Dir. Zachary Stauffer, USA, 2018, 80 min.

Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn? focuses on the story of Lt. Wes Van Dorn — a Greensboro native, incidentally — who lost his life during a training exercise off the coast of Virginia in 2014 while piloting the US Navy’s 53E helicopter. The documentary persuasively summons a picture of Van Dorn, his crew and the Navy mechanic who serviced the helicopter as dedicated and conscientious service members betrayed by the military establishment. Early on, viewers learn that Van Dorn and his crew did nothing wrong, and in fact Van Dorn had tried to warn a Navy investigator that the program was plagued by training and maintenance problems that made accidents inevitable. Similarly, the mechanic, Chris Humme, wrote a letter to his commander after Van Dorn’s death to call attention to safety flaws in the helicopter maintenance program, and wound up getting drummed out of the Navy.

The film outlines a series of accidents since the 53E entered service in the mid-1980s, including a crash that took 31 lives in al-Anbar province in 2005, making it the deadliest day in terms of US casualties in the entire Iraq war. 

The technical reasons for the crash that took Van Dorn’s life are fairly straight-forward: A zip-tie holding together a bundle of wires chafed against fuel line, sending a spray of fuel into the bundle of frayed wires that eventually ignited the cockpit.

Unlike many documentaries that take a polemic approach, Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn? is rigorously investigative. One of the film’s executive producers is Lowell Bergman, a veteran investigative reporter with the New York Times and founder of the Investigative Reporting Program at UC-Berkeley. Reporting for the film comes from director Stauffer, along with Jason Paladino — a 2015 graduate of UC-Berkeley’s J-school and childhood friend of one of Van Dorn’s crew members — and Mike Hixenbaugh, a military reporter for the Virginian-Pilot. Paladino and Hixenbaugh’s work also laid the groundwork for a 2015 investigative story aired by NBC Nightly News.

As the film reveals, the Navy had acknowledged the danger posed by the wiring used for the helicopters since as early as 2009, yet failed to take action. The mystery of this whodunnit is really why the Navy continues to subject service members to unnecessary risks while failing to correct the problems. It turns out to be a bipartisan scandal, with both Republican and Democratic administrations enacting bloated budgets with billions of dollars for new advanced military hardware while starving legacy programs like the 53E helicopter.

Chuck Spinney, a former Pentagon analyst who has been calling for military budget reform since the 1980s, gives perhaps the best explanation for the misplaced priorities that result in service members’ deaths. 

“It’s making a lot of people rich,” he says. “A lot of people are benefiting from this lunacy. Generals are going through the revolving doors. Lieutenant colonels and colonels are going through the revolving doors. Contractors are making big profits, and congressmen are basically getting lots of pork in their districts, which enables them to increase their longevity and power and wealth. Everybody wins — except, of course, the soldier at the pointy end of the spear, and the taxpayer.”

Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn? screens on April 10 at 5:30 p.m. at Red Cinemas in Greensboro and April 11 at 7:30 p.m. at Hanesbrands Theatre in Winston-Salem. Director Zachary Stauffer attends both screenings. 

— JG

You may also enjoy these Riverrun 2019 reviews:

Always in Season: This difficult documentary poses an alternative to the official cause of death of Lennon Lacy, a 17-year-old black boy who was found hanging from a swing set in Bladenboro, NC, in 2014.

Bei Bei: This documentary delves into the abortion debate by focusing on Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant woman living in Indiana, who is facing two felony counts after her baby died when she committed suicide.

Find the full list of reviews here.

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