About a month ago, I saw a deeply moving documentary, Be Good, Smile Pretty, about the death of U.S. Navy officer, Dan Droz, killed in April, 1969 during the Vietnam War. Tracy Tragos, Droz’ daughter and three months old at his death, has made a complex, harrowing and unblinking film about her search for the father she barely knew (the only time she met him was during a Hawaiian R&R visit two weeks before his death) and her struggle to comprehend her mother’s apparent denial or indifferent response to his death.
Tracy’s mother, despite being highly-educated, politically progressive and right-thinking still has the deepest difficulty confronting the memories of his death that her daughter dredges up during the course of filming the documentary. She resents her daughter for unearthing once again the anger and pain she felt as a widow thirty-two years earlier.
It is also important to note that in A Soldier’s Story, John Kerry, one of Droz’ close friends during the War, reveals that he decided he’d finally had enough of combat when he learned of Droz’ death on the River. Within a short time Kerry requested a transfer out of combat with Droz’ death being the catalyst that transformed him into an antiwar activist.
Tracy’s search began in March, 2001 as she typed her father’s name into a Yahoo! search field. Her search uncovered Peter Upton’s The Death of the 43, one of the few written recollections of the ambush which led to Droz’s death along with five of his fellow crewmen. Orphans of War, the producers of the film also maintain additional information about Be Good, Smile Pretty at their site. The Orphans of War Foundation‘s mission is:
to increase awareness of the impact the death of American GIs during the Vietnam War had on their 20,000 surviving sons and daughters. It also wishes to support innovative programs allowing those harmed by the Vietnam War to express their loss and grief.
In the course of the film, Tracy must confront many sources for her anger at his death: her father himself for dying before she could ever know him; her mother who resents the turmoil her search has introduced into their relationship; and finally, the War itself which took away a beautiful, vigorous, intelligent and fun-loving young man in the prime of life. As Tracy meets the men who shared her father’s life while serving with him in Vietnam and hears the stories of her father’s life in the service, her profound longing reveals itself as a deep wound and a palpable, insatiable yearning.
The meeting between Tracy, her mother and Peter Upton, who wrote the definitive memoir of the ambush is especially laden with pathos. You watch as Upton breaks down with unbearable grief which expresses itself through choking emotion, but few words or tears. And as Upton shudders with grief, both women break down with unbearable grief at the horrible tragedy of Droz’s death and the barren gap it has left in their lives. Few books or films capture the absolute human wastefulness of war as well as Be Good, Smile Pretty.
PBS’ promotional material describes the film thus:Thirty-two years later, one daughter’s struggle to know and grieve for her father, who died in Vietnam when she was 3 months old, becomes a journey of discovery, healing and remembrance.This ad copy is an example of putting a simple and positive gloss on a work of art that is much more ambivalent, angry and ultimately inconclusive about the moral and family issues it confronts. That is what makes it so powerful and such a great work of art.
In the current political climate, when we face an equally destructive and disruptive war in Iraq, it is timely to consider the lives of our soldiers there that are being wasted and the years of anguish and agony faced by their orphaned children like Tracy Droz Tragos.