Presented by HBO for Memorial Day, and now in rotation on its various channels, this documentary follows John Hulme, Jr., as he tries to put together a remembrance of a father he never knew. Hulme, Sr. was killed during a missile attack in Vietnam’s Quang Tri province on June 30, 1969, when John was only three weeks old. The pic starts off grabbing your heart as the ultimate human interest story, with its short takes of Junior calling friends and combat marines who knew his father—nicknamed Jack.
The film begins at the Vietnam memorial in Washington, and ends in Quang Tri province, with a tone that, to be kind, is uneven.
Born in 1945, Jack was the all-American boy, apparently loved by all, who had always wanted to join the Corps. Jack’s father Billy, shown often, and introduced at his 90th birthday party, was a gung-ho Navy man during World War II. Jack was surely the apple of his eye, and to say he never got over his son’s death is an understatement, given that Jack’s old room is still intact, now converted to a shrine.
If this seems a bit odd, more than 30 years after his death, you have caught the first of many strange items that appear in the production. More than that, our attention will be turned to the several key matters that are NOT covered.
At one point, John reveals his age to be 31. Therefore, this film was being shot in 2000, and, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that it was completed in 2001. While Hulme could have simply wanted a video record of his travels during this process, the fact that he is accompanied by a crew would indicate that the original intent was to produce a professional product. Given the multiple locations, including Vietnam, a budget of at least a few hundred thousand dollars would be involved. Whoever fronted the money for this would have a good deal to say about the content, or changes made to allow its broadcast.
This might help us understand a few things…
John’s mother Ellen appears in this pic almost as much as John himself, but we find out precious little about her. Since she was widowed in her early 20’s, it is likely that she remarried, but we don’t know, and thus don’t know if John ever had a stepfather. Yet, if he WERE raised by a single mother, this, in all likelihood, would have been brought out. My take is that there is a stepfather, and he wanted nothing to do with the whole business.
John’s motivation seems a bit forced, as well. Why wait until age 30 to resurrect memories of your father? And, why feature your doddering old grandfather in the pic, whom you note that you barely knew up until the filming? Exactly how is it that a fatherless boy would have no contact with his paternal grandparents?
We do know that Billy did not attend the wedding of Jack and Ellen, since she was Jewish, and Jack was raised Catholic. John, though, was raised Jewish. Was this the source of all those years of non-contact?
Jack, if he really was the superstar described by his friends, would have finished college in 1967. What did he do until 1969? Or, if he went directly from college ROTC into the Marines in 1969, what was he doing for those two extra years? Remember, John wants to know about his father—not just his father in Vietnam. Or does he?
The interviews with Jack’s combat buddies are intercut with standard antiwar footage, and Jack’s increasingly antiwar letters from ‘Nam are read, against a backdrop of Billy saluting the flag, and spouting mindless “My country right or wrong” comments. Putting two and two together, it is rather obvious that the family divide derives from Ellen (never shown with the paternal grandparents) blaming Billy for putting the wrong ideas into Jack’s head, and Billy regarding Ellen as little more than a garden variety Jewish Leftie. Did Ellen bankroll this documentary?
The movie’s ending in Vietnam is a 1960’s hippie fantasy. Ellen and John journey to the very spot where Jack was killed (God knows how they could determine this), amid dozens of happy children in this socialist paradise, lining their route like latter day Munchkins. All that was missing was Glinda the good witch admonishing us as to the evils of war.
In a case of irony being thrust back at the filmmaker, the closing credits music includes Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light,” a favorite song of Jack’s. Although the pic’s message is clearly how Jack saw the light as to the futility of war, even if it did him no good, the song, a gospel music favorite, refers to the conversion of an unhappy and aimless sinner.
I was a fool to
Wander and stray.
Straight is the gate
And narrow the way.
Now I have traded
The wrong for the right;
Praise the Lord,
I saw the light.
I saw the light,
I saw the light,
No more darkness,
No more night.
Now I’m so happy,
No sorrow in sight.
Praise the Lord,
I saw the light
Here’s hoping that Jack kept the faith.