Friday, April 22, 2011

JFK, Ottomans (the empire, not the furniture), Joseph Goebbels, and French Indochina

A year or two ago I read the bulk of a late '40's edition of Joseph Goebbels' diaries. I did not finish the volume. Over time, reading the words of the Third Reich's Propaganda Minister made me feel tarnished and (I can put it no other way) creeped out. I had to put it down.

Even so I thoroughly enjoyed The Goebbels Experiment, a documentary which has Kenneth Branagh recite passages of that diary accompanied by rarely seen film of Goebbels life.

Joseph Goebbels remains a persistent enigma to me. He was an articulate, intelligent man capable of great emotion, and he seems to have genuinely loved his children. But - and it is the 'buts' that define our life - he was in awe of Hitler, poisoned by irrational hatred of Jews, and condoned the murder of his own precious children.

How do you explain that dichotomy? Can you even try?

Nazi Medicine is an adequately done film about the role the worldwide eugenics movement played in providing a rationale for the work of the Nazi machine. It was too heavy handed in parceling out the blame, almost to the point where the filmmaker ventured too close to giving the Nazi's a historical 'out'.

I enjoyed the documentary Gallipoli for a few reasons: one, it was simply a well done treatment of the chaotic 1915 contest between the British and Ottoman Empires. Secondly, it actually *taught* me something. While I knew the barest of facts about the battle going in, 95% of the film was new information for me. I love that.

A sidenote: I found the practice of personalizing the gravestones on Gallipoli to be a great way of humanizing those buried there. It is one thing to read a name and a date on a stone, quite another to see it includes a mesage from his family or something unique to the man, like the [inconsequential] last words he spoke.

The Battle for Dien Bien Phu is a tolerable British documentary on the infamous French defeat in Indochina. Very little of the information was new to me (nearly none), and it is so History Lite I think it would only enlighten someone brand new to the history of the conflict.

Let's be clear: even as a high school student I thought the French were idiotic to set up shop in a remote jungle valley, by default surrendering the high ground to their enemy. Equally puzzling: the distant location meant all aid had to be flown in from Hanoi, practically ensuring a loss before the fight began. Yowsers.

Still, enough about how this was a 'given' for the Viet Minh, an omen for future American involvement, and about how events X and Y and Z and W were writ in stone after the French defeat. For a documentarian, it isn't enough for hindsight to be 20/20. No, they must also seek to convince you that all parties were fools for not sharing the wisdom of the filmmaker, and sell you on the idea that everything after falls in place like - dare I say it? - blocks of dominoes.

It's lazy history.

In theory, the French could have pulled off a win. They probably wouldn't have deserved it, but stranger things have happened. And an infinite number of changes to, well, just about anything could have remolded our own involvement in Southeast Asia. History is only concrete when its done and committed to ink. Nothing is simple.

You want a waste of time? Try watching The Search for Kennedy's PT 109. I'm not knocking JFK here, but right off the bat I wondered about the necessity of finding a plywood boat that was cut in half and sank seventy years ago. The boat itself isn't essential to the story, as is the case with Titanic or the Edmund Fitzgerald; nope, the tale hinges on the heroism in the aftermath of the sinking. And let's be honest. Much of the story's value comes from the
historical heights JFK achieved later. Take him out of the picture and we have a moving anecdote, nothing more.

Robert Ballard, the holier-than-thou discoverer of the Titanic wreck, goes over the top to slather man-love on JFK, bringing in his nephew (!) to console a crying, elderly native who has set up a shrine to the fallen President.

The worst part? There's no payoff. They find a single torpedo tube on the ocean floor, have an amateur historian look at the screen and announce "That's her!", then explain away the lack of anything else (such as an identifying item) by claiming the ship is buried by silt and, oh, uh, yeah I consider it a war grave so we won't investigate further.

Blech. Mr. Ballard, I want my hour back.

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