Tuesday, April 9, 2013

In the Year of the Pig

In the Year of the Pig
Director: Emile de Antonio
Starring: the politicians, soldiers, and Vietnamese of the sixties

I was not alive for the Vietnam War, but my parents were.  More than that, my father was of draft-able age during the Vietnam War.  I did not live through these years myself, but my parents have talked at length about what it was like for them in the late sixties and early seventies.  And yet, despite these discussions and two years of US History classes in high school, the Vietnam War still remains a political quagmire to me, full of unclear intentions.  It’s very easy for me to understand why the US was split in terms of supporting and protesting this war, but understanding the war itself is much more complicated.

This documentary uses footage from various sources – newsreels, shot footage, photographs, interviews – along with audio of interviews from mainly Western politicians to track through the history of conflict in Vietnam in the fifties and sixties.  de Antonio starts with an examination of French involvement in Indochina and from there, discusses how the various factions came to power in Vietnam and how the US came to be involved.  

In the Year of the Pig is a very powerful anti-war documentary, but its potency is increased because of when it was made – 1968 – and how it was made.  de Antonio was ballsy enough to make this during the war, not after.  The Vietnam War would still persist for several more years.  This was an ongoing war when this film was released.  The subject material is not being treated with 20/20 vision of history looking back on what has happened, this is what WAS happening.  There is an immediacy, therefore, to In the Year of the Pig that all other films about the Vietnam War, even the narrative films, lack.  Outcome was uncertain.  Everything was uncertain. 

The style of the documentary works as well.  What makes the film powerful is the hands-off approach by the filmmakers.  I tend to find that documentaries where we never see or hear the filmmakers more effective.  Perhaps that’s simply a personal preference, and I’m certainly no expert on documentaries, but messages tend to be stronger if an audience can discover them for themselves rather than have them spoon-fed down their throat.  But de Antonio’s hand is all over the film despite his visual and audio absence.  He is clever, very clever, with the editing.  For example, he takes an interview conducted with a nuclear officer on a destroyer who says that their ship was never attacked by enemy torpedoes and splices it together with a press conference by a politician who rails about how said ship WAS attacked by torpedoes.  Not much later, we hear a politician make a statement that the prisoners the US have taken are being treated fairly while we watch footage of a Vietnamese man being beaten by US soldiers.

This sort of careful and deliberate editing is hardly objective, and that’s the point.  This is an incredibly subjective documentary that does not attempt to present both sides of the issue fairly and without comment.  Oh no, de Antonio is commenting most vociferously (all from offscreen, of course) in order to combat what he presents as equally subjective messages coming from the US politicians.  It’s as if de Antonio is showing us the “other side” of the story, the one the government “doesn’t want you to see.”  At the very least, regardless of your personal feelings about politics, de Antonio should make you question the veracity of the message that came out of the politicians’ mouths.  He makes a decently strong point about the disconnect between what was said back in America and what was happening on the ground in Vietnam.

A poetic and rather sad speech by a member of the clergy who had visited Vietnam on several occasions is part of what closes the film.  It’s a plaintive cry for peace.  This is intercut with journalists describing, a bit coldly but heck, they’re journalists, the power they had witnessed of the North Vietnamese.  Although de Antonio certainly didn’t know exactly how the Vietnam War would end, the end of the film has a frightening sort of foresight, one that seems to suggest at what would eventually happen. 

If anything, In the Year of the Pig, although not the most gripping film ever made, is a way to attempt to immerse oneself in the era in which it was made.  By watching a product of the sixties about the seminal event from the sixties, we have, in essence, an important historical artifact.  Just as watching all the films from the 1930s that deal with the Great Depression in some way helped me to understand the implications of that event in a way no history class ever could, In the Year of the Pig gives me an artistic way to experience the incredibly muddied politics of the Vietnam War.

Arbitrary Rating: 7.5/10


  1. Excellent review!

    I was alive during the war and remember vividly the yelling matches I would have with my father about it at the dinner table. The thing that struck me most vividly about the images were that we actually saw a lot of the combat footage on the TV news. The government would never again allow journalists so much access to fighting. I think it was that footage (along with the draft) that built so much opposition to the war.

    By the way, that clergyman was Father Daniel Berrigan. He was quite famous at the time.

    According to Wikipedia, Berrigan manufactured home-made napalm and, with eight other Catholic protesters and used it to destroy 378 draft files in the parking lot of the Catonsville, Maryland, draft board on May 17, 1968. Berrigan was promptly arrested and sentenced to three years in prison, but went into hiding with the help of fellow radicals prior to imprisonment. Soon thereafter the FBI apprehended him and sent him to prison. He was released in 1972.

    Sorry for such a long commentary on your post but I got inspired by your writing!

    1. Thanks very much for the perspective and the information. I didn't know the clergyman was famous. He had quite a history, didn't he - thanks for sharing! And no need to apologize - I appreciate the contributions!!