This television film from 2002 is an exploration of the political realities behind the escalation of the Vietnam War. Director John Frankenheimer shows the effects of the war on those who had to make decisions about its direction. There is only one short scene which shows the physical impact of the war on young men who fought it. Most of the time the attention is on the anguish of politicians who wanted to avoid war but felt compelled to commit to it.
Michael Gambon plays President Johnson as the man who wanted to be remembered as the person who tackled poverty in America. Instead, he could see he was destined to be remembered for the Vietnam War instead. It is worth remembering that war costs inordinate amounts of money, money that has to be directed away from other government projects. As his vision of social change disappears he turns instead to thoughts of how it would look if he were to be the first President to lose a war. In the background, though never seen, is Robert Kennedy. Johnson feels, probably correctly, that the President Kennedy was responsible for the build up to war and his brother looks set to oppose it now that things have taken a turn for the worse.
Around the President are the cabinet members and others who feel the pressure as well. James Frain plays Robert Goodwin, speechwriter to Kennedy and Johnson, and Adam Baldwin plays Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defence under both Presidents. During the time period covered by this film, he goes from advocate of intervention to convinced that the war cannot be won. The always brilliant Donald Sutherland plays Clark Clifford, one of the few men around Johnson who is more a Johnson man than a Kennedy one. In this film he is played as a man of wisdom and reason who only wants to serve his President. I had more time for George Ball, the Under-Secretary of State who spoke against the war throughout. He is the man of integrity as far as I am concerned.
To be fair, though, the President carries the can and has all the responsibility in the American system. In trying to win public opinion and do the right thing, Johnson has to listen to military advice and satisfy the hawks of Congress.
The film ended with Johnson’s address to the American public when he declared that he would not fight another election for the presidency but would, instead, use his remaining time in office to try to secure a peace deal. Many of the men around him had moved on: Goodwin did; Ball did; and McNamara had to go, too.
In the end, the lost opportunities were there to see, without seeing what the cost was to young men and their families.