‘Dick Cavett’s Vietnam’: TV Review

Dick Cavett's Vietnam - H 2015
Courtesy of Daphne Productions

Dick Cavett's Vietnam - H 2015

A clear-eyed look back at a turbulent period in American history

PBS’ stimulating short doc revisits the Vietnam War through the perspective of raconteur extraordinaire Dick Cavett

No talk show host has ever quite merged entertainment and erudition as well as Dick Cavett — something on ample display in PBS’ short documentary dedicated to the affable conversationalist’s interviews with celebrities, politicians and average Joes during the Vietnam War. The hourlong special is part of the public television network’s two-day commemoration of the fall of Saigon (the 40th anniversary of that event is April 30), which culminates in Tuesday’s broadcast of Rory Kennedy’s Academy Award-nominated nonfiction feature Last Days in Vietnam (2014).

Dick Cavett’s Vietnam is something of a palate cleanser before that main course, which doesn’t mean the film comes off in any way bland. Rather, it’s a genially spiky summation of the political and social tensions that engulfed the United States in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as viewed through the prism of Cavett’s influential ABC talk show. Cavett himself is one of the present-day talking heads reflecting back on that tumultuous time (retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark and historians Fredrik Logevall and Timothy Naftali are the other primary interviewees), and the film assumes his easygoing, ever-curious air, even as it deals with a contentious subject that still creates stark divides in opinion.

Cavett’s genius lies in his gift for mediation, which stems from the simple fact that, unlike many of his contemporaries and successors, he’s more of a listener than an interrupter. You almost never get the sense that he’s hurrying a conversation along. Indeed, each time he’s forced to cut to a commercial break, it feels like there’s a palpable air of regret, as if to impede human speech, especially in the service of corporate sponsors, is a grave transgression. Cavett likes to create an atmosphere where people of all stripes willingly (one might say, involuntarily) open up — to him and to each other.

So we get a sense of a very turbulent period in history via of-the-moment chatter: Early on, there’s a clip of Woody Allen quipping to Cavett that he entertained “our deserters in Canada” the previous Christmas. Laughter ensues, except for a lone hiss from a studio audience member, which Allen makes note of before challenging the unseen heckler to fisticuffs. It’s an uncomfortable moment, and there are many more where that came from, even when there are no actual jeers to be heard. More often, the air of politesse that Cavett cultivates becomes charged, priming us for an explosion that only occasionally occurs.

There are, of course, clips of left-leaning celebrities like Jane Fonda and Warren Beatty waxing eloquent about their disgust with the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administration’s mishandling of the public trust. Equally interesting (if not more so) are the interviews with various political figures — people like the inspiringly erudite Wayne Morse, one of only two senators to oppose the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, or the very young and charismatic John Kerry, who passionately debates the war’s validity with Herb Klein, Nixon’s director of communications.

Cavett never treats any of his guests with choir-preaching boosterism or derisive disdain, wherever he may stand on the issues under discussion. Even a fiery figure like the Rev. Billy Graham, who assails the antiwar movement in the wake of the Kent State shootings, doesn’t make a dent in Cavett’s cool, which affords us the opportunity to really listen to each person’s viewpoint instead of impulsively aligning with one side or the other before an argument has even been made. The present-day interview segments possess a similarly provocative evenhandedness, with Logevall's and Naftali’s perspectives (both suffused with 20/20 historical hindsight) counterbalanced by the shrewd and perceptive Clark’s pro-military standpoint.

In the center of it all is Cavett, as quick on the draw now as then. The doc’s funniest moment comes when he talks about receiving an especially virulent piece of hate mail in which he was called a “sawed-off faggot, communist shrimp.” Grinning slyly, he recalls, “There was a return address and I wrote back, ‘I’m not sawed off.’ ” Yet the moment of levity doesn’t distract from the very real toll that the Vietnam War took, and continues to take, on the American psyche. Entertainers of all stripes could learn from Cavett's example.

Twitter: @keithuhlich