Still though, we do need to explore it every so often. There's plenty of great films out there, some I've talked about before, some I'll talk about at some other point, but I've been thinking a bit about Bill Couturie's documentary "Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam" lately, a film I've seen on my own once or twice, but I've seen multiple times over in classes, usually history ones. One of the most high-profile docs of its days, after a brief theatrical release, the film found it's way to HBO where it won two Emmys after airing on television. Some have listed the movie as one of the first true anti-war movies, Roger Ebert most notably mentioned in his review the quote that made about it being impossible to make an anti-war movie because no matter the message, the film would be exhilarating, and that Truffaut never lived to see "Dear America...". (He also wrote that in his review of "Platoon" a film I might talk about some day that some would argue "Dear America..." is the alternative side of.)
"Dear America...", does nothing but simply and directly chronicle the Vietnam War. Director Bill Couturie has actors, mostly famous names, and they read from actual letters written by soldiers in Vietnam, all of whom died in battle, and then plays that over extensive, many never-before-seen clips and footage of the War which he got from coming NBC archives and the Library of Congress. The opening sequences show soldiers surfing off of the South China Sea as they begin to pile in, listening to The Beach Boys and being completely unaware, as we all were of what was to come. (The scene will obviously make people remember Robert Duvall's Kilgore character from "Apocalypse Now") Every word in the film is directly taken from a letter a soldier wrote, and only occasionally will any extra commentary be added, and even then it’s only something like a death count rising. A few soldiers are profiled, even finding actual footage of some soldiers whose letters they’re reading off. There isn’t much here for story or plot or even a greater message or a call to peace. It doesn’t teach us much other than what we’d find in a history book other than a lot of young people died during a War in Vietnam, and many young people die, in essentially all wars.
After being blasted with real war footage paired with emotionally gripping voice-overs paired with a soundtrack of the era's music of most of the most inevitable if not obvious rock songs of the era about 70+ minutes, the film ends with Ellen Burstyn reading a letter written by a mother of a soldier William R. Stocks. It's a famous letter that was left under his name at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It reads as follows:
Today is Feb. 13, 1984. I came to this black wall again to see and touch your name, William R. Stocks, and as I do i wonder if anyone ever stops to realize that next to your name, on this black wall, is your mother's heart. A heart broken 15 years ago today, when you lost your life in Vietnam.
They tell me the letters I write to you and leave here at this memorial are waking others up to the fact that there is still much pain left, after all these years from the Vietnam War.
This I know, I would rather have had you for 21 years, and all the pain that goes with losing you than never to have had you at all these years.
Afterwards played over shots of the American Flag, the single anachronistic song on the soundtrack that was recorded after the War ended, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”, a song which is often misrepresented as a song about the joys of being born in America, but here, it’s true nature and context are revealed. No joyous ending, no glory, no breaks, just the hells of war. Few movies are as truthfully sad as this one.