A Bright Shining Lie (1998)


A Bright Shining Lie is a 1998 American made-for-television war drama film based on Neil Sheehan’s book of the same name and the true story of John Paul Vann’s experience in the Vietnam War.

It stars Bill Paxton, Amy Madigan, Vivian Wu, Donal Logue, Eric Bogosian and Kurtwood Smith and is written and directed by Terry George, and produced by Greg Ricketson.


True story of Army man John Paul Vann, whose military success provided him the fulfilment he never found in his personal life.


A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988) is a book by Neil Sheehan, a former New York Times reporter, about US Army Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann (killed in action) and the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. Sheehan was awarded the 1988 National Book Award for Nonfiction and the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for the book.

John Paul Vann became an adviser to the Saigon regime in the early 1960s. He was an ardent critic of how the war was fought by the Saigon regime, which he viewed as corrupt and incompetent, and increasingly, on the part of the U.S. military. He was critical of the U.S. military command, especially under William Westmoreland and its inability to adapt to the fact that it was facing a popular guerrilla movement while backing a corrupt regime. He argued that many of the tactics employed (for example the Strategic Hamlet Program of relocation) further alienated the population and were counterproductive to U.S. objectives. He was often unable to influence the military command but used the Saigon press corps including Sheehan, David Halberstam and Malcolm Browne to disseminate his views.

The volume begins with a prologue giving an account of Vann’s funeral on June 16, 1972, following his death in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. The author, Sheehan, a friend, was present. The subsequent account is divided into seven “books” detailing Vann’s career in Vietnam and America’s involvement in the conflict.

  • Book I tells of Vann’s assignment to Vietnam in 1962.
  • Book II “The Antecedents to a Confrontation” tells of the origin of the Vietnam War.
  • Book III gives a detailed account of the shambolic Battle of Ap Bac on January 2, 1963, in which the South Vietnamese army suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Viet Cong.
  • Book IV details Vann’s criticism of the way the war was being fought, his conflict with the US military command and his transfer back to America.
  • Book V tracks back to give Vann’s personal history before his involvement in the war, explaining how his career path to being a general officer was probably permanently truncated by being accused of statutory rape in a case involving an Army chaplain’s daughter.
  • Books VI and VII give an account of Vann’s return to Vietnam in 1965 and his doomed attempt to implement a war-winning formula for the US Army and how he eventually compromised with the military system he once criticised.

Sheehan describes Vann as having been in charge of more American troops in direct combat than any other civilian in US history (in which Vann, by then retired from the Army, technically was).


  • Bill Paxton as John Paul Vann.
  • Karina Logue as Barmaid.
  • Amy Madigan as Mary Jane Vann.
  • Donal Logue as Steven Burnett.
  • Harve Presnell as MACV General.
  • Robert John Burke as Frank Drummond.
  • Bill Whelan as Ron Dray.
  • Lim Kay Tong as Colonel Cao Huynh Van.
  • Seng Kawee as VC Leader.
  • Vivian Wu as Lee.
  • Van Thoa Trinh as VC Commander.
  • Richard Libertini as Marriage Counsellor.
  • James Bigwood as Office Manager.
  • Ed Lauter as General Weyand.
  • Kurtwood Smith as General Westmoreland.
  • Eric Bogosian as Doug Elders:
    • A composite character not in the book melding elements of real-life people in the book Daniel Ellsberg and Douglas Ramsey, who both worked with Vann; Ellsberg and reporter David Halberstam had asked that their names be removed from the production after reading an early draft of the screenplay.
  • James Rebhorn as Ambassador Bunker.
  • Les J.N. Mau as Colonel Dinh.
  • David Warshofsky as Terry Pike.
  • Thanh Nguyen as ARVN Translator.
  • Pichariva Narakbunchai as Annie.
  • Kris von Habsburg as a US soldier.


  • In 1998, the film was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Made for Television Movie.
  • In 1999, Bill Paxton was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for his performance in the film.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s): Terry George.
  • Producer(s): Lois Bonfiglio, Greg Ricketson, and James Bigwood.
  • Writer(s): Terry George.
  • Music: Gary Chang.
  • Cinematography: Jack Conroy.
  • Editor(s): Nicholas Beauman.
  • Production: HBO Pictures.
  • Distributor(s): HBO.
  • Release Date: 30 May 1998.
  • Running time: 118 minutes.
  • Rating: 15/R.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

Video Link

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