The Best Films, Books & Documentaries About The Vietnam War


Spike Lee’s new Vietnam War film drops on Netflix tomorrow. Da 5 Bloods follows four African American veterans as they return to South East Asia decades later to find their squad leader’s remains – and a stash of buried gold. If you’re going to tag along with them, you need to know what you’re getting into. Here are the films, books and documentaries that have defined America’s 20-year unwinnable war…


The Deer Hunter (1978)

Michael Cimino’s masterpiece won five Oscars when it came out, including the big ones for Best Picture and Best Director. It only got better when it was remastered in 2018. Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage are steelworkers whose lives are irrevocably altered by their service in Vietnam. Just as the viewer is getting to know them, they are called up, then taken prisoner and forced to play a game of Russian roulette. The rest of this epic, emotional drama explores the ways in which the trio try to assimilate the randomness of war and what they have experienced. (From the same year, Coming Home also won a tranche of Oscars and makes an interesting counterpoint, tracking the post-war life of Jon Voigt’s paralysed veteran.)
Watch it on Amazon, Google or YouTube

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now might be the movie that’s done most to shape the popular understanding of ’Nam as a messy, maddening national tragedy – it’s even referenced in Da 5 Bloods. The latest version is the 40th-anniversary Final Cut, which sits between the original cinematic release and the epic three-and-a-half-hour Redux. Thanks to a 4k restoration, it delivers Coppola’s nightmarish vision in full. Lush Technicolour, a woozy narrative and a remarkable performance by Marlon Brando make it a visceral, hallucinogenic experience like no other in cinema.
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Platoon (1986)

This is Oliver Stone’s first and most memorable take on Vietnam. Embedding with the grunts, Platoon is the director’s attempt to bottle his own memories of serving in the war. A young, middle-class volunteer (Charlie Sheen) narrates the story of a group of men losing their bearings in the face of a half-seen enemy and a half-understood cause. Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger are the dominant figures, giving career-best turns as they struggle to make sense of a conflict that defies reason, both as a political action and as a hellish on-the-ground situation. Stone followed up with Born On The Fourth Of July and Heaven & Earth, both of which have their merits, but Platoon is the one that you can’t un-see.
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Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Instead of looking at the aftermath of Vietnam, Stanley Kubrick used Full Metal Jacket to zoom in on the preparations for war, which it turns out can be just as traumatic. A group of Marine recruits, including Private Joker (Matthew Modine), are slowly dehumanized through the exceptional first half of the film by an abusive drill sergeant, before being unleashed in South East Asia on the eve of North Vietnam’s massive Tet offensive. In the second half of the film, a gasworks in Beckton stands in for a smouldering urban battlefield as Joker – now a war reporter – wrestles with a series of symbolic events.
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The Post (2017)

The wider message of Steven Spielberg’s contemporary thriller is about the value of a free press, but The Post is also a wonderful evocation of an era that is haunted by Vietnam. Indeed, the film’s first scene is a firefight from the war in 1966, before it jumps forward five years to tell the story of the Washington Post journalists who fought to publish the ‘Pentagon Papers’, leaked classified documents that show how successive administrations had misled the American public about the war. Meryl Streep – seen in a supporting role in The Deer Hunter – takes a lead here, as newspaper owner Katharine Graham, who must negotiate the urgent desire of her editor (Tom Hanks) to publish the papers and the damage they could do to her society friends.
Watch it on Netflix


Dispatches by Michael Herr

Michael Herr went to Vietnam in the late 60s as a war correspondent for Esquire. When it was released in 1977 – just a couple of years after Saigon fell and the war ended – this memoir about his time embedded with ordinary soldiers was an immediate classic. Sympathetic and, crucially, understanding of their plight, he was first to capture their trippy, inglorious experience in full. Compassionate and electric, Dispatches is a masterpiece of new-style journalism. Little wonder Coppola asked Herr to help with the script for Apocalypse Now and Kubrick got him to co-write Full Metal Jacket.

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The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Four years ago, this debut novel by a Vietnamese American professor won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The Sympathizer is narrated by a North Vietnamese spy in the South Vietnamese army who, after the fall of Saigon, remains embedded in a South Vietnamese community in the States. Later, as a consultant on a Hollywood film, he tries – but fails – to add another perspective to a war that has long been seen from a purely American perspective. In contrast, Viet Thanh Nguyen succeeds spectacularly in opening minds to the idea that there are other sides to the conflict. 
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A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo

Philip Caputo spent 16 months in Vietnam as a lieutenant in the Marines. He emerged from his tour, which included serving in the first ground combat unit to fight in Vietnam, physically intact but emotionally shattered. Caputo became an award-winning journalist who covered the war himself and, in its immediate aftermath, wrote this book, which challenges readers to ask what they would have done to survive on the jungle’s frontline. A Rumor of War shies away from nothing, not the killing of civilians, not the severing of enemies’ ears as souvenirs, and not the terrible impact of war on its participants.
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A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan

Another Pulitzer Prize winner, A Bright Shining Lie tells the story of the war through the story of Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann, who arrives in Vietnam in 1962 with a clear view of what needs to change and a willingness to do whatever it takes to make that change. When he dies in a helicopter crash a decade later, he has lost that perspective and he too believes the war can still be won. Combining history and biography, Sheehan nails the contradictions that doomed America’s involvement.
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Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden

Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo, followed up those outstanding successes with Hue 1968, which zeroes in on one turning-point battle in particular. The fight for Hue – Vietnam’s cultural capital – is a critical moment in the North Vietnamese surge known as the Tet offensive. With access to archives in both the US and Vietnam, Bowden tells the full, gripping story of a battle that lasted 24 days, cost 10,000 civilian and military lives, and changed the conversation in America from how to win the war to how to leave Vietnam.
Buy it here


Hearts & Minds (1974)

After a long period of filming and a delay to its release, Hearts & Minds eventually came out in 1974, just as America’s involvement in Vietnam was collapsing. It stuck the boot in, displaying for all to see the racism of US military leaders and the absurd hawkishness of others back home. There is no voiceover, just not-so-subtle juxtapositions of American words and American actions – and their terrible impact on both sides. More than three decades later, some of its images remain world famous, and it retains its power to shock and awe.
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Little Dieter Needs To Fly (1997)

Thirty-odd years after US Air Force pilot Dieter Dengler was shot down over Laos, visionary director Werner Herzog takes him back to the places where he was kept prisoner by the North Vietnamese Army. With the help of some locals, Herzog persuades his subject to re-enact some of the tortures he endured, resulting in remarkable, bizarre scenes. Dengler is candid throughout and his tale is a fascinating one: from young German boy entranced by the American warplanes destroying his village in World War 2, to US fighter pilot himself, to haunted 50-something in California. A decade later, Herzog turned Dengler’s story into a feature film, Rescue Dawn, which stars Christian Bale and is also worthy of attention.
Watch it on Amazon

The Fog of War (2003)

Subtitled ‘Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S McNamara’, this memorable documentary is built around an interview with the then-85-year-old former US secretary of state. McNamara touches on the Cuban Missile Crisis, before jumping into Vietnam. Ultimately, he’s too proud to apologise for his part in President Johnson’s escalation of the war but, with a little help from director Errol Morris, he can shed some light on some of his time’s most catastrophic failures of leadership, and offer up a series of lessons everyone can learn from.
Watch it on Amazon

The War (2017)

This epic 10-part documentary sets out to tell the story of Vietnam in all its twisting complexity. Masterful director Ken Burns goes all the way back to the 19th-century to establish the full context of America’s fateful intervention. “We thought we were an exception to history: the Americans,” says talking-head Neil Sheehan. “We thought we would never fight a wrong war.” The result of Burns’ exhaustive work is 18 hours of television that feel authoritative and definitive – a serious investment, but one that offers up important rewards.
Watch it on Netflix

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