Midway through February, poised between an unusually controversial Superbowl and an unusually controversial Academy Awards ceremony, I sit listening to the presidential primary debates in South Carolina. Twitter has been a jangled mess: Donald and Beyoncé, Peyton and Hillary, JLaw and Cam. It’s as though you could take a sentence uttered by any one of them at some point in their life, jumble it in a Vitamixer, place a spoonful into the mouth of the next, and it would make as much sense: “Anyone who thinks my story is anywhere near over is sadly mistaken.” “I get nervous when I don’t get nervous.” “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” “I have a million ideas. The country can’t afford them all.” “Why would I ever get cocky? I’m not saving anybody’s life.” “You have to live like a winner. You have to think like a winner. You have to eat like a winner.”
Somewhere behind the theatricalities of halftime in America lies the broad playing field of real life, and its landscape of worsening resource inequalities, unattended infrastructure, and simmering racial resentments. Is there nothing that can connect our national cinematic appetites with the urgent need for serious political address?
Enter a small jewel of a film entitled Last Day of Freedom. Available on Netflix, it has been nominated for an Oscar in the poorly publicized category of Best Documentary Short Subject. Lest it slip under your radar, therefore, let me press its merits. (Let me also reveal that although I served as a consultant for the multiplatform series of which this film is part, I had nothing to do with its making. That larger project, entitled Living Condition, examines aspects of the criminal-justice system through the eyes of families with a relative on death row.)
Last Day of Freedom, an exquisitely rendered 32-minute animation, presents the life of Manny Babbitt, a homeless, mentally challenged, traumatized Vietnam vet who, in a PTSD panic induced by oncoming headlights, ran off the street and into the home of Leah Schendel, an elderly woman, whom he struck repeatedly. She died of a heart attack at the scene. The film is narrated by Manny’s brother Bill, who turned him in to police—“I had to be responsible”—hoping against hope that he might be hospitalized and get treatment. Instead, he was defended by a drunken lawyer who called no witnesses and excluded “niggers” from the jury. Manny was executed in 1999, one day after his 50th birthday.
The story is a sad but familiar one from a statistical perspective: Manny was swallowed in a vortex of legal, political, and social failures. He was injured in a car accident when he was 12 and suffered traumatic brain injury that severely hobbled his intellectual abilities. He joined the Marines despite failing the eligibility test—and became one of the hundreds of thousands of men who were drafted during the 1960s despite not meeting basic mental or physical requirements. Nicknamed McNamara’s “Moron Corps,” these people were conscripted as part of President Johnson’s backdoor attempt to field sufficient numbers of soldiers on the ground in Vietnam. Manny served several tours of duty in Khe Sanh, enduring some of the bloodiest battles of the war. By the time he returned to the States, with shrapnel embedded in his skull, he was “chasing shadows”—paranoid, homeless, and unable to hold a job. His brother Bill took him in, but in those days the symptoms of PTSD were not widely discussed or recognized. Manny went untreated.