Erase and Forget Review
Some men are conditioned at an early age to become soldiers, it’s a sad fact of the society we live in. This seems to be the case for James Gordon “Bo” Gritz. Gritz, a larger than life character who is more legend than man, and Erase and Forget seeks to solve the mystery behind the man. Filmed over a period of ten years, Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s documentary interweaves unseen archive footage and exclusive interviews with Gritz, who is one of the most-decorated Vietnam veterans who turned whistleblower to high level collusion and corruption within the US Government. It even adopts a similar method to The Act of Killing by having Gritz react to real-life footage and even scenes from the Rambo movies. On the whole, however, the film feels rather muddled and doesn’t quite know the direction it wants to take: is it critiquing toxic masculinity, militarism, gun culture, Trump or all of the above.
It’s easy to understand the interest in an individual like Bo Gritz considering the current political climate, the ever-increasing rise of gun crime and the clashes between the alt-right and those who dare to oppose them. For those unfamiliar with Bo Gritz, he is a Vietnam veteran who enjoyed 15 minutes of fame in the 1980s (he was said to have inspired the character of John Rambo), and is very much pro-second amendment. Born in 1939, Gritz enlisted in the Army in the late ’50s and served as a Lieutenant Colonel in Vietnam, where he was a U.S. Army Special Forces commander. His father was in the army and perished overseas, and in some of the film's more intimate scenes we get a sense that Gritz was trying to fill his father’s shoes, and live up to his old man’s reputation.
Gritz received many medals, but a number of his military awards were called into question, and that’s just scratching the surface of this complex man. It’s hard to separate the fact from fiction. Was he really the model for John Rambo? It’s not really known but Gritz laps up the attention and really seems at home playing the role of the anti-hero, betrayed by the very country he was sworn to protect. He's not an open book is Gritz, he often states he’s relaying information that is "classified" and yet hands it over without blinking. Are we to take these confessions at face value or is Zimmerman attempting to show this man as a fraud of some kind. I was left feeling puzzled and confused by Bo Gritz.
Director Andrea Luka Zimmerman certainly has a keen eye for the abstract beauty of the landscape, and creates a sense of eeriness with her use of background, the foreboding desert seems to loom. The use of music creates a sense of unease and the blending of historical footage brings a sense of nostalgia. However there are certain points which are hurried along, or glossed over. Are we supposed to find the scenes at the gun shows amusing or disturbing? It all feels a little rushed in places despite its lean 90-minute duration.
What was most disorientating is the lack of clear indication as to what year some footage was from: 80s, 90s or 00s which could well be intentional, commenting on the fact that these type of characters never evolve, the decades have passed and look at where the US is now. The film is strongest when it shows the other side to Gritz’s life - the non-army years - in which Zimmerman presents a photo of Gritz giving a Nazi salute to a group of white supremacists near Ruby Ridge, a shot that he claims caught him in middle of waving. Then she produces the videotape of that same moment, proving Gritz's lie but not confronting him face-to-face which would have made for more interesting viewing.
Zimmerman's style is distinctive and instinctual; "an inquiry into the nature of human conscience and the limits of deniability" (as per the director’s description) but the documentary isn't as strong or as daring as it could have been. By the end, I wanted to see someone questioning Gritz, his values, beliefs and whether he feels any regret for killing 400 people. Certain facts or events (like his attempted suicide) are glossed over when they could have offered more insight. The overall tone of the film is confusing and incoherent in places but my main issue is the subject matter, I loathe gun violence and it was far to discomforting to be fully immersive.