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 Rotten Tomatoes and many of the other movie review sites don't even mention it.
That's a shame, because this is a very fine film. Frankenheimer takes a subject that, in the hands of a lesser director, could have gone in one of only two directions: A pseudo-documentary made from a predetermined perspective (Oliver Stone), or an outright war film (too many contenders). Instead, Frankenheimer breaks completely new ground. He's dealing with Vietnam in the LBJ days, pre-Nixon, post-Kennedy. That was possibly the most difficult period of the Vietnam war when things could have gone either way. In 1963, at the end of the Kennedy administration, Vietnam was at a turning point. By the time Nixon came in, America had made its choice and was too heavily committed to allow for any quick or easy resolution. That road, that path to war, was chosen in the time of the Johnson administration. It was a tragic and terrible mistake that cost far too much for far too little. Other things, too, equally became casualties of the war: LBJ's magnificent dream of a 'Great Society', which might have changed the face of the world we live in, was in complete shambles and quickly forgotten.