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As the alleged real-life inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo character, Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now and George Peppard’s “Hannibal” Smith in The A-Team, James Gordon “Bo” Gritz should have provided rich material for an engrossing documentary. Yet somehow Erase and Forget manages to botch the mission, getting lost in arty ambiguities and lofty political aspirations instead of attacking its juicy target with the required amount of laser-guided military discipline.
German-born, London-based director Andrea Luka Zimmerman is a former associate of two-time Oscar nominee Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence), and she seems to be reaching for a similar stylistic blend of journalistic investigation, fly-on-the-wall observation and staged reconstruction in Erase and Forget. Unfortunately, limited resources and a lack of focus make this microbudget project more of a missed opportunity than a gripping saga. Having premiered at the Berlinale last week, it should pick up further festival play, but broader distribution options are likely to be slender.
A former Green Beret in the U.S. Army Special Forces, Gritz is one of the highest decorated Vietnam veterans alive. He claims to have killed around 400 people, often in covert operations. In the 1980s, partly funded by Clint Eastwood and William Shatner, he led fruitless Rambo-style missions into Southeast Asia to try and recover missing-in-action POWs. Becoming disillusioned with the government after exposure to the darker side of American power, he later became a far-right conspiracy theorist, joined the controversial Christian Patriot movement and even ran for U.S. president twice, in 1988 and 1992.
Born from a PhD project, Erase and Forget began as an exploration of the two-way traffic between real and fictionalized images of U.S. Army Special Forces. Zimmerman built up a long-term relationship with Gritz over more than a decade, interviewing him repeatedly in and around his Nevada home, surrounded by weapons, touching on his battlefield exploits, his mixed feelings about killing for his country, his beliefs and his regrets. She punctuates scrappy first-hand footage with archive documentary and news clips stretching back 30 years or more, plus short excepts from the Rambo series and others, mostly culled from YouTube.
Among a tiny handful of supporting players, Zimmerman scores a minor coup by interviewing Hollywood veteran Ted Kotcheff, director of the original Rambo movie First Blood. That film’s original rejected ending, in which Rambo dies by his own hand, provides a poignant parallel with Gritz’s own inadequately explained suicide attempt in 1998. Another enjoyably incongruous talking head is veteran British screenwriter Tudor Gates, whose credits include Barbarella and Lust for a Vampire, who briefly worked with Gritz on an unrealized docudrama project. As a telling indicator of this film’s sluggish gestation, Gates died in 2007.
Zimmerman has a mountain of material here, but struggles to shape it into something informative or incisive. She routinely takes Gritz’s word as gospel truth, even though many of his claims have been publicly challenged. Solid context and even basic chronology are largely absent. Teasingly, the Apocalypse Now and A-Team connections are fleetingly mentioned but never fully explored. Zimmerman is also oddly coy about the much-married Gritz’s private life, his past involvement with Nazi-saluting white supremacist groups and his failed presidential campaigns, when he deployed homophobic and anti-Semitic language against “Jews, feminists, sodomites and other liberal activists.”
In her defense, Zimmerman has claimed she chose to make a willfully elliptical and non-judgmental documentary, less about Gritz himself than about the structural power and violence that he represents in the broader military-industrial picture. A perfectly valid ambition, but one which has led to this frustratingly fuzzy portrait of a larger-than-life legend whose colorful life story cries out for a more rigorous, thorough, sharp-eyed filmmaker.
Production companies: Fugitive Images, Bright Wire Films
Cast: Bo Gritz, Ted Kotcheff, Tudor Gates
Director-screenwriter: Andrea Lukas Zimmermann
Cinematographers: Andrea Lukas Zimmermann, Taina Galis, Adam Philp
Producers: Andrea Luka Zimmermann, Ammenah Ayub Allen
Editor: Taina Galis
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales contact: Ameenah Ayub Allen, firstname.lastname@example.org
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