Wednesday, July 25, 2018

CANON OF FILM: "DEAR AMERICA: LETTERS HOME FROM VIETNAM"

DEAR AMERICA: LETTERS HOME FROM VIETNAM (1987)

Director: Bill Couturie
Screenplay: Bill Couturie and Richard Dewhurst



Somewhere on the back of my Netflix queue is that Ken Burns docuseries "The Vietnam War". Yeah, I am purposefully putting it off; I know I shouldn't and it does interest me as both a Ken Burns fan and a fan of history, however, the Vietnam War is,- well,- well, let me put it this way, when my Mom was in high school, this would've been the early-to-mid '80s, they didn't Vietnam in the History classes, because for some weird reason, the teachers all thought they knew all about it, because it was-, while they were alive, I guess, even though it would've been about ten years ago, when they were like six or seven-year-old and what kids were paying attention to War as current events at that age. (Well, me, but other than that, probably nobody else.) My generation however, we-, well, we made sure to learn it, and through pop culture and art, we've learned about it several times over. I'm not saying we know everything and that we don't have more to learn about it, but we are worn out by it, and that says nothing about how tiresome and beaten down with modern global affairs, especially as Americans lately.

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:

Dear Bill, 

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. 

Mom.

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.

Note: Couturie also did an HBO documentary, “Last Letters Home,” which shows interviews of families of American Soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, as they read some of their relatives letters. You may watch that film and wonder why he doesn’t show footage of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and there’s a reason. The U.S. Gov’t won’t allow the press to show images of the war, unlike in Vietnam, where TV reports of the war with photos were shown daily in people’s homes. If you ever wondered why we got so upset at that illegal war and not others so much..., well, that's why; it was on TV every day while our last few wars,.... 
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