Return With Honor
1999, NR, 102 min. Directed by Terry Sanders, Freida Lee Mock.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., June 4, 1999
There's no denying it: Movie critics tend to be way more cynical than the general population. Some of us come by the trait naturally, but many more acquire it through overexposure to films that labor mightily to uplift only to blow it all in a noxious spew of over-the-top sentimentality and shameless emotional manipulation. Thus my high regard for Freida Lee Mock, who's spent the Nineties turning out documentaries (Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision; Never Give Up: The 20th Century Odyssey of Herbert Zipper; Rose Kennedy: A Life to Remember) that manage to be both inspiring and scrupulously schmaltz-free. Return With Honor extends this remarkable run with a powerful, deeply empathetic account of captured American airmen's experiences as P.O.W.s in North Vietnam. There's no political agenda here, no pandering to Ramboesque fantasies of unliberated prisoners still languishing in remote jungle camps. Instead, Return focuses narrowly on ex-captives' toenail-curling accounts of how they survived torture, solitary confinement, and wrenching loneliness -- experiences that many endured for seven years or more. For anyone who's ever wondered how they'd hold up under torture, the confessions of these stud-duck fighter pilots should erase any doubt. Many cracked almost instantly. Recognizing human frailty, the P.O.W. code of honor demanded only that one refrain from words or deeds that could cause immediate harm to fellow prisoners or the war effort in general. In other words, a P.O.W. was to behave always in ways that would allow him to “return with honor” after the war. As a dyed-in-the-wool peacenik who turned 18 the year the draft was abolished, I've never before fully grasped the unique significance of honor in a military context. However, Mock and Sanders' film goes far beyond recruiting-poster platitudes to illustrate in concrete terms how esprit de corps, self-discipline, and sacrifice for the common good can not only be points of pride but also the best defense against efforts to crush the spirit. None of these men -- including current U.S. Senator John McCain -- seem overly impressed with their feats of bravery. Most, in fact, go out of their way to confess moments of fear and weakness. Several unashamedly cry on camera as they recall friends' deaths or their ecstatic postwar reunions with their families. Others gloss over astonishing acts of courage with self-deprecating humor. Utterly absent is any hint of the expected Top Gun frathouse bluster or cheap potshots at peace protesters back home. (Their most serious complaint against the antiwar movement seems to have been its value as a propaganda weapon for their captors.) Positive feelings about our involvement in Vietnam, or even the military, aren't required for appreciation of this film. Though simple intellectual honesty compels our gratitude and respect for people who've served in uniform -- as opposed to many of the wars we've fought through the years -- the military experience is a topic so laden with political baggage that it's hard to treat in any depth without polarizing the audience. Return With Honor is a perfect companion to a post-Memorial Day weekend: a story of transcendent human courage and sacrifice that inspires us to greater appreciation of what we have and what we've been given.