Letter-perfect Look At 'nam

Posted: September 16, 1988

One result of the release over the past few years of several films dealing with the Vietnam War is that the Vietnam film has become a genre. When we see one, we expect to see certain elements - the ambush; the raid on a village; the grunt being interviewed by a reporter; the scene in a Saigon go-go bar; the horseplay; the shot, taken from an airplane, of bombs falling on the countryside.

All of these are included in "Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam," but at first they don't look quite right. Something's off with the camera angles; the editing is a little sluggish. In the bar scene, the Asian singer isn't quite as pretty as we expect. In combat, the camera doesn't pick up any Viet Cong, with their distinctive hats. Then it hits us. This isn't Hollywood's Vietnam. This is the real thing.

"Dear America" consists of Defense Department, NBC and home-movie Super-8 footage of our troops in Vietnam, very little of it familiar and nearly all of it in color. The soundtrack is a combination of popular songs of the period and actual letters from American soldiers, read by Robert DeNiro, Michael J. Fox, Tom Berenger, Ellen Burstyn, Robin Williams, Martin Sheen, Sean Penn and many other actors. Much of the movie is documentary filmmaking at its best, a wedding of sound and image to create an impact that could not be achieved any other way.

One such moment is DeNiro's reading of a letter about the death of the writer's buddy. It is accompanied by scenes of dead and wounded soldiers, and The Band doing Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." The effect is incalculably sad.

But "Dear America" isn't all pathos. It's an invaluable historical document as well, showing us what the grunts looked like, what their bull sessions sounded like, what it felt like to be out on patrol or on the operating table or at a Bob Hope show or bunkered down at Khe San. We've seen all these things in "Platoon" and other films. "Dear America," with fact on its side, is more powerful than any of them.

As you might have expected, some of their letters featured are funny (the one Robin Williams reads is worthy of Adrian Cronauer), some filled with false bluster ("P.S. Tell Mom not to worry - it's nothing I can't handle," reads one letter), some pretentious, and some as eloquent as poetry ("I've never seen such bravery and guts before, and I'm stunned by it," writes a lieutenant. "You shoulda seen my men fight. They were going after wounded men no one else would go after . . . You shoulda seen my brave men. It'd give you goose pimples.")

Sometimes "Dear America" tries for too much. At certain points it seems to be attempting to tell the entire history of the war, a task that is beyond its scope. The film also contends that, as the war progressed, the soldiers' feelings made the clear shift from blind support of America's goals to complete skepticism about them. The interpretation may be correct, but a couple of dozen letters are not sufficient documentation.

But the film generally avoids didacticism in favor of testimony, pure and simple. It is a moving and compelling work, and it made me think, for the first time, that Michael J. Fox is actually a good actor. Fox read the hell out of this letter from a private:

"I tell you truthfully, I doubt if I'll come out of this alive. In my original squad, I'm the only one left unharmed. In my platoon there's only 13 of us. It seems every day another young guy 18 or 19 years old like myself is killed in action . . . See ya if it's God's will. I have to make it out of

Vietnam though, 'cause I'm lucky. I hope. Ha ha. Love, Ray."

If such a letter appeared in a Vietnam movie, you could be sure that Ray would die. As it happened, Ray did die. It may be the only cliche in "Dear America."

*

DEAR AMERICA: LETTERS HOME FROM VIETNAM: A documentary directed by Bill Couturie. Screenplay by Richard Dewhurst and Bill Couturie. Running time: 90 minutes. A Corsair release. At area theaters. Parental guide: Not rated. Might be too intense for kids.

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