Path to War begins with Lyndon Baines Johnson’s inauguration ball in 1965. In his speech he toasts his forthcoming administration, boasting that it features more talented and educated staff than any other government in US history. As Will Rogers once noted, ‘There’s nothing quite as ignorant as an educated man once you get him off the subject he was educated in’. Path to War is the story of how the brightest and best America had to offer, took the nation into the quagmire of Vietnam on a road paved with good intentions.
The first point that should be made is that it’s directed by the late great John Frankenheimer. He specialised in political thrillers and during the 60s made The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May and The Train. He spent most of the 70s, 80s and 90s in a long career slump, but returned to form with movies that were again centred round American government and politics. Path to War was his final film and stands comparison with the best of his early work. It also serves as a useful companion piece to Oliver Stone’s Nixon. Both are about potentially great men who destroyed themselves through poor decisions.
LBJ is mainly remembered these days for replacing Kennedy when he was assassinated, and the subsequent disaster of Vietnam. Dismissed by some writers (who usually have an unhealthy obsession with the Kennedys), as being a Texas hic, Johnson was a brilliant politician when it came to negotiating and deal-making. His leadership of the Senate between 1955 and 1961 was a perfect example of a politician who knew exactly how to use the carrot and stick to get what he wanted. The scene in the film where he cajoles and threatens Alabama Governor George Wallace, played by Gary Sinise, is a master class of political persuasion. The other reason Johnson deserves a better historical reputation is for his domestic programme, ‘The Great Society’. In only four years he introduced a range of policies that would transform America, many of which still endure today.
However Vietnam will always be his legacy and Path to War spends most of its running time focussing on the decisions that led to war and how it was conducted. Dominating the film is Michael Gambon as LBJ. I’ve often wondered why British actors are so often called upon to play American Presidents. Whatever the reason, Gambon is fantastic and I’m surprised he didn’t win any awards for it. Alex Baldwin plays his Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, a man far too confident in his own abilities and the importance of statistics when determining policy. It’s a great performance by Baldwin although I’m still not entirely sure he was right for the role. He spends a lot of the film looking like a High School quarterback pretending to be a nerd. For anyone interested in McNamara’s retrospective take on events, I’d highly recommend the documentary Fog of War.
Donald Sutherland plays LBJ’s friend Clark Clifford who is initially sceptical of Vietnam before slowly turning into a ‘hawk’, encouraging ever greater troop commitments. The film successfully conveys that this was arguably the central problem of the Vietnam War; no one really understood the enemy or what victory looked like. Each step seemed like a reasonable sacrifice that would end the conflict. When each new plan failed it was decided that they had to escalate otherwise their previous sacrifices would have been in vain and they’d lose face on the world stage. For a film that is essentially made up of scene after scene of meetings, it holds the attention and succeeds in explaining both why the war happened in the first place, and why it went so horribly wrong.
Here is a brilliant scene where the main characters discuss the arguments both for and against further involvement in Vietnam: