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Path to War
on April 16, 2005
THE PATH TO WAR is John Frankenheimer's biography of the Vietnam War, told through the prism of the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. The movie, director Frankenheimer's last, was produced and released in 2002 as the United States was preparing to launch a war against Iraq. As such it serves as a cautionary tale with a strong political point of view - the message is simple and strong: Even the best and the brightest can be blinded by optimism, and a quagmire once entered is not easily left.
THE PATH TO WAR spends a great deal of time in cabinet meetings. This is a political drama pitting special advisor Clark Clifford (Donald Sutherland) against Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Alec Baldwin) in battle for the heart and mind of President Johnson (Michael Gambon). Clifford is the Dove, the main player advocating restraint and caution viz. Vietnam, while McNamara Hawkishly counsels a steady buildup of American forces. At first English actor Gambon seemed an odd choice for the role of Texas-born Johnson. He fits the part physically, and he's the right age, but his west Texas accent is a bit off the mark. Not terribly off, but he doesn't nail it either. Johnson is a familiar television presence from my youth and his heavy drawl must have made a deep impression. In any event, it was distracting for a while, but Gambon is such a strong actor, and otherwise so right for the part that I stopped worrying about it after a while.
Frankenheimer was a personal friend of Johnson's arch-foe Robert Kennedy, and a generation ago Frankenheimer might have treated Johnson as a bit more of a political monster. Indeed, Johnson the politician could play rough. In one early scene, Johnson gives the mailed-fist-in-the-velvet-glove treatment to Alabama Governor George Wallace (Gary Sinise) when Wallace threatens Johnson's civil rights' initiatives. Later, when speech writer Dick Goodwin (James Frain), the man who `put the music' in Johnson's speeches, tells Johnson that he's leaving to accept a fellowship, Johnson, in the space of perhaps three minutes, bribes, cajoles, and ultimately threatens Goodwin into staying. Still, the ultimate impression of Johnson is of a man whose presidency was ruined because of a misplaced reliance on advisors rather than an innate blood lust. The villains in THE PATH TO WAR are arrogance, an overestimation of America's military capabilities, and a woeful underestimation of North Vietnam's willingness to engage in a prolonged and costly war. The worst player in this cast turns out to be McNamara, who is partly redeemed by his doubts at the end.
THE PATH TO WAR is a very good HBO movie. There aren't many extras on the disk. The making of and cast interviews are very short - three or four minutes per extra - and not terribly informative or insightful. Still, a very strong recommendation for this one.