Not to belittle the seriousness of the film or the atrocities the men in it faced, but if the documentary "Return With Honor" needed a theme song, a perfect one for it would be "High Hopes." You know, the one about that little ol' ant and the rubber tree plant. Like those determined insects, the men featured in this riveting film about American POWs in the Vietnam War used high hopes, along with faith, determination, and some good ol' ingenuity to survive an ordeal that wouldn't seem possible if it wasn't completely true.
Written and directed by multiple Oscar nominated documentary filmmakers Frieda Lee Mock and Terry Sanders (with a victory for "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision"), "Return With Honor" is a harrowing, moving and yes, even an occasionally humorous look at a variety of former POWs recounting their experiences during the Vietnam War that for some of which lasted for more than eight years.
Told in a chronological fashion from flight school through being captured, serving time and finally being released, the film features contemporary interviews mixed with copious amounts of actual North Vietnamese war time footage and photos. Although some recreated, point of view footage is used to enhance or demonstrate what the POWs' experiences must have been like, the most effective moments are those featuring the former POWs themselves.
From current U.S. Senator John McCain to former Reform Party vice-presidential candidate Jim Stockdale and Everett Alvarez, who got the distinction of being the first airman to be captured, the men tell their tales -- thankfully and smartly without the aid of a voice-over narrator -- and are surprisingly well-adjusted considering what they experienced. Yet, and not surprisingly, the men are deeply affected when recounting their individual experiences, most of which would try even the hardiest of souls.
Their stories of hideous torture and months of isolation in pitch black cells are simultaneously horrifying and riveting. What one really gets from this film, however, which is obviously its point, is the resolve and endurance of the human spirit.
For every atrocity, there's a story of overcoming them, some in quite surprising ways. One POW used the pus and blood from his open sores to paint his experiences on cell walls (that led to later sketches we see in this film), while another adopted a "Manchurian Candidate" brainwashed demeanor to fool his captors. There's also the more famous case where one airman blinked out Morse code with his eyes to deliver a message of torture incongruous to his staged TV interview.
The men also devised an ingenious system of communicating with one another that all attest to being the sole thing that kept them and their spirits alive. Setting up the alphabet in a square of five columns and rows (leaving out K and where the letter A is in the first column of the first row), the POWs would tape code corresponding to each letter (tap-pause-tap would be A, tap- pause-tap-tap would be B, etc...). Soon they began carrying on full, but covert conversations with each other, often having never seen the person on the other side of the wall with whom they conversed for years.
The film also features interviews with the men's wives and features their ordeals of coping with the uncertainty of their husband's fates and raising their families by themselves. While that's an obvious and necessary element to include, it delivers the big payoff in the end when the men are finally released and reunited with their families. Having spent a mesmerizing two hours with these men, it's unlikely that any viewer's eyes will be dry when such gratifying moments finally occur.
If there's any one central moral to get from this film -- and there are plenty available -- it's the one reiterated by the former POWs. And that is not to sweat the small stuff. If you're having a bad day and think the world has conspired against you, all you need to do is think about what these brave men faced, adapted to and ultimately overcame and you'll realize your "problems" aren't so bad after all.
In the end, that big ol' rubber tree plant doesn't look so bad at all. A haunting and moving film that should be seen by everyone old enough to fully grasp its material, "Return With Honor" is one of those great documentaries that not only educates its viewers, but also gets them thinking. You can't ask for much better than that and thus we give the documentary an 8 out of 10.