TV focuses on Vietnam MIAs. Syndicated documentary is poignant, unnerving

We Can Keep You Forever Local, independent stations. Tonight (check local listings for times and repeats). Written, narrated, and directed by Christopher Olgiati. Co-producer: Edward Tivnan. Co-executive producer: Ted Landreth. Executive producer: George Carey, for Lionheart Television, BBC. Its producers believe this is a story whose time has come.

``We Can Keep You Forever'' is a compelling documentary that uses eyewitness accounts to try to prove that hundreds of American MIAs and POWs were left in Laos and Vietnam after President Nixon and other United States government officials in 1973 held emphatically that all had returned.

The syndicated film will be seen tonight in at least 20 cities and later in such places as San Francisco; Dallas; Tucson, Ariz.; and Lexington, Ky.

Though some of the evidence presented in the 90-minute film was pieced together with leads from recently declassified government documents, the core of the message is related through on-camera testimony - from returned POWs, the relatives of MIAs, wartime observers in Laos and North Vietnam, Southeast Asian refugees, refugee workers, and former officials of the National Security Agency, the Defense Department, and more.

The allegations that hundreds were left behind after the Nixon Administration's ``Project Homecoming,'' which returned 581 of the 3,500 officially classified as missing in action, are corroborated by so many voices, both official and civilian, as to seem irrefutable. Top officals interviewed include former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Gen. Eugene Tighe, director of intelligence for the Pacific command of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Roger Shields, former director of the MIA/POW task force at the US Department of Defense.

Wives of MIAs are heard testifying that government officials privately asked them to keep quiet so as not to jeopardize ongoing secret diplomacy for the release of MIAs after Project Homecoming. Juxtaposition of the wives' testimony against film footage of President Nixon telling reporters at a press conference, ``There are no American combat forces currently in Laos'' is both poignant and unnerving.

Much time is spent following the trail of MIAs in Laos, where the government's ``secret war'' was never publicly acknowledged and, thus, where formal efforts on the behalf of MIAs were impossible. Reasons given for why the Laotian government might still be holding American MIAs include their possible use as a bargaining tool in future negotiations, and the fear of possible US retaliation by both Laos and Vietnam if their presence were made known.

Behind the TV special are George Carey and Christopher Olgiati, two top names in British television news and documentary filmmaking, and Americans Ted Landreth and Edward Tivnan. Mr. Landreth, who once headed international operations for CBS News, has received Oscar nominations for his feature documentaries, and Mr. Tivnan, a former staff writer for Time magazine, was one of the original writers for ABC's weekly newsmagazine ``20/20.''

Reached by telephone, Landreth told the Monitor, ``No medium since the time of Vietnam has really dedicated itself to this question [of what happened to the MIAs] seriously, comprehensively, responsibly.'' He explained that the project was conceived about nine months ago, over lunch in New York, when he and his friend, Tivnan, were talking about the subject.

Ostensibly because the information they have discovered is of a sensitive and volatile nature, the project has been kept under a veil of secrecy. Station directors - many of whom committed to airing the program without even seeing it, according to Landreth - and the press had their first opportunity to see the film less than a week before air time.

Though the evidence presented in the documenary is convincing, a number of aspects of the presentation are disconcerting. For example, there is no on-camera narrator to lead viewers through the dizzying series of interviews, fast-paced news clips, and other film footage or to tell us how the interviews came about or when they were held. The narration that is used comes from off-camera. Some key dates aren't given - those for Leonard Woodcock's visit to Vietnam after the war, for instance, or a recent attempt to penetrate the jungle by a MIA relative. And some film footage is unidentified. Though all interviewees are identified, some documents are not.

Finally, one wonders why the film couldn't have included information on where to write for more information or what groups are still working on the MIA issue. As it is, viewers are left to ponder the words of Jerry Mooney, a key source formerly from the National Security Agency: Efforts for release of the MIAs ``have been all thunder and no lighting. We talk and talk and talk, and no one does anything.''

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