His story encompasses the history of the Vietnam war.
Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann was a hero and a renegade, a brilliant, dynamic man full of contradictions. He was a warrior who worked hard for peace. He was a career militarist who shared confidential information with journalists who were critical of the war. He was an officer who resigned from the Army in 1964 only to return in 1965 as a civilian -- and as a civilian was given the unprecedented designation of general and even led combat troops.
Vann's epic odyssey in Vietnam spanned 10 years of the United States' involvement, beginning in 1962 and ending with his death in 1972. His maverick ways made Vann a controversial and unpopular figure to a military mired in institutional delusion and unwilling to listen to an officer who understood his enemy and believed he knew how to win the war.
HBO Pictures presents A BRIGHT SHINING LIE, debuting SATURDAY, MAY 30 at 9:00 p.m. (ET). An adaptation of Neil Sheehan's 1988 bestseller, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, the film stars Bill Paxton as Lt. Colonel John Paul Vann, a complex man whose life story embodies the tragedy of Vietnam. Shot on location in Thailand, A BRIGHT SHINING LIE also stars Amy Madigan, Vivian Wu, Donal Logue and Eric Bogosian, and is directed by Terry George. George, who made his directorial debut with "Some Mother's Son," also wrote the script. Lois Bonfiglio ("Broken Trust") is the executive producer. Greg Ricketson ("The Good Wife") is the producer. Gary Chang is the composer.
Other playdates: June 2 (8:00 p.m.), 7 (10:00 p.m.), 10 (12:35 a.m.), 15 (3:50 a.m.) and 18 (11:50 p.m.).SYNOPSIS
Lt. Colonel John Paul Vann [Bill Paxton] arrives in Vietnam in March 1962 as a U.S. military advisor to South Vietnamese troops known as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). A non-smoking, non-drinking career military officer, Vann arrives in Vietnam a day late -- after missing his original flight, which crashed, killing all on board. Once there, he meets American journalist Steven Burnett [Donal Logue] and expresses his excitement at fighting the growing threat of Communism in Southeast Asia. Vann's idealism and gung-ho spirit make him an effective leader and soldier.
Shortly after arriving, however, Vann realizes much of what is transpiring is a sham. He sees firsthand how ARVN falsifies battle reports and other military information to gain U.S. confidence and support. Photographs depicting dead Viet Cong (VC) are staged to bolster claims of victory. Vann and his men, including Frank Drummond [Robert J. Burke], are surprised and disturbed by these deceptions.
Vann's role is limited to advising and training. In that capcacity, he is repeatedly frustrated in his dealing with ARVN Colonel Huynh Van Cao [Kay Tong Lim], whose desire to avoid casualties and constant retreats conflict with Vann's aggressive strategies. As a result, during battles where the Viet Cong are on the run, Cao reverses Vann's plans and hundreds of enemy soldiers escape capture. When Vann tries to organize more aggressive raids on the VC, Cao refuses.
Moreover, Vietnamese President Diem has ordered his men not to risk casualties, so Cao refuses to send his men into an area until he is sure there are no enemy soldiers. Vann finds a way to circumvent these obstacles, plotting his own missions or ignoring Cao's orders, then cleverly crediting Cao with any successes or victories over the Viet Cong that Vann himself achieves.
By December 1963, the Viet Cong have been studying the Americans and ARVN for more than a year. They understand the lack of command structure and aggressive tactics. The VC have also learned that the Americans' reliance on superior technology could be effectively countered with the guerilla tactics they employed. When the VC attack at Ap Bac that month, American soldiers are stranded under fire with no backup, causing dozens of unnecessary deaths. This clash is the first major battle to come to the attention of the American public. When Vann complains to his senior officer General Paul Harkins [Harve Presnell], the general makes it clear he only wants good news. Ignoring Vann, Harkins refers to Ap Bac as a "victory," feeding the American propoganda machine and perpetuating Diem's war policy and ineffective ARVN tactics.
Frustrated, Vann goes to reporter Burnett and tells him the truth about the war. Vann says his superiors want him to lie about the enemy's strength, location and tactics, as well as U.S. military successes and chances of winning in Vietnam.
The corruption of the South Vietnamese military leadership disheartens Vann; he believes the U.S. needs to create allies, gaining the trust and support of the peasants in order to defeat the communists. To that end, he calls rice the "secret weapon" to win the war. In essence, he wants to harness the peasant revolution by giving them back their food supply. Furthermore, Vann realizes that Ho Chi Minh had asked the U.S. for help in freeing his country from the French colonists, but was refused. This refusal was the turning point that forced Ho to seek help for independence from the communist camp, creating a civil war.
His tour of duty completed, Vann returns home in 1964. With his understanding and experience, Vann gives a series of briefings. However, when Vann details enemy gains and other "bad news" about the VC, which is inconsistent with the official story the military leadership has been receiving from Harkins and others, a report he is scheduled to make for the Joint Chiefs of Staff is cancelled. Given that and a near court martial (stemming from statutory rape charges from an affair with an underage girl), Vann realizes he is not going to move up the military ranks, and resigns.
His loyal wife Mary Jane [Amy Madigan] is delighted when he takes a job at Martin Marietta and can once again be a father to their two sons. They try counseling for their marital problems, but Vann's constant womanizing and his desire to rejoin the war effort defeat any attempt at a normal domestic life.
By 1965, as President Johnson announces an increase in troops to Vietnam, Vann wants to get back into the action. He joins the State Department's Civilian Aid Program and is placed in charge of the Mekong province. He is teamed with another American, Doug Elders [Eric Bogosian], in a series of reform projects, building schools and homes for peasants. But once again, Vann finds himself fighting corruption and conflicting agendas, incurring the wrath of ARVN General Chin [Les J.N. Mau]. Chin uses his military muscle to punish Vann for standing up to him, killing some of his workers as well as the villagers he's aiding.
Upon his return to Vietnam, Vann rekindles his affair with Lee [Vivian Wu], a teacher he had a relationship with during his first tour in Vietnam. He also meets another Vietnamese girl, Annie [Pichariva Narakbunchai], with whom he has a child. As the fighting escalates, General Fred Weyand [Ed Lauter] asks Vann to be his civilian deputy. Vann's dedication to the war effort consumes him; he works 20 hours a day, sleeps four. His work comes to the attention of General William Westmoreland [Kurtwood Smith].
When Vann's mother dies, he returns to the States once again. At the funeral, his wife tells him she wants a divorce. His oldest son, who is against the war, will not speak to him. When he returns to Vietnam, he marries Annie, who is about to have his baby. Vann remains in the country despite his belief that a major enemy attack is coming. He warns the American ambassador [James Rebhorn] and those in the military, but is dismissed. In fact, the Military Advisory Command actually anticipates an offensive in another region and is completely caught off-guard by the Tet offensive in January 1968. Once again, Vann's instincts were disregarded by an increasingly insulated military command.
Most significantly, the Tet offensive shatters any illusions that the war is near an end or that the U.S. will win it soon. Although not a victory for the communists, the U.S. Embassy in Saigon is overrun. Vann is part of the force that defends the city and reclaims the embassy.
The U.S. forces are shaken by Tet. Stateside, Walter Cronkite, "the most trusted man in America," declares in a commentary that the war cannot be won. A month later, President Johnson announces that he will not run for reelection. Richard Nixon is elected and decides "to get tough with communists" and escalates the war.
Vann, who initially believed in a limited ground war as the way to fight in Vietnam, becomes a major proponent of bombing and a general escalation of the war. His influence on military policy increases when Nixon makes him a civilian general in charge of ten divisions in the central highlands.
However, Vann finds resistance to such escalation. Burnett and other reporters believe Vann has lost his perspective and ideals. Moreover, they are suspicious of a civilian commanding troops. With anti-war sentiment gaining momentum, Vann's rededication to the war effort seems out of step with the rest of the country. But Vann cannot accept the idea of the Viet Cong defeating the American-backed South. He supports Nixon's campaign of heavy bombing and a full-scale invasion of North Vietnam and Laos because he believes it will push the Viet Cong into the Paris peace talks.
In addition to strategic planning, Vann continues his work on the battlefield. In 1972, Vann wins a major battle as two North Vietnamese divisions are on the verge of overrunning the town of Kontum. The offensive had already sent some troops into retreat when Vann appears and beats them back. In the end, he wipes out both Viet Cong divisions, an important victory for the South, which, at the time, is on the verge of collapse.
Still celebrating the victory at Kontum, Vann is killed when the helicopter he is flying crashes at night in a storm.
Vann is buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. His name, however, is not among those listed on the Vietnam War Memorial.
Bill Paxton stars as Lt. Colonel John Paul Vann. His feature film credits include "Titanic" and the upcoming "Mighty Joe Young." He has also appeared in "Traveller" (which he also produced), "Twister," "Apollo 13," "The Evening Star," "True Lies," "Tombstone," "One False Move," "Next of Kin" and "Aliens." On television, he produced, wrote and directed short films like "Fish Heads," shown on "Saturday Night Live."
Amy Madigan portrays Vann's wife, Mary Jane. She was nominated for a 1985 Best Supporting Actress Oscar(r) for "Twice in a Lifetime," and has also appeared in the feature films "Field of Dreams," "Places in the Heart," "Crossroads," "Uncle Buck" and "The Dark Half." She won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Television Movie for "Roe vs. Wade" and received CableACE Awards for Best Actress for "And Then There Was One" and HBO's "The Laundromat."
Vivian Wu is Lee, Vann's Vietnamese mistress. Wu's first English-speaking film was "The Last Emperor." Her other film credits include "The Joy Luck Club," "Heaven and Earth" and "The Pillow Book." The Chinese-born actress has appeared in more than 16 films and television programs in her homeland.
Donal Logue plays reporter Steven Burnett. Logue's feature film credits include the upcoming "The Thin Red Line," "Jerry Maguire," "The Grave," "Disclosure," "Little Women," "Heaven and Earth" and "Sneakers." He had a recurring role on the comedy series "The Single Guy" and has guest starred on such series as "The X-Files," "Northern Exposure" and "Sweet Justice." His TV movie credits include HBO Pictures' Emmy(r)-winning "And the Band Played On," "Darrow," "Labor of Love" and "The Yarn Princess."
Eric Bogosian plays Doug Elders, a civilian aid worker. An actor, playwright and monologist, Bogosian is perhaps best known for his portrayal of a combative radio host in "Talk Radio," which he adapted from his stage play with director Oliver Stone. On television, Bogosian has appeared on the series "Law & Order." He also co-created the series "High Incident." On stage, Bogosian has received three Obie Awards and a Drama Desk Award for his plays "Drinking in America," "Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll" and "Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead."
Kurtwood Smith portrays General Westmoreland. Smith's features include "To Die For," "A Time to Kill," "Broken Arrow," "The Crush," "Robocop," "Staying Alive," "True Believer" and "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country." He received DramaLogue awards for "Billy Budd," "Green Grow the Lilacs" and "Idiot's Delight."
Robert J. Burke is Captain Drummond, one of Vann's military advisors. His film credits include "Copland," "Fled," "Tombstone," "Heaven & Earth," "Simple Men," "RoboCop III" and "Rambling Rose." On television, he has appeared in "The Gangster Chronicles" and can be seen in HBO's "From the Earth to the Moon."
James Rebhorn plays the American ambassador to Vietnam. Rebhorn's numerous feature films include "Independence Day," "The Game," "My Fellow Americans," "Up Close and Personal," "Basic Instinct," "My Cousin Vinny," "Guarding Tess" and "Silkwood." On TV, he has appeared on "Law & Order," "I'll Fly Away" and "Wiseguy," and can be seen in HBO's "From the Earth to the Moon."
Ed Lauter portrays General Fred Weyand, one of Vann's closest associates. Lauter has appeared in nearly 100 films and television programs. His feature film credits include "Leaving Las Vegas," "Mulholland Falls," "True Romance," "Born on the Fourth of July," "My Blue Heaven," "The Longest Yard," "Cujo" and "The New Centurions." On TV, he has appeared in HBO Pictures' "The Tuskegee Airmen" as well as the movies "My Father's Son" and "The Golden Years."
Harve Presnell is General Harkins, one of the war's fiercest supporters. Presnell's films include "Saving Private Ryan," "Face/Off," "The Chamber," "Fargo" and "Paint Your Wagon." On TV, he has a recurring role on "The Pretender" and had a recurring role on "Lois & Clark."
Writer-director Terry George has been writing and producing plays at New York City's Irish Arts Center since the late 1980s. George first collaborated with director Jim Sheridan on his 1985 play "The Tunnel," based on his experiences as a prisoner in British jails in Northern Ireland. Their next project together, "In the Name of the Father," garnered a nomination for a 1993 Best Screenplay Oscar.(r) Reteaming with Sheridan, George made his feature directorial debut with "Some Mother's Son." His other feature writing credits include "The Boxer" and "The Devil's Own."
Executive producer Lois Bonfiglio has produced the feature films "The Morning After" and "Old Gringo." She also produced the cable films "Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee," "Broken Trust" and "Two for Texas."
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