10 Other Documentaries about the Vietnam War to Check Out

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War begins this week, though the 18-hour series is far from the first about the subject. Unlike Hollywood’s almost 15-year delay, documentary makers started trying to make sense of the war early on.

The Vietnam War has been a cultural touchstone for generations, though it resonates most with the baby boomers who served and protested and with generation X who lost family members and friends or grew up with survivors who struggled afterward.

The war long has been held up as a marker of American failure. George Bush declared in a speech before actions in Iraq and Kuwait, “I’ve told the American people before that this will not be another Vietnam, and I repeat this here tonight.” Similar refrains occurred at the start of military actions following 9/11, as each war invited armchair comparisons. Check out Robert Brigham’s book Is Iraq Another Vietnam for an in-depth discussion.

Starting about 1978, Hollywood’s first films showed the war as chaotic insanity. In his book Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second, Jeremy Devine cites the four horsemen — The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, Coming Home, and The Deerhunter — as blazing the trail for bringing the war to the big screen. But unlike World War II films, Hollywood films about the Vietnam War focused on the jungle, the combat, and the overall experience. In production and representation, Apocalypse Now best captures all of these themes, though the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse provides further depth than the usual behind-the-scenes production documentaries.

PBS aired a series titled Vietnam: A Television History. Broadcast in 1983 as part of the American Experience series, the 13 episodes provided a chronology of events that was well received. In 1997, PBS rebroadcast the series, this time omitting episode 2 (“The First Vietnam War”) and episode 13 (“Legacies”). The later released DVD series also excluded these episodes. These omissions drew criticism for their tampering with history, and some criticisms went so far as to call it “censorship.”

Here are 10 documentaries about the Vietnam War and its aftershocks to explore if you seek more information beyond the upcoming Burns and Novick film. Even though it covers an immense variety of perspectives, no single documentary — even at 18 hours — can give voice to everyone.

1. Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974)

A Vietnamese who lost his family during a bombing angrily protests the situation and its futility in Hearts and Minds.
Hearts and Minds is harrowing in its emotion and scathing in its critique. Davis juxtaposes official voices from the U.S. government with those who suffered from their decisions. One sequence features a Vietnamese funeral with families burying multiple dead, and wailing survivors, devastated with grief, attempt to climb into the graves with them. The scene is intercut with comments from General William Westmoreland, who says, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” Hearts and Minds struggled for distribution, particularly after former National Security Advisor Walt Rostow attempted to stop its release. Hearts and Minds won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

2. Daughter from Danang (Gail Dolgin and Vincente Franco, 2002)

In April 1975, more than 10,000 children were evacuated from Vietnam. The children were adopted around the world, including the United States. While many of the children were orphans, some, particularly biracial children with American fathers and Vietnamese mothers, were given up by their families. Daughter from Danang tells the story of Heidi Bub (Mai Thi Hiep), who was adopted and raised in Tennessee by a mother who minimized Heidi’s Vietnamese identity. As an adult Heidi receives an opportunity to return to Vietnam and reunite with her biological family. The cameras follow her to the reunion and her return to her own husband and children in Tennessee. The film makes for an interesting meditation on American identity.

3. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Errol Morris, 2003)

If you read any of Robert McNamara’s books, you know he is a highly intelligent and accomplished man. The former U.S. Secretary of Defense wrote In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, wherein he examines the war’s failings. For The Fog of War, McNamara interviewed with director Errol Morris for 20 hours, which was edited down to two hours along with archival materials. Morris won his first Best Documentary Feature Oscar with this film. The Unknown Known, with Donald Rumsfeld, follows a similar pattern.

4. In the Year of the Pig (Emile de Antonio, 1968)

Cover art image for Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig.
Emile de Antonio remains sadly underappreciated or and relatively unknown in today’s documentary popular culture. de Antonio specialized in documentaries about political issues. The Year of the Pig is a compilation film that brought together footage from interviews and archives to show the war’s origins and to critique them as well.

5. Sad Song of Yellow Skin (Michael Rubbo, 1970)

While many documentaries focus on the battlefield and the soldiers, Sad Song of Yellow Skin shows the people affected by the war off the frontlines. In particular, Michael Rubbo observes street children in Saigon, and his voiceover offers his personal commentary and observations on what he witnesses there. This film was made for the National Film Board of Canada.

6. Be Good, Smile Pretty (Tracy Droz Tragos, 2003)

Cover art from Tracy Droz Tragos’s Be Good, Smile Pretty.
Tracy Droz Tragos was three months old when her father died in an ambush during the Vietnam War. Searching online for her father’s name many years later, she found a narrative (perhaps this one) about the circumstances surrounding his death. That search and the story inspired her to seek more information about the father she knew so little about. Starting the conversation with her mother in Be Good, Smile Pretty, Droz Tragos creates a deeply personal documentary in learning more about him and about the soldiers who served with him.

7. Sir! No Sir! (David Zeiger, 2005)

While we most often think of war protestors as those who remained outside the military,
Sir! No Sir! examines the role of protest and subversion among military personnel during the Vietnam War. It uncovers the overlooked GI Movement, which brought the peace demonstrations to within the military. Movement members produced newspapers, organized protests, distributed leaflets, and engaged other activities. This documentary weaves interviews with print and video archives to create a compelling story.

8. Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (Bill CouturiƩ, 1987)

Also a book, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam uses personal letters from American soldiers and archival materials to create an on-the-ground view of the war. Celebrities such as Robert De Niro, Robert Downey Jr., and Michael J. Fox contributed their voices to the project.

9. The Anderson Platoon (Pierre Schoendoerffer, 1967)

The Anderson Platoon offers the cinematic experience of an embedded filmmaker. Pierre Schoendoerffer joined the 1st Calvary Division in 1966 and stayed with them in September and October of that year. He captured the raw events of these soldiers’ experiences, including reconnaissances, battles, and deaths, not to mention their raw fears and hopes as well. Named for platoon leader Captain Joseph B. Anderson Jr., the documentary went on to win the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 1967.

10. Vietnam, Long Time Coming (Jerry Blumenthal, Peter Gilbert, and Gordon Quinn, 1998)

An athlete rests during Vietnam, Long Time Coming.
Vietnam, Long Time Coming follows a team of cyclists who enter a 16-day, 1,100-mile bike ride through Vietnam, an event organized by World TEAM (The Exceptional Athlete Matters). Veterans throughout the United States and Vietnam participated, among them many participants with differing ability levels such as blindness and missing limbs, but all athletes nonetheless. The ride provides some healing for veterans from both sides of the war as they ride together throughout the Vietnam countryside.

‘Hoop Dreams’ News Coverage Suggests a Different Kind of Impact

Popular film titles sometimes work their way into everyday language: Bucket List, Gaslight, Groundhog Day. “Hoop Dreams” is one of those film titles.

As part of my background research into Hoop Dreams, I pulled 996 articles mentioning the phrase from all the years available in the Lexis Nexis news database. About half of those stories referred to the film, but just as many did not. Among the latter, some patterns — both expected and unexpected — emerged.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most dominant recurring pattern involves individuals and their aspirations. Most individuals — almost equally boys and girls — are athletes who seek success in sports, such as landing a scholarship, attending college, starting a new sport, or joining a team. Some individuals even abandon their sports dreams, such as one who gave up basketball to become a doctor.

These dreams know no geographical boundaries. While Chicago is the setting for the Hoop Dreams film, other dreamers live in Iowa, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. People chase their dreams across the globe to Germany, Canada, Croatia, Luxemborg, Israel, and India.

“Hoop Dreams” is a popular name for teams, camps, academies, and programs. Teams with the name play in West Virginia, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania. Camps and academies appear in Connecticut, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Australia. Programs include Hoop Dreams in Lexington, KY; ABCD Hoop Dreams in Boston; and YMCA Hoop Dreams in Hamilton, Ontario. Programs also appear in England and Australia. Do an Internet search and you’ll probably find even more than the ones listed here.

Tournaments run in Georgia and California. The Pescadero High School Hoop Dreams Tournament schedules both boys’ and girls’ teams. One tournament involved wheelchairs.

A cool program was founded by Susie Kay in Washington, D.C., to help area students attend college. Kay claimed that Arthur Agee, one of the two boys appearing in the film, reminded her of her own students. Named for the film, the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund started as a single-day basketball fundraiser in 1996. That first round raised $3,000. Within a few years, that tournament and other fundraising efforts expanded to $125,000. The program ended in 2009 following the economic downturn.

Very few stories mentioned the NBA at all. A couple stories connected “hoop dreams” with buying NBA teams or stadiums, and one referred to Mesho Marrow’s dream of founding a women’s basketball team in St. Louis. That dream became reality with the Missouri Arch Angels, named for the city’s iconic structure on the Mississippi River. The team plays in the Women’s Blue Chip Basketball League.

The phrase applies mostly to youth, but one 90-year-old also harbored her own hoop dream. Josephine Brager sought induction into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. She played basketball pre-World War II for the All-American Redheads and later the Dallas Hornets. The Redheads toured the country playing against men’s teams using the men’s rules — and often won. Sadly, Brager wasn’t chosen for induction.

“Hoop dreams” also means sports other than basketball. It refers to netball, which is an international cousin to U.S. basketball. Rhythm gymnasts and hoop dancers also are hoop dreamers.

One sports reference took me a little bit to puzzle out. According to one story, the Shamrock Rovers Football Club had “hoop dreams.” But why would an Irish football club have “hoop dreams?” Because one of the team’s nicknames is “Hoops.”

In Morgantown, West Virginia, a home offered a “hoop dream” of its own. In addition to the five bedrooms, five bathrooms, and home theater, the house had an indoor basketball court. The asking price was more than $1 million.

Some of the more creative mentions of “hoop dreams” have nothing to do with basketball or even sports. One gig announcement cited “Hoop Dreams,” a band, playing in Hobart, Tasmania. After a little digging, I found the band was based in Virginia and had a Cure-like sound, particularly on the track “Knife Fights.” Before signing the band, a record company contacted Kartemquin Films about the band using the name, which filmmakers Steve James and Peter Gilbert were fine with.

“Hoop dreams” also occur in fashion, in one case for earrings. The story read, “Orbs in all styles and sizes are earmarks of high style.” Hopefully, the look is better than the pun.

My favorite reference connected the film, identity, sport, and art all in one installation. Inspired by the film, Esmaa Mohamoud created an art installation called “Heavy, Heavy (Hoop Dreams).” The installation consists of 60 concrete basketballs, each weighing about 31 pounds. The “heavy” refers to the relationship between basketball and black male culture, according to Mohamoud.

Before the news started covering the film in 1994, the only mention of “hoop dreams” appeared in a 1987 story about “hoops and dreams.” Every other non-film-related story I pulled from the database appeared after the film’s release, from about 1997 forward.

A search for the phrase through an Ngram viewer offers similar findings, particularly in the phrase’s first appearances. In a search for the phrase from 1950 to 2017, the phrase first appears in 1993, grows in 1994, and peaks in 1999.

All of these findings suggest a documentary impact of a different kind: that of a name on sports, music, fashion, art, and culture.

Special thanks to Tim Horsburgh, distribution and communications director at Kartemquin Films, for suggesting the Ngram search and the other film names mentioned in this post.