Unclaimed: Film Review

Unclaimed Trailer Screengrab - H 2014

Unclaimed Trailer Screengrab - H 2014

Modest doc presents a sensational news story that, however emotional, may be complete fabrication.

A Vietnam vet tries to prove that one of the war's presumed casualties is still alive.

NEW YORK – According to Michael Jorgensen's Unclaimed, an Army special-ops soldier who was shot down over Laos in 1968 has been living ever since in Vietnam under an assumed identity. Having suffered years of torture, he forgot everything about his old life but his name; he can't even speak English. Another veteran, a troubled soul named Tom Faunce, has spent years tracking him down and trying to verify his identity.

The story would be a doozy if true. But while numerous strong doubts have been raised in the year since the picture's Hot Docs debut, the film ignores some and brushes others off in quick closing titles alluding to a larger issue -- a Department of Defense report finding massive dysfunction in the task force tracking POW and MIA cases -- that is otherwise undiscussed here. Commercial hopes are slim for a doc that, while engaging as it unspools, seemingly has little interest in uncovering the truth.

The man in question calls himself John Hartley Robertson, and much about his discovery by Faunce remains vague here, even if Faunce's motivations do not: Having led a difficult life before and during the Vietnam War, he experienced a powerful religious conversion after it and spends much of his time on charity/missionary projects. During one such trip in Southeast Asia, he heard rumors about Robertson and was appalled at the thought that the U.S. might have abandoned him on the battlefield. Haunted by the rejection he himself felt after the war, Faunce sets out to find the man.

The detective story is involving, albeit choppily told, and from the start the film paints the Department of Defense as a shadowy influence getting in Faunce's way instead of helping. Viewers will wonder why Jorgensen doesn't speak with anyone there, or even to journalists who might bolster this impression of official obstruction. Much of the storytelling is done in succinct title cards, some of which seem almost deliberately vague in their he-said/she-said accusations.

While many involved have a deep emotional reason to believe this man's story, Jorgensen should not. He fails to suggest that "John" get his DNA tested against that of surviving family members or to ask Faunce why he doesn't pursue this, preferring to rely on a more obscure testing method whose findings suggest "John" is indeed an American. A bit of Googling finds that family members were eventually tested, and the results were not a match.

Production: Myth Merchant Films

Director-Screenwriter-Producer: Michael Jorgensen

Director of photography: Allan Leader

Editors: Jonathan Mathew, Nick Zacharkiw

Music: Mike Shields

Rated, 77 minutes