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Just Like Me
By rg cantalupo (reviewer)
Just Like Me: The Vietnam War/The American War
A documentary film by Ron Osgood
Ron Osgood's Just Like Me is more than just a film about war. It is a film about the people who go to war; what they look like, feel, think, believe and create. Osgood isn't interested in showing one side pitted against another in battle, or footage of firefights, or bombings, or any of the horrific images we associate with war. Instead, what Osgood presents is so much more important and significant than that.
The film focuses more on survival and resilience; reconciliation and forgiveness; truth and love. From the first frame to the last, it presents a rare and memorable premise: that as soldiers and civilians — the victors and the conquered; the invaders and the invaded; men, women, and children; the young and the old; Vietnamese and Americans — we are more alike than different. We all have the same hopes and desires; wishes and fears; trauma and compassion; pain and forgiveness; and most importantly, love; love for one another; love for our friends and families; and love for humanity. The war experience may be inhumane and horrific, yet it often affects and changes us in ways that somehow evokes our better angels.
Tim O'Brien, the well-known author of The Things They Carried, tells us the story of how he still feels guilt for a Vietnamese boy he believes he killed. Kimo Williams shares how he became a musician in Vietnam, and after he returned home, became a world-renowned composer. Each story surprises and amazes us with their poignancy and resonance.
There's the story about the artist Richard Nicholson whose sketchbooks from Vietnam were lost for fifty years and then were unbelievably found—just as they were—by a museum curator as she was sorting and organizing mementos from the various wars since WWII. Nicholson, as well as the viewer, is emotionally devastated by the beauty of the images he created as a young soldier in Vietnam. He even says they are like images from another artist. And they are! They were sketched by an artist whose experience in Vietnam was filled with wonder and innocence, a young man's vision of a strange, new land. Now, as an older man, he feels the full emotional impact of that earlier time.
There's the story of Nguyen Duc Toan, a Vietnamese soldier who saved F-4 Phantom pilot Philip Kientzler after he crashed, and, forty years later, contacts Kientzler to meet with him in friendship and reconciliation. They write letters and set up a meeting in the United States, only to have Kientzler die of a heart valve problem before they ever meet. Toan is heartbroken but arranges a meeting with Kientzler's family and they have an extraordinary ceremony at Kientzler's grave.
Hung Xuan Nguyen tells his story of being a South Vietnamese soldier and how the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government turned his life upside down. He says, after the overthrow, "we had nothing." He was on the wrong side of the war and paid the price. He became a refugee and eventually immigrated to the United States.
Haley Nguyen, (no relation to Hung Xuan Nguyen), was a child when she immigrated to the United States. She tells us about the small, overcrowded boat her family took to escape Vietnam after the Saigon government fell. It's a harrowing story of survival and resilience. She learns to adapt to American culture and never returns to Vietnam. Her story of resilience is inspiring and memorable.
Kimo Williams learned how to play guitar in Vietnam and then put a band together which toured various fire support bases during his tour. Williams came home and studied music and became a composer. His work has been performed throughout numerous venues in the United States and he has created a number of albums.
Beyond these and other awe-inspiring stories, Just Like Me offers a phenomenal soundtrack which combines ballads, rock and roll, orchestral pieces, and instrumental music in a beautiful tapestry of sounds to complement the images and words. There is Kimo Williams' wonderful orchestral piece which blends traditional marching or parade music with a kind of meandering inspirational theme. It is both patriotic and revelatory.
The direction and editing are also superb. The footage from the war itself is unique and inspiring and the assemblage of the interviews of Vietnamese—both North and South—and of American soldiers are memorable and filled with emotional and poignant moments.
I was particularly impressed by Phil Zook's story of heroism and remembrance. Though Zook is a decorated hero who kept calling in support even though he was wounded twice, he reminisces on the men he lost in the firefight. His compassion and empathy for the soldiers who died around him—his RTO, his point man, and others—he wishes he could have done more to save them. His humility and compassion are a moving testament to the best of American soldiers and one from which we can all learn.
I highly recommend every veteran see this film. I saw it three times and each time was touched by the positive significance and inspiration of the stories. I don't know when it will be out for the public to see. The copy I watched was a reviewer's copy. I'm not even sure if the version I watched was the final cut. But this is a memorable film and I would reach out to Osgood to find a way to see it. In the context of the war in Ukraine, it gives us hope that not everything that comes out of war is suffering and rubble.
rg cantalupo (Ross Canton) was an RTO (Radio Operator) for an infantry company in the 25th Infantry Division, 1968-69. He was awarded three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with a Combat V for Valor for courage under fire.