“The People vs. Agent Orange” – No end in sight [MOVIE REVIEW]

Tran To Nga addresses the press outside the Tribunal de Grande Instance courthouse in Evry, France. Photo courtesy of Milena Donato.

Tran To Nga addresses the press outside the Tribunal de Grande Instance courthouse in Evry, France. Photo courtesy of Milena Donato.

“The People vs. Agent Orange” is not the first foray into this morass by co-directors Kate Taverna and Alan Adelson. They previously collaborated on “Agent Orange: La dernière bataille” (“Agent Orange, the last battle”), a television documentary for the French and German markets that premiered in the fall of 2020. “The People vs. Agent Orange” is a slightly longer version of the original, tracing the history of this now infamous product used to “great effect” during the Vietnam war. Surprisingly, long after the end of the war, it continued to be used on deforested acres of Oregon and Washington.

Agent Orange, an extremely powerful chemical weed killer devised by Dow chemical, was taken up by the U.S. military during the Vietnam war. It proved very effective at destroying the vast foliage that provided impenetrable hiding places for the insurgent Viet Cong fighting against the U.S. backed government of South Vietnam during the war. Indiscriminately spread by helicopter over extensive areas of brush and agricultural land, this industrial pesticide also got into the groundwater, rivers, plants, animals, and humans. The destruction of plant life was immediate; the destruction of human and animal life became evident soon after.

But this chemical also had lasting effects, some of which were documented in the 1980s when former soldiers of that war began having horrific side effects and higher rates of cancer than were to be expected. By that time it was known that one of the key ingredients in Dow’s product was dioxin, a deadly contaminant with a half-life of more than 100 years when buried or leached into bodies of water. The veteran’s class action lawsuit dragged on for years after the war and was eventually settled. The amount of money was negligible considering the numbers who sued and all research related to this suit was classified and is still unavailable.

“The People vs. Agent Orange” follows two paths. One is the journey of To Nga Tran, a former Vietnamese insurgent who has been attempting to bring suit against Dow and Monsanto for their use of the pesticide that they knew to be a dangerous carcinogen and probably also have contributed to genetic malformations in babies. Tran articulately narrates her case from beginning to present day where she still has one more trial pending in the French courts. Her numerous attempts to sue in the United States have all fallen short and her access to necessary documents has been denied either because they were “lost,” destroyed, or deemed classified.

Clandestine cell phone footage from a helicopter service technician of a commercial herbicide spraying operation on a rainy day in Oregon. Photo courtesy of Darryl Ivy.

The other path, even more shocking in some ways, is the realization that Agent Orange, renamed and rebranded (Roundup is one brand), substituting one form of dioxin producing chemical for another, continues to be in full use in the Northwest forests of Oregon and Washington. The “new” herbicide was blanketed over huge areas where trees were clear cut and not replanted in order to eliminate the brush that had grown up in the absence of reforestation. Again, helicopters were used to spray the areas, areas where people lived, animals roamed, and rivers flowed.

Interviews with local activists reveal a pattern of intimidation, threats, and stonewalling. Incidents of animal mutation and early deaths prodded local activists like Carol Van Strum to work tirelessly to bring the Pesticide industry to recognize the dangers. To date, they are still claiming that their products are perfectly safe. They have been able to do that with lobbyists who have cowed and/or “convinced” local government officials.

Tying deformities to the use of a chemical is particularly difficult when most industry research is self-serving by self-dealing scientists. That so much of what was known about Agent Orange is considered classified also makes it difficult. Instead, one must rely on anecdotal evidence, much of which is compelling and almost impossible to ignore.

Renee Stringham, an obstetrician in a tiny Oregon lumber town, was astonished the first time she delivered an anencephalic baby, born without a major portion of the brain. As she remarked, most doctors never see a case of anencephaly as it occurs once in every 4600 births. When Dr. Stringham delivered a second anencephalic infant, she became convinced that this was as a result of the presence of chemical toxins in their environment. She began actively alerting the news media and her neighbors to the dangers until… one day two well-dressed men appeared at her door. One of the questions they asked her was, “Do you know where your children are at all times?” The survey they were allegedly taking took on an ominous and very threatening tone with that question and she retreated from her activism. There are some things you can’t fight.

This chemical was still being used in Oregon as late as 2017. In a 1971 report, the year the U.S. government stopped using Agent Orange in Vietnam, there was a recognition that the chemical affected humans. That report was classified for 35 years.

Adler and Taverna have given us much to think about. They have expanded this film by 30 minutes over their original French television documentary. But, as interesting as this documentary is, from a filmic standpoint, there is much room for improvement. The back and forth cutting between the straightforward telling of  Tran’s life and struggle, one that she has used to continue her early populist advocacy while trying to find justice and recognition in the international court system, and the tale of rural Oregon and its  environmental activists is rather choppy. The stories are compelling but without nuance. Life is not black and white. They tell the tale of Tran more fully and much better than the one in Oregon.

This is a fast-paced 90 minute film. It is, however, just a starting point in the discussion of the use of toxic chemicals, government complicity, and the inability or unwillingness of courts to put together the puzzle pieces of probable cause. Why, one might ask, is a class action suit the only way to get information? Why, on the one hand, does the court allow the government to bury incriminating documents (as in the case filed by Vietnam war veterans) and then deny cases because those very documents are missing?

I wish the film had been better, but it’s pretty good as a start.

Opening March 5 at the Laemmle virtual theatres.


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