Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The War at Home (1979)

          A great example of the microcosm revealing the macrocosm, this insightful documentary examines antiwar demonstrations that erupted in and around the college town of Madison, Wisconsin, throughout the Vietnam War. In so doing, the film speaks to the larger issues that divided the entire nation during that fraught era. Filled with amazing archival footage—it seems as if every key event in the Madison peace movement was caught on camera—the picture is neatly divided into sections depicting specific years, so the narrative stretches from the earliest outcries in the mid-’60s to a violent revolt that shook the Madison community in the early ’70s. Right from the beginning of the picture, poignant moments abound. During a public hearing in the mid-’60s, for instance, a housewife named Louise Smalley testifies to local officials that she’s aghast by the notion of American troops dropping napalm on Vietnamese villages: “I try to teach my children the value of individual human worth, and I don’t want this destroyed by my country.”
          Just as that remark summarizes conscientious objections to the war, another comment symbolizes why so many college students mobilized—a student laments that the escalation of hostilities means middle-class kids will be subject to the draft, “not just poor kids.” Ouch. To the great credit of producers Glenn Silber (who also directed) and Barry Alexander Brown, The War at Home never seems judgmental of the implied elitist stance behind such remarks; rather, the film makes a compelling argument that the draft became a social equalizer, uniting potential draftees against the military-industrial complex. As a banner that’s shown onscreen reads, “To be against the war and do nothing is irresponsible.”
          It’s fascinating, then, to learn about the actions that people in Madison actually took. Some demonstrations seem pointless, almost to the extreme of being counter-productive, like heckling Teddy Kennedy during a 1966 campus appearance, while others are more purposeful, such as an SDS rally against Dow Chemical’s practice of on-campus recruiting. (Dow made napalm.) The filmmakers wisely keep their focus local, spreading the view to the larger national antiwar milieu only when appropriate—one bit describes how protesters from Wisconsin traveled to the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Similarly, the filmmakers largely eschew celebrities of the counterculture era. Even though the soundtrack features the requisite mix of Buffalo Springfield and Dylan, et cetera, hipster poet Allen Ginsberg is the only famous figure featured in an original interview. (Presidents Ford and Nixon, among other political notables, appear only in archival footage.)
          The War at Home culminates with vivid commentary from participants in a fatal campus bombing that represented a misguided attempt to derail on-campus military research. One of the convicted bombers, Karlton Armstrong, appears on-camera to explain his motivations, and then, in a bracing moment, Armstrong’s Greatest Generation father acknowledges how successfully antiwar activists were in bringing ugly realities to light. “They were telling the truth,” the father says. “We weren’t listening.”

The War at Home: RIGHT ON

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