flags or the characterization falters, cinematographer Emmanuel Kadosh’s hot tropical light and shadowy interiors beguile. Dustin Hoffman’s turn as gangster Meyer Lansky is far from necessary, but the fact that he plays the first of his two scenes mostly in silhouette is pretty interesting. Elsewhere, faces are often photographed three-quarters in shadow, a gambit so flattering to Sastre that it suggests her cheekbones inspired the movie’s entire look.
As things are going dark for the Felloves, Fico’s father informs his son, “In Cuba, we have always had plenty of light.” Well, Garcia got that right. But for a film rooted in the director’s own experience, The Lost City is surprisingly unilluminating.CP