Right Questions, Wrong Answers
As a boy Lt. Elmo Zumwalt III (Keith Carradine - A Winner Never Quits) faced many health issues but conquered them all, making his father, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt (Karl Malden - Beyond the Poseidon Adventure), immensely proud of him, especially when he joined the Navy. It leads to both father and son being involved in the Vietnam War with Lt. Elmo Zumwalt III placed on a Swift boat which comes under his father's over all command. When the subject of using Agent Orange to help clear the Vietnam jungle comes up Zumwalt senior is assured that there would be no human side effects and gives the orders to use it. But 15 years after the end of the war Elmo Zumwalt III is one of many men who came in to contact with Agent Orange whilst fighting in the jungle who have since been diagnosed with cancer. It leads to his father having to face the fact that it was likely his order to use Agent Orange which ended up causing his son's cancer.
For those who come to "My Father, My Son" with no knowledge of the true story which it is based upon you might be excused for wondering where the movie is going during the build up. Whilst it establishes that as a child Elmo Zumwalt III had health issues what we get is some drama during the Vietnam War where having being made a commander he is tough on the men under his command and in some cases is loathed. Don't get me wrong as the Vietnam War side of the movie is effective, and at times tense, but you begin to wonder whether if "My Father, My Son" is just another movie about the Vietnam War. The only thing which suggests differently is the action is often broken up by a close up of Lt. Elmo Zumwalt III's face as he looks at photos which seem to be a lead in to these memories of war.
But then after plenty of drama surrounding the Vietnam War as well as Elmo's relationship with Kathy, who is an anti-Vietnam War protestor, the real story emerges, that of 15 years later and the discovery that Elmo has cancer and his father having to deal with the fact that his orders to use Agent Orange might have caused it. I won't go into the details as to what happens during these scenes as for me this is the heart of "My Father, My Son" as we see how this affects relationships from people feeling they are to blame to becoming closer and so on but it is powerful stuff, in fact riveting as we see other suspected knock on side effects of exposure to Agent Orange.
Now whilst veteran actor Karl Malden delivers a solid and frequently touching performance as Elmo snr, "My Father, My Son" belongs to Keith Carradine who is solid in every stage; be it as the tough commander in the Navy, the loyal son who respects his father right through to the man dealing with knowing he is going to die sooner rather than later. And I tell you what, those scenes which are close ups of Carradine's face, focusing in on one eye, are so stunning that through the glint in his eye, to the slight tearing it up it speaks volumes. Some of that credit also must go to director Jeff Bleckner who gets the emotion spot on during these scenes and cleverly uses the photos to not just move the story along but to subtly explain his progressing illness.
What this all boils down to is that "My Father, My Son" is an extremely powerful movie and one which benefits from a well chosen cast, especially Keith Carradine who for me delivers one of his best performances.