“It was an experience you could never explain in a million words.”
The sentiment is from a soldier writing a letter from Vietnam, and the indescribable experience of the war.
Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam presents the experience as refracted through the words of the soldiers over there, who poured their hearts and minds into their correspondence home. The film contains no new film footage. The images are archival, and much of the newsreel material comes out of a vast and little-seen NBC library.
The letters, actual ones from a cross-section of service people, are read (entirely offscreen) by a remarkable batch of actors that includes Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Kathleen Turner, Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, Robin Williams, and Eric Roberts. The readings share time on the soundtrack with the music of the era.
Thanks to the heavy examination that Vietnam has undergone in the movies and on television in recent years, some of these songs are getting hackneyed and should be retired from service. “Gimme Shelter” and “For What It’s Worth” are in danger of becoming Vietnam clichés. However, the recent prominence of Dan Quayle and his non-Vietnam experience certainly makes “Fortunate Son” seem more pertinent than ever.
There are a few simple-minded moments, such as Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” accompanying footage of the rainy jungle, which rather misses the figurative implications in the song. But for the most part, the songs create a delicate web with the words and the pictures. The closing song is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” which Springsteen donated to the film not long after he spurned Chrysler’s $10 million offer to use the tune in car commercials.
The letters are, it almost goes without saying, utterly heartbreaking. The film advances chronologically, so that in the beginning there is a certain youthful joviality to the letters: “P.S. Send Kool-Aid. The water here tastes like shit!” Things darken quickly, and a terrible sense of sadness hangs over the movie.
Some sequences are simultaneously enthralling and gut-wrenching. A soldier describes a Christmas night when the troops sang “Silent Night” as rockets and mortars were fired off in strange celebration: “I believe few people have seen fireworks like this.”
One of the best marriages of words and music comes with Tim Buckley’s wistful “Once I Was”; the song’s haunting refrain, “Will you ever remember me?”, accompanies not more combat footage but a series of shots of the drawn, lost faces of soldiers at Khe Sanh.
In this simple way, Dear America director Bill Couturie manages to paint a vivid picture of the war. It’s not a deep film, but it is a potent and immediate one.
In a literal way, it allows the men and woman who were there to speak for themselves, and the eloquence they summon under impossible conditions is sometimes startling, such as the well-spoken grunt who reports a recent battle and concludes, “I desired greatly to throw down everything and sob.”
This is a documentary that appeared earlier this year on the HBO cable channel. In an unusual move, it’s also now getting a release in selected American cities; the proceeds will be donated to some Vietnam veterans associations.
First published in The Herald, September 1988
So you see these songs were tired even before Forrest Gump came along. The voice cast for this is staggering, and includes Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger from Platoon, and Martin Sheen from Apocalypse Now. Good Dan Quayle zinger here, if I do say so myself. Director Couturie has done lots of documentaries and directed one fiction feature, Ed, the one with Matt LeBlanc and a baseball-playing chimp. I’d forgotten about the Kool-Aid line, which brings back a specific childhood memory of the war, that of soldiers writing exactly this kind of letter asking for Kool-Aid – but the kind with sugar already in the packet. I recall getting a shiver when I saw the film and heard the same request.