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Thank you John Frankenheimer: Path To War

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The peculiar thing about John Frankenheimer’s work is that it is consistently good. That’s not something one can say about most directors working today. I hope this isn’t a completely odious comparison, but take John Woo. He made the astonishing The Killer in Hong Kong, his last before he migrated to what is now Schwarzennegeria where he made Hard Target and then the breathtakingly conceived and brilliantly executed Face Off. Everything else has been disappointing, including especially Broken Arrow and, I’m sorry to say, Mission Impossible:II, though I must admit to having found something of quality in the very heavily flawed Windtalkers.

Having said that, I must confess that I have been totally Woo-ed and am now hopelessly addicted to everything Woo-lly in cinema; I watch his films repeatedly and can never seem to get enough of his action sequences. All that double-handed gunplay, the backs-to-dividing wall-banter-while-we-reload, the Mexican stand-offs with hammers clicking on empty chambers, the slow motion step through a white dove taking flight, the gun kicked up and caught and fired in a spin — yes, yes, I watch it all, again and again. But ultimately all that action, superbly choreographed and balletic, is only a contrivance and nothing more. Increasingly, his films are like some glossy ramp models: Great bodies, no soul; just the cosmetics.

Vacuity is not something of which one can accuse Frankenheimer. He, too, can pull off tremendous action sequences (the entire car chase in Ronin), but his action is quieter, less in-your-face and far less contrived. I’ve always held his 1965 B&W The Train to be a complete masterpiece in the action/thriller/war genre. He’s made several films since, and having seen most (not all), I’d be hard to put to point to one that I didn’t actually like or which didn’t leave me with something for later. Even The General’s Daughter, arguably a weaker film but only in comparison to his own other work, still holds its own in terms of dramatic tension.

Recently I stumbled on Path to War, a film he made for HBO and which seems to have been largely ignored, for reasons I am quite unable to fathom. It’s not even seriously reviewed at

This is crucial. The achivements of the great Presidents of the United States had an impact well beyond America’s territorial boundaries. America became, under them and after them, the lodestar to follow and the yardstick by which other regimes were measured and found wanting. In a sense, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy: Those who did not adopt the American standard, or at least attempt to, became the ‘enemy’. The tirade against communism is but the most startling instance. Later Presidents were cautious in deploying this argument too prominently on the world stage. 9/11 and Iraq has changed all that, for the worse. The world will never be the same again and neither will the United States of America.

What is happening today is a rank betrayal of ideals that Lyndon Johnson, among others, strived and struggled to integrate into the reality of ‘the American Dream’. Frankenheimer sees this clearly. His film is a calm, dispassionate and studied attempt to understand the man and, perhaps, come to terms with some of the decisions that were taken during his tenure. Frankenheimer does not ‘do’ the war at all. He remains in the White House with just the occasional documentary footage from Vietnam. There are no scenes of war, no graphic violence and not despite this but because of it, the film is both and chilling. Was this really the way we were? How did that come to pass?

The film is long, at over 2.5 hours but you don’t sense it once. Michael Gambon turns in the performance of a lifetime, certainly one that should have got him an Oscar. Alec Baldwin is an appropriately plump McNamara, a sleek-headed man such as those who sleep o’nights. Donald Sutherland’s Clark Clifford had me perplexed at first but he played his character with his usual dexterity, slowly fleshing him out. This film is just not to be missed.

Path to War. Directed by John Frankenheimer * Michael Gambon, Donald Sutherland, Alec Baldwin. HBO Films.

Postscript: Ten minutes after I began watching the film, my 11 year-old daughter came in and sat with me. I expected she’d watch a bit, get bored, and leave. She sat through the whole of it, totally engrossed. She’d ask me questions now and then and we paused while I explained what little I know. It was pretty much a potted history of the Vietnam war. To work a historical theme, without graphic visuals and yet to be able to hold even one that young and at such an enormous physical remove in time and place (we live in Bombay, India) — I can’t think of a better commendation. Thank you and salud, John Frankenheimer.

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About Gautam Patel

Mumbai-based lawyer and weekly columnist for a local newspaper.
  • Joe Blow

    After reading your review of “The Path To War” one thing struck me. The fact that you let your daughter of eleven years watch a movie with such adult themes says volumes about you. Here’s a clue. The 60’s are over. Your side was wrong. LBJ’s great society was a pie in the sky pipe dream from the beginning. Everyone I knew back then knew that and my friends were all flower children types. Repalcing one form of racism with another (affirmative action) is as wrong as racism ever was. Killing babies of course tops racism in every way as perhaps the worst evil the world has ever known. George W. is hardly dismantling enviormental laws as you claim.

    Everything about your review reeks of the worst kind of wrong headed liberalism. Charges without support abound. A misguided view of the US resistance to the evil of communism comes as no surprise. I’m surprised you didn’t slobber over the idiot Clark Clifford and what he became after his role in the Johnson administration. Heck he’s right up your alley now and you missed a chance to kiss his butt in your review of this movie.

    In short you are a lost cause if you don’t snap yourself out of the 60’s mentality you are locked into. It was over long ago. It was the most destructive decade in my lifetime with the ideals you obviously adhere to becoming the worst kind of totalitarianism through political correctness. God help us all if your kind ever gets control of real power. You’ll make the Nazis look like girl scouts and you’ll kill every Boy Scout in sight.

    LBJ’s plans were a disaster for this world and it’s time someone pointed that out to the likes of you. He created a legacy of hate it will take a century to get over. That’s what happens when you make a permanent whiner class. I’m sick of the likes of you forcing their outdated views on the world. LBJ got us into Vietnam all on his own despite the claims of that movie. He was responsible. He made people like you hate the US for reasons that were all strictly LBJ’s yet you continually blame the wrong people. When someone fixes the mess LBJ made it’s a good thing sir. If LBJ had gotten all he wanted we would have never recovered.

  • Gautam Patel

    Joe, I can’t understand what I have said or done to warrant such a personal attack on me, my values or my family. I have a view on the Vietnam war and the present US policy; you may or may not agree, and I respect and defend your right to hold a contrary view and express it freely. But I see no reason to attack or dislike you because you hold a contrary view. I do not hate the US at all. I have no reason to. Pretty much my entire family lives there, and I myself spend several wonderful years there at University. But I do not approach it without reservation either, as I do not almost any other place.

    This is the real tragedy of our times – that we have forgotten how to like, or even tolerate, those who hold an opposing view, how to tolerate dissent. That is Bush’s legacy. It was not LBJ’s. So allow me my “wrong-headed liberalism”, Joe, as I allow you your conservatism.

    And, incidentally, the film is not such an ‘adult’ film that a teen or a pre-teen can’t or shouldn’t watch it. I was glad my daughter did. She learned much. She asked many questions. She was introduced to a period in history that she might not have studied till much later. The film has no violence, no sex, no strong language. Why would I not let her watch it?

    Oh, by the way, have you actually seen the film? On second thoughts, please don’t answer that. I have the answer.

  • Chris Kent

    Path to War was an excellent film about a very controversial subject. I suppose we could all “Joe Blow” until we were blue in the face about this touchy subject matter, but the simple fact of the matter is this film portrays, at the very least, a part of the miserable truth of the Vietnam War. I am thrilled to hear a young child sat through this film and suddenly became interested in history, especially a part of history where leaders of our nation made misguided and unfortunate mistakes. We SHOULD ask questions, the same questions asked in Path to War.

    LBJ was a great, old school American President caught in changing times. History will eventually show him to be one of the great men, if not the great leaders, in American history. During Lincoln’s time, he was so hated that he had a bullet put into his brain. Well, LBJ, from a remarkably similar background, figuratively had the same thing happen to him. To call LBJ a President of Hate, is to reveal a “Joe Blow”-like ignorance about history, close-minded, confused, and seemingly at odds with the entire institution of American ideals. LBJ may have been misguided, but only because he had an issue forced upon him which no President in history could have appropriately handled.

    He was a great man, human like the rest of us, brilliant, tragic and utterly, thankfully American.

    Watch Path to War. And watch the American Experience, I believe it’s about five hours long, documentary on LBJ’s life. Learn, understand, read, ask questions, and avoid the “Joe Blow” hatred that taints much of our society……

  • Gautam Patel

    Chris! Galahad! Thank you thank you thank you!


  • Heloise

    This essay came to me again, after watching the movie “The Path to War” and because I have read and own more than 30 books on the Kennedy presidency/family. I know both these Bobs well. One was Robert “Bobby” F. Kennedy and the other was Robert “Bob” McNamara. Bob was a top CEO at the Ford Motor Co. when Jack called him to serve. If you want to know more about his role watch “The Fog of War” an excellent movie about his role in the
    Cuban-missile crisis.

    The thought and the pun of “two Bobs” was inescapable to me. If you watched the mini-series “Roots” you know that the African word “tubob” means “white man” along with the implication that
    this man is a inveterate liar.

    That word surfaces over and over in the series. But it is poignant
    especially when Chicken George was fighting chickens with his dad, whom he did not know was his dad at the time, but who promised him and his family their freedom if he won a particular fight. Well,
    he did not win that fight.

    When he told of this prospect to his mother, well-acted by Leslie Uggams, she told him that he could not possibly believe the “massa'”
    because remember that “the massa’ is tubob, white man.” Thus it
    went without saying that the words “your freedom” were worthless
    coming, back then, from a white man to a black, enslaved man such as her
    son. Then when his master reniged on his promise, he wanted to kill
    him. This is when his mother had to tell him that he couldn’t kill
    his own pappa. Ahh such is the stuff that drama is made of.

    But that is the pun which I heard when I heard this essay title in my head “tubob.” What does that mean exactly?

    I have been exploring the relationship between Thomas Merton and the
    Kennedy and the Skakel family. As I said earlier I cannot share
    the content of the letters without permission, but here again I can
    tell you of their message from Tom to Bobby: “See if you can stop the
    bombing going on in Viet Nam.” He would write these letters to Ethel
    Kennedy with the express hopes that she would share his thoughts
    with her husband. She did share her thoughts with him and in the movie and in newsclips Bobby can be heard publically and expressly asking that
    the bombing in Viet Nam be halted. He did not say the war be stopped
    but that the bombing be stopped. There is a difference.

    Then we see LBJ who now finds himself between a rock and a hard place, caught between two Bobs. It is shocking but true that it was Bob McNamara who pushed for the bombing in the first place. And when there was
    a chance for peace and/or halting the war instead he pushed for and before everyone’s eyes–Bob became a bomb-dropping machine.

    Something that I think is purely inconceivable had Jack still been
    rocking in that rocking chair in the White House. I don’t think he would have had the balls to drops those bombs, or been able to get that first bombing run off the runway if he had to fly it past Bobby and Jack. That was not possible.

    I think LBJ knew that. He also knew that someone was feeding Bobby his opinion about the war. I believe that someone was Tom. I cannot post the letters, but I can state for the public record, because it is public record, that Tom wrote many letters
    requesting the same thing. This has been deleted or downplayed by the Kennedy family and others because they do not want outsiders to believe that
    their Catholic religion and faith has anything to do with their politics. If you believe this then you are mistaken.

    The movie portrays Johnson’s firm belief that Bob McNamara betrayed him, and that Bobby also betrayed him when he came out publically denouncing the bombing of the Viet Cong. It nearly killed him, and it did kill his hopes of a second term. These two Bobs acting almost in concert brought down the Johnson presidency without firing a single shot.

    This was the darkest time in America I believe. I think the parallels to the Iraq war going on now are strikingly similar: an unwinnable war for honor’s sake. We cannot take away what Johnson pushed through. But we also cannot deny that it was Jack’s efforts along those lines that birthed the idea [he loved everything and knew everything that Abe Lincoln did and Jackie wanted to imitate Lincoln, thus his funeral procession was made in that image.] Few realize that at the RNC Bush’s convention he showed the clip of Kennedy accepting the nomination at that convention.

    I digress, Johnson was able in part to be fueled by a passion fo this legislation because the Kennedy hand was in it. He passed it through because
    of the impact of the Kennedy assassination on the hearts of the
    American people. This is a paradox because he did respect and even
    loved Kennedy, Jack that is, but hated Bobby.

    If you think that the South was happy to hear of these bills being proposed and passed, especially here in Texas, then you don’t know America. It is unbelievable the racism that still exists here in Texas and in the South. There are whole offices and companies and schools here where NOT ONE black person works! And where the sight of a black person causes great angst.

    Finally, the two Bobs spoken of in this essay have a huge role in history. Let it not be said nor be held in trust that the legacy of the white man in America be perpetually that of a “tubob” — the white man who lies.


  • Heloise

    PS: Title to Heloise essay

    Viet Nam: A tale of Two Bobs [comment on the film “Path to War”]