Television brings into focus meanings of memorable pictures

April 28, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

When it comes to news and documentaries, television is supposed to be long on visuals and short on context.

But context -- wide, deep and occasionally even wise -- is exactly what television is offering this week as we approach the 20th anniversary of one of America's more shameful moments, the fall of Saigon, which brought the Vietnam War to an end in 1975.

CBS News Correspondent Bob Simon has been in Vietnam this week delivering splendid reports, which will conclude tonight during the "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather & Connie Chung" airing at 7 on WJZ (Channel 13). At 8 tonight, the Discovery cable channel will premiere one of the finest documentaries of the decade, "The Fall of Saigon," produced and directed by former BBC filmmaker Michael Dutfield. At 8 Sunday night, CNN will offer a live, two-hour report, "Vietnam: Coming to Terms," featuring anchorman Bernard Shaw at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Associated Press reports during the war, back in Vietnam.

For many people, the images of the final days in Saigon are burned into memory: the helicopter precariously perched atop the deputy CIA station chief's house and all those desperate people trying to make it up a ladder to the copter, Navy crewmen pushing helicopters off the flight decks of U.S. warships into the sea, the victorious Viet Cong tanks rolling down the boulevards of Saigon, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin looking haggard and confused as he was helicoptered out of the embassy compound.

"I think the fall of Saigon is a story in which television can be really useful in providing some context," said Jenny Thompson, of the American Studies Department at the University of Maryland. Thompson is writing her doctoral dissertation on war, visual imagery and shared memory.

"It seems like we were left the past 20 years with only the pictures. There was not much public discussion of them. It's as if we just stopped talking about the fall of Saigon almost right after it happened," Thompson said.

There was some discussion of the fall in the reporting of Arnett and others, as well as several subsequent books. But Thompson is right about the lack of a larger, ongoing public discussion involving television.

The reasons are not hard to understand. In 1975, the nation was still reeling from Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon. We were also being forced to face the harsh reality of our dependence on the Middle East for oil, while adjusting to the less-than-sure-footed presidency of Gerald Ford. In short, we had all the bad news we needed without dwelling on a war that we had just lost. Television was looking for something more upbeat to report than the 58,000 American deaths and the deep scars that remained on the national psyche.

Undisturbed 'morning'

Conversely, when the 10th anniversary arrived in 1985, television was steeped in the feel-good politics of Ronald Reagan's presidency. It was "morning in America," and we simply seemed to have no time to remember our failures, let alone try to understand them.

Michael Dutfield, the award-winning director/producer of Discovery's "The Fall of Saigon," agrees with Thompson's notion that we need to understand the context of the pictures we've been left with.

"I'm 48 years old, and my memories when I started this project also consisted primarily of those few scattered remnants of images. In particular, I had these images of the helicopters going over the sides of the ships into the sea. And I couldn't remember why. Why were they pushing them over the sides?" Dutfield said.

(The documentary explains that the helicopters pushed over the side were those that had been commandeered by South Vietnamese pilots trying to escape Saigon for the safety of the warships. There were so many of them that they quickly filled the decks and there was no room for the U.S. helicopters to land.)

"What we set out to do is try to put together a program of record, a program of testimony from those who were intimately involved with those events immediately prior to the fall of Saigon. We tried to get perspectives that ranged from the White House through to the North Vietnamese soldier walking into Saigon on the morning of April 30. That's the kind of context we were after," he added.

The end result is the best television document on the fall of Saigon -- something every American whose life was touched by that horrible war owes it to herself or himself to see.

The report opens with the image of a helicopter appearing on screen from over the horizon. It's the signature shot that says "Vietnam" to anyone who has seen the feature film, "Apocalypse Now" or "M*A*S*H." The shot is Dutfields' way of engaging viewers.

Dutfield & Co. then take the audience on a journey of discovery, creating a marvelous mosaic out of testimony, recollection, videotape, film, still photographs and fact -- all relentlessly driven by the tick, tick, tick of the clock during the last 48 hours of the war.

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