“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
– The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
I had never heard of James ‘Bo’ Gritz until I watched documentarian Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s film, Erase and Forget (2017). I was more familiar with the cinematic creations that were directly inspired by Bo’s career as a soldier during the Vietnam War—characters like Colonel Kurtz from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Sylvester Stallone’s portrayal of the All-American hero Rambo, and George Peppard’s turn as John “Hannibal” Smith in the 80’s TV class The A-Team, all reverential characters that were created mainly as a way to deal with the trauma of the Vietnam War and the cultural upheavals of the 1960s.
Zimmerman’s documentary begins like something out of Greek tragic drama, as Bo stands alone in the desert in front of a cave, monologuing. Like Lear, he soliloquizes on his life, and with a knife in hand, does battle with the ghosts of his past.
In interviews, photos, and video footage, Zimmerman imbues the life of Bo Gritz with an air of irony. Erase and Forget begins as a celebratory story about a patriot—a bit eccentric—but a hero in every way. By the midpoint though, the story shifts, and the All-American hero is deconstructed, ripped apart by his critics, and propped up by those in power to be a symbol of an ideal.
Bo’s revelations about the secret history of America might now be labeled as within the realm of crackpot conspiracy theories in the vein of Alex Jones, but in the age of Trump, any story about the American government spying or targeting people for execution or unlawful arrests has been proven accurate more times than any citizen cares to admit. However, his perhaps justifiable fears are undercut by his well-documented antisemitic and homophobic views, not to mention his railing against the “New World Order.”
Gritz’s actions as a soldier and his commitment to the military could have easily been used as fodder to discredit or even condemn the man as a monster, but Zimmerman perfectly walks the tightrope of objectivity and sympathy. She never lets Bo off the hook. Instead, the film works hard to track and document this man’s very unique life in a personal no-frills style.
The camera will often move in for a close-up on Gritz’s face during emotional moments in an attempt to garner him sympathy, but audio or a video clip that undercuts the poignancy of the scene will usually follow. For example, after Bo learns that one of his friends has committed suicide only an hour after seeing him, he is visibly distraught. Zimmerman makes sure to shoot Gritz in medium or close-up shots. The only sound present is the diegetic sound of his truck as he drives in the open desert and his voice as he talks to someone on the phone. Yet, instead of tears or telegraphed grief, Gritz, in a banal manner, remarks that he should stop “giving people [presumably friends and family] his guns anymore because they don’t know how to use them”.
Gritz’s nonchalance in the face of violence and death is a product of his years in the Special Forces and the film introduces plenty of stories from his forty-year career, each of which could easily be turned into a blockbuster action flick. But here, each is quickly dropped as the film moves to another story. Erase and Forget never lingers too long and thus produces a sense of incompleteness.
Some of these stories include Gritz’s time training the mujahedeen, his covert operations in Vietnam, the community that he established in Idaho in response to his fears about the government, and his mission to Southeast Asia in search of American POWs, during which he uncovered Burmese drug lords getting in bed with American politicians.
A focus on just one of these threads would make for an engaging documentary, but Erase and Forget doesn’t give us the satisfaction of indulging our grim curiosity. There’s simply too much story to tell and not much screen time to tell it. We leave feeling somewhat cheated as the juicy stories are left—hopefully—for another film.