“I remember being struck by the irony of a church being caught in the crossfire of two warring armies.”
With just two documentaries under his belt, director Soren Sorensen has already started to carve out a niche in the from of exploring various forms of mental illness. His directorial debut; Raise The Curtain is an intimate look in to postpartum depression, while his latest feature, My Father’s Vietnam, deals in part with post traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans – specifically Soren’s father Peter Sorensen and the small handful of vets who served with him. However PTSD is hardly the film’s only focus. My Father’s Vietnam is a dedication to Sorensen’s father in the same way Dear Zachary… was a dedication to director Kurt Kuenne’s late friend, or how Stories We Tell was a dedication to Sarah Polley’s mother (unlike the subjects in the aforementioned film, Sorensen’s father is still alive and featured heavily in the film).
My Father’s Vietnam chronicles Peter’s time served in the Vietnam War through archival footage, old pictures and interviews with family members, friends and other soldiers. With the exception of the opening moments (where we get a few quick snide shots at the Nixon administration) and a few minutes in the final act, the film doesn’t get overly political (something common among films centered around Vietnam). Instead, Sorensen just focuses on a specific group of soldiers with an incredibly intimate lens. He lays out the facts from their time served and by not trying to make the subjects out to be unrealistic superheros, he in turn shows their bravery.
In terms of format, style & delivery, My Father’s Vietnam doesn’t raise any bar or stand out amongst documentaries from the likes of Errol Morris, Tony Buba, Johnathan Caoutte or any other filmmaker known from “pushing limits” within documentary filmmaking. But given the film’s intimate ambiance (something that shouldn’t go unnoticed), I don’t think Soren Sorensen was trying to experiment with any kind of format or push any limits. He was trying to tell a simple (although complex) story. And no matter how straightforward this movie may be, it has quite a few tough/memorable/heartbreaking moments (watching documentary subject Loring Bailey Sr. recount the news of learning of his son’s death stands out for me).
I know some cynics might turn their nose up at what they might consider to be yet another film on Vietnam and I guess on the surface that is somewhat understandable. Back in the late 80’s even Stanley Kubrick faced some criticism when he released Full Metal Jacket so late in the game. After everything from Apocalypse Now & Rambo First: Blood to Platoon & Casualties Of War, what else is there to say about Vietnam on a large platform? Similar criticisms could be directed toward Sorensen’s film but with so many new studies on the horrors of war, this documentary couldn’t have come out at a more appropriate time considering a lot of vets who served in Vietnam, Korea, WWII or WWI didn’t get the same treatment and/or understanding that recent veterans are (rightfully) receiving today (My Father’s Vietnam is also one of the few recent films that deals with the guilt of surviving war when so many others didn’t).
On an interesting side-note, My Father’s Vietnam has a loose connection to Full Metal Jacket as both films document war journalism (Sorensen’s father served as a journalist in Vietnam like “Joker” did in Full Metal Jacket).
In a way, My Father’s Vietnam relates to the war movie genre in the same way that 12 Years A Slave relates to most movies concerning slavery. Sure, 12 Years A Slave is about slavery, but it’s really a more personal/one-off story about a unique situation. My Father’s Vietnam is obviously about the Vietnam War but we don’t get one long epic movie that tries to tackle everything (the film clocks in at just under 80 minutes so it’s not that difficult or challenging to set some time aside to watch it if you wanted to). Instead we get one intimate/standalone experience (sure there are other veterans who could definitely relate to the experiences laid out in the film, which is another plus, but at the end of the day this story is specific to a small handful soldiers).