Film Review: The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan

Although the Vietnam War has for some time been away -- away from the headlines, away from the public dialogue, away from our private thoughts -- the Vietnam War is not gone. I don't think it will ever be gone.

The two wars that have rocked the American psyche are the Civil War and the Vietnam War. The 19th struggle said we were not one nation, our "exceptionalism" was an illusion, and the almighty's hand was not on our national shoulder. The Vietnam War demonstrated we were not God's earthly power, we were like other nations, and everything else was heuristic baloney.

While the Civil War attacked the existence of America, the Vietnam War finished off the American Century. America still exists -- although sometimes I wonder if that is true -- yet no one talks about the American Century. That big idea went puff in little Vietnam.

Of these two defining wars, Vietnam was the most perplexing -- not the most brutal, but the most mystifying. America won the Civil War and the nation was patched together and the illusion of unity took hold as we roared into the frenzy of industrialization followed by the new culture of consumerism. In Vietnam, however, we lost. Defeat defeats illusions. Losers lose their way. Shaken and unsure and insecure, we invaded defenseless Grenada and powerless Panama -- victories that made reasonable Americans cringe with embarrassment -- and hightailed it out third-rate powers Lebanon and Somalia, fresh disappointments that smelled like Vietnam redux. There was no forward march -- as our close call in Iraq and now our stalemate in Afghanistan are again demonstrating -- no roaring into a bright new future.

So today the Vietnam War lies just below our public surface, breathing a slow fire, gnawing on our national soul, polluting a nasty undercurrent of despair that refuses to disappear. Like American McKinley Nolan, who disappeared a long time ago in Vietnam and refuses to disappear in America. The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan taps into this slow burner and raises our submerged anxieties to a bewildering, disturbing surface. A riveting documentary, not a straight line, not always simple to follow, and don't expect a Hollywood ending, after all this is Vietnam.


Over four decades ago, Private McKinley Nolan suddenly vanished. What is known is he disappeared from his US Army unit, did propaganda work for the Viet Cong, married a Vietnamese woman, and lived in a village near Vietnam's border with Cambodia. Then McKinley Nolan's story turns murky. Actually, his story turns into rumors and speculations and hearsay and nasty greed and possibly neurotic confusion and -- well, all that that remains of his story are questions.

Was McKinley Nolan captured on the battlefield by the Viet Cong? Or was he a willful military deserter? Was he a radical Black activist? Was he a black marketer? Did he kill two fellow soldiers? Was he an undercover agent for the Central Intelligence Agency? Was he a hero? Was he a traitor? Did America abandon McKinley Nolan? Did McKinley Nolan abandon America? Did both abandon each other?

Strangely, the US Government appears uninterested in clearing up this murkiness. It's been 43 years since Private McKinley Nolan disappeared -- he is one of the last US foot soldiers from the Vietnam War still unaccounted for -- and still his US military records have not been released. Until this film, the US Government had not contacted the Nolan family since 1968. That's a long time. Why? Does the government have something to hide? Or is this just bureaucratic inertia? Or maybe -- oh, there are so many questions.

The answers to these questions could of course be anything, since everything America touched in Vietnam was fueled by superpower hubris and riddled with irrationality and incomprehension which formed a toxicity that decimated the truth. That, by the way, is how powerful countries lose wars to little countries. They kill not only the locals, but also the truth, which leaves their giant military machine confused and lost and without smarts.

In 2005, retired US Army Sergeant Dan Smith -- who had a leg amputated in the war -- was touring Vietnam and spotted what he believed to be an American standing on the street. He talked to him briefly. Villagers seemed to confirm that he was McKinley Nolan. Back in the States the retired Sergeant photo-identified McKinley Nolan. And in Texas he told Nolan's family his story of seeing who he believed was McKinley Nolan.

The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan chronicles McKinley Nolan's brother, Michael Nolan, return to Vietnam and his search for his missing brother. It's not an easy trip, nor one that gives answers easily. He learns that when the Communist government of Vietnam released the American POWs in 1973, McKinley, fearing he would be forced to return to the United States, with wife and young baby, slipped across the border into Cambodia. So his search moves to Cambodia.

There Michael Nolan is told his brother was picked up by the Khmer Rouge. He interviews more Cambodians who survived the horrific holocaust of the Killing Field. Some are painful, others are quite moving, others leave the brother suspicious. One former Khmer Rouge becomes Michael's central focus. Was he a friend of McKinley Nolan? Was he the killer of McKinley Nolan? Was he both? Human remains are exhumed. But even old bones in the ground of South East Asia guard the truth. No forensic evidence of McKinley Nolan, not yet.

Back in Texas, Michael mind says his brother died in Cambodia but his heart doesn't seem to cooperate completely. Wife Mary stands firm with her "until death do us part." A rock of gentleness and commitment, the wife refuses to believe her husband gone for 43 years is gone forever. Son Roger, whose father disappeared when he was only two, his eyes turn heavy, watery.

Like the Vietnam War, truth is elusive yet the mission continues. Like that turbulent time -- the film has archival footage from the civil rights era and the antiwar movement and the battlefield in Vietnam -- life is difficult and everything seems confusing. Yet hope continues. There is still hope for at least some.

The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan is a difficult journey through an old maze in search of new facts buried in the past. The story inches forward, and suddenly pulls back. What brother Michael Nolan believed today is gone tomorrow, but is still possible tomorrow.

Director Henry Corra has done a stupendous job in saving us from another quagmire, this time one sucking us under with conflicting details and endless dead ends. In the grand tradition of documentary storytelling, The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan has us moving to the edge of our seats as our minds retreat into a dark past. It's a gripping tale about a ghost that has lived for 43 years. It's Vietnam.

Wars start and wars end, yet wars never end for the casualties of war. Regardless of what happened -- why Private McKinley Nolan disappeared from his Army unit, what he did when living in that Vietnamese village, what happened to him in Cambodia -- a family in Texas needs answers. Forty-three years is too long for a ghost to live. Forty-three years is too long for a grieving family to live without answers. The US Government needs to give or get these answers.