The People vs. Agent Orange

B political documentary
Directed by Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna

Don’t worry, the pictures of children with horrible birth defects are few in this very message-heavy documentary. This story doesn’t need such images to boil your blood – what people say into the camera does the work without them.

During the Vietnam war, the American military dropped thousands of tons of a herbicide and defoliant called Agent Orange, made by Dow Chemical. It created massive damage to the countryside and its marks can be seen in the country’s forests and human populations today. But when the war was over, Dow needed new customers for their poisons, so Agent Orange came back to the United States.

The title The People vs. Agent Orange suggests this documentary focuses on a lawsuit. Actually, several litigations are covered – some shot by the filmmakers and others from archival footage, and not entirely in the States.

But a documentary of this sort must have a hero you can care about. The makers of Agent Orange found the right star in the extremely likeable Carol Van Strum. She lives in the Oregon backwoods, near lumber yards. Years ago, the U.S. Forest Service started spraying Agent Orange (or something very much like it) over the forest. The film never really explains why. As she starts examining and writing about what’s happening, she must deal with break-ins and death threats.

Van Strum isn’t the only hero in this film. Tran To Nga fought the Americans in Vietnam. After the war, she worked to help victims of the deadly chemical cocktail. Dr. James Cleary, in the military back then, was involved with the Army’s use of Agent Orange; he eventually came to realize its horrors. He now lives on his own farm.

It’s clear that the government and several corporations have the upper hand. Activists are followed and physically attacked. When Van Strum’s county votes to outlaw these chemicals, the law gets thrown out by the feds. Homes are broken into. When a house is burned down, according to the film, the fire department deemed it to be arson, but the Forest Service called it an accident and put a stop to the interrogation.

This film doesn’t even try to give a balanced view – but then that’s always the case with today’s documentaries. Everyone interviewed in the film agrees with the filmmakers that Agent Orange and other similar formulas, along with the harassment, should be stopped.

I almost always have issues with political documentaries – no matter how much I agree with the filmmakers. I try not to give a film a high grade just because I agree with its message. I’m much more concerned about how the film delivers that message.

On its good side, The People vs. Agent Orange gives you a lot of information about an especially important issue that few people talk about. But the film also hits you on the head with the proverbial mallet. And as with so many political documentaries, it will only be seen by people who already agree with what it says.

This documentary will be available Friday through the Balboa, Rafael, and the Vogue.