Vietnam: A Personal History HBO's 'Path to War' Traces LBJ's Slow Descent into a War Nobody Wanted

By Cox, Ted | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), May 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

Vietnam: A Personal History HBO's 'Path to War' Traces LBJ's Slow Descent into a War Nobody Wanted


Cox, Ted, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Ted Cox Daily Herald TV/Radio Columnist

History is remembered in pivotal dates, but it is made in incremental moments that drip by until something recognizable forms, like a stalagmite in a cave.

HBO's new "Path to War" traces the course of U.S. involvement in Vietnam during Lyndon Baines Johnson's presidency in the mid-'60s. It dismisses arbitrary events such as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to concentrate instead on the small, private moments that led Johnson and the country almost imperceptibly into the Vietnam War.

Debuting at 7 p.m. Saturday on the premium-cable channel, it's slow-moving and detailed, but nonetheless dramatic, mainly due to the compelling and historically accurate performances turned in by the top-flight cast, and the no-frills direction of John Frankenheimer.

Frankenheimer is best known for the stylishly paranoid Cold War thriller "The Manchurian Candidate," but in his later years he has developed into an astute technician, an economical (if not exactly short-winded) storyteller. In "Path to War," he never strains to push the pace or create false tension. He simply makes sure that every shot and every scene either advances the story or shows some new facet of the characters.

This frees the cast to create some sharp portraits and some compelling moments. Most surprising is British actor Michael Gambon's LBJ. He lacks LBJ's jowly, hangdog quality, but perfectly captures his skill as a negotiator - wielding both carrot and stick with equal dexterity - and his earthy eloquence. (When he is told exactly what is at risk in Vietnam by Donald Sutherland's Clark Clifford, he puts a particularly Texas spin on a familiar barnyard expletive.)

LBJ was an adept congressional consensus-builder, and in the years after John F. Kennedy's assassination he used JFK's legacy as a fulcrum to lift his "Great Society" programs, such as the War on Poverty and the Voting Rights Act. Yet his skill as a negotiator gave him no clue about how to deal with an uncompromising radical like North Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh.

"What's it gonna take to get Ho Chi Minh to quit?" he asks his advisers shortly after his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964. "That's all I want to know."

Unfortunately, "the best and the brightest" advisers he inherited from JFK are no more understanding than he is. Alec Baldwin is excellent as the hard-line Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and Frederic Forrest and Tom Skerritt are equally good as military boobs (Skerritt plays Gen. William Westmoreland, famous for saying there was "light at the end of the tunnel" in Vietnam).

The voice of reason comes from Sutherland's Clifford and familiar character actor Bruce McGill, who brings the little- remembered Under Secretary of State George Ball into the spotlight. …

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