Perhaps the most novel feature of HBO's A Bright Shining Lie, an otherwise serviceable adaptation of Neil Sheehan's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, is that it's the closest any Vietnam War movie has come to actually being about the Vietnam War. It's not about Vietnam as an unwieldy metaphor (Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket), a surrealistic inferno (The Deer Hunter, Platoon) or a backdrop for personal heroics; instead, it's a straightforward account of America's involvement in the conflict. The story of Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, a controversial officer who began his service as a military advisor in 1962 and stayed until his death a decade later, neatly reflects his country's progression from naive self-confidence to denial to total disillusionment. Bill Paxton portrays Vann as possessing a fascinating mix of dumb charisma and tactical brilliance, assured in his vision of how to defeat the Viet Cong but unable to convince his superiors. A Bright Shining Lie is nothing if not ambitious, but director Terry George's attempt to compress the full course of the war and Vann's life into a made-for-cable movie diminishes the impact of both. George, a frequent collaborator with Jim Sheridan (In The Name Of The Father, The Boxer), lacks his partner's urgency as a filmmaker, getting mired in more lifeless subplots than he cares to resolve, and his fine supporting cast—including Amy Madigan, Vivian Wu, Donal Logue, and Eric Bogosian—is all but wasted. A Bright Shining Lie speaks directly to America's strategic and moral failures in Vietnam, but George overreaches. Like Vann himself, he's especially clumsy off the battlefield.
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