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An investigative doc brimming with cultural resonance and historical savvy, Henry Corra's film has ahold of a pungent story — that of the titular black Texan fella who vanished in Vietnam 40 years ago. The subject of rumor and rare sightings, Nolan, it was said, strangled two American guards and "went native," joining the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and starting a second family in the jungle. One of the "last Americans" unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, Nolan is a forgotten man by nearly everyone except his two families and the buttoned-lip State Department, and therefore stands eloquently as a family-snapshot emblem of the residual social fallout from the American-Vietnam engagement. A seasoned doc-maker, Corra takes a small cabal of investigators to the Indochina peninsula to suss out the truth, accompanied by Nolan's grizzled, bullshit-free brother Michael and a tortured 'Nam vet with one leg and a heart of angst, who says his very first combat killing "ruined" his life, and who believes he'd glimpsed Nolan in 2005.

Blessed with a progressive forensic structure rare for documentaries, the film is rich in mysteries, folding in plenty of archival footage as if those scenes were literal flashback memories for all concerned, and observing taciturn veterans of a ruinous war — American, Vietnamese, and Cambodian — musing over their personal histories with barely suppressed remorse. Everybody, even the ex-Khmer Rouge officers, is generous and focused on healing, up to at least the mass grave excavation. If anything, Corra's film could have plunged deeper into the issues at hand — genocidal guilt, imperial hubris, class injustice — but it also limns a portrait of the kind of poor black Southern family that's usually gawked at in movies and the media as dumb, exotic rubes, but here is presented as dignified, articulate, and sweet as pie. (Michael in particular, bearing no small resemblance to producer Danny Glover, is a confident, cool iron man.) The cultures clash gently, exhuming the ghost of Vietnam on a stirringly personal level. Suitably, the answers found are less satisfying than haunting.

  Topics: Reviews , Asia, historical, southern,  More more >
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ARTICLES BY MICHAEL ATKINSON
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