Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam

November 6, 2020

“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.

Distant Thunder

October 20, 2020

A helpful co-worker tells a Vietnam vet, “Far as I’m concerned, you guys have a right to be nuts.” This is the level of dubious sympathy that the world affords the veterans in Distant Thunder, a heartfelt film about the problems of Vietnam vets who have retreated from society.

They are called “bush vets,” these men who have taken their scars and withdrawn into the forests of the Olympic Peninsula. The film sketches a small community of them, self-sufficient and isolated. As the movie opens, one man ends his despair by walking into a moving train. This shocks Mark Lambert (John Lithgow) into walking out of the forest, and back into civilization.

The film then traces his struggle to fit himself back in, especially his attempt to re-establish contact with his son (Ralph Macchio), whom he has not seen in many years. With the help of a kind stranger (Kerrie Keane), Lambert gets a job with the logging company and appears to be on his way back.

But the trauma of actually confronting his son drives him into the woods again, and the last act of the movie is set there. Thanks to a tortured vet on the loose, this means the last act can be dominated by a violently dramatic situation; Lambert must protect his son from harm. It’s dramatic, but it’s contrived.

That’s too bad, and it’s also too bad the film has the uninspired direction of Rick Rosenthal (Bad Boys), who brings a pedestrian approach to the material. No question, this is a subject fraught with possibilities, and Lithgow is actor enough to create a compelling character; his vet is a husky-voiced relic with shadows in his eyes.

Rosenthal distracts our attention with the other bush vets, who are more disturbed than Lambert. Denis Arndt, an accomplished Northwest stage actor who is himself a Vietnam veteran, plays the most florid of the men, and Arndt’s crazy energy is often riveting. He barks out dislocated laughter, and he serves up meals of Twinkies and Skittles.

Arndt, skipping madly through a campfire, even steals the film’s big revelation scene, in which Lambert tells a war story, the tale that haunts him the most. Even this is something of a familiar horror story; the movie never quite comes up with anything new. (By the way, it was shot in British Columbia, not Washington. The lure of the Canadian dollar remains irresistible.)

Clearly, Distant Thunder means well, and there is an anchor here in Lithgow’s performance. But the movie has the unintentional effect of emphasizing the craziness of the bush vets, regardless of the humanity of Lithgow’s character. Despite its obvious intention of deepening understanding, it might have the effect of making these men seem just that much more bizarre, and pushing them further into their green forest ghetto.

First published in The Herald, November 1988

The cast also includes Janet Margolin, Jamey Sheridan, and Tom Bower; music by Maurice Jarre. Arndt was very well-known in Seattle live-theater circles, and I saw him onstage at least a half-dozen times over the years (including, if I’m remembering right, as Iago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland). This movie seems to have jump-started his screen career, where he has many credits, mostly in TV. Another live-theater bell rung here: the subject matter is reminiscent of Lanford Wilson’s play Redwood Curtain, which I happened to see in a pre-Broadway run in Seattle, with an unforgettable performance by David Morse as a troubled vet living in the forest.


July 23, 2020

birdyBirdy is one of those nagging movies that can’t quite let you go. It nags you while you watch it, because it’s got a rather inflated sense of self-importance. But it also nags you after it’s over – this time because for all its faults, it’s got little things that stay with you.

Based on William Wharton’s 1979 novel, the film tells a highly eccentric tale of a friendship between two South Philly boys during the Vietnam years. Al (Nicolas Cage) is a normal goofball, but Birdy (Matthew Modine) is a special case. His escape from the hard reality is in the world of birds: He thinks about them, owns them, imitates them. As his sanity gets shakier – and especially as he’s rocked by Vietnam combat expeience – he gets closer and closer to transforming himself into a bird (or at least as close as humanly possible).

When the film opens, Al is visiting Birdy in an Army mental hospital, and we discover the story of their friendship through a series of flashbacks. The film employs a shrewd mix of comedy and drama in etching Birdy’s growing disassociation from reality; his 100-foot fall from a gas tower to a sand pit is lightened by the fact that he and Al are dressed in absurd pigeon suits at the time.

In fact, the difference between Al and Birdy comes out when Birdy tries to explain the necessity for the pigeon suits, which they will wear when catching pigeons to train for carrying messages. “When you put on the suit,” Birdy explains, “the pigeons’ll think you’re one of them.” Al adopts his best are-you-outta-your-mind look and says, “I don’t want the pigeons to think I’m one of ’em.” (Neither seems bothered by the fact that no bird in his right mind would mistake them for a member of the same species.) One’s the romantic dreamer and the other the sardonic realist.

That the film is often obvious and aggravating in its presentation of its themes and ideas seems primarily the fault of director Alan Parker. Parker, the British director of Midnight Express and Shoot the Moon, has demonstrated before his tendency for high-pitched stylization – lots of sunlight streaming through smoke-clouded rooms – and heavy-handedness. There’s not too much about Birdy that’s subtle, particularly in the characterizations of the supporting players.

But the two lead actors – that’s a different story. I don’t know if it’s Parker’s work, the intrinsic fable-like quality of the story itself, or just the sheer talent of the actors, but Cage and Modine are a fascinating couple.

Modine registered his likability in Vision Quest and Mrs. Soffel earlier this year, and his wide-eyed, dreamy performance in Birdy really makes him an actor to watch. He gives his character’s intention to fly an eerie determination.

Cage doesn’t have Modine’s range yet, but he’s got his own funky charm. And, as proven by Valley Girl, Racing With the Moon, and The Cotton Club (the latter for his uncle, Francis Coppola), the camera seems naturally drawn to his energy.

The film is often grating. But the chemistry between these two actors makes much of this offbeat enterprise weirdly memorable.

First published in The Herald, May 12, 1985

Maybe hindsight makes this clearer, but surely the two actors should have switched roles? Also, thinking about the fact that Modine went to work for Kubrick shortly after this film, consider the possibility that Nicolas Cage might have been cast in Full Metal Jacket instead. That would have been an interesting movie. (But then maybe we don’t get Cage in Raising Arizona or Moonstruck, both released in ’87, so that’s no good.) This is not exactly a great review, but perhaps a useful snapshot of where these actors were then. Bruno Kirby and John Harkins were also in it, and there’s an early role for Karen Young. Peter Gabriel did the music.


Cease Fire

June 22, 2020

ceasefireCease Fire is a completely ear­nest and honorable attempt to illuminate one man’s readjustment to life after the Vietnam War. Problem is the story is so familiar by this time, and the film itself is so dully realized, it’s a little hard to be as involved as we should be.

The Vietnam vet is played by Don Johnson, who made the movie just before he launched himself into superstardom with Miami Vice (the film shares the TV show’s location). He’s very good here as the tormented soul who can’t make peace with society, even though the war is almost 15 years behind him.

He has a wife (Lisa Blount) and two kids, but he’s just lost his job, and he has nightmares about the war that keep his nerves jangled. As the film begins, he meets another vet (Robert F. Lyons) who’s in pretty much the same boat as Johnson – but who’s a little more desperate about it.

They try to talk the war away, but their recollections only seem to intensify the bad memories. As Johnson’s behavior gets more erratic (he becomes physically threatening toward his family and freaks out when a potential employer gives some stupid opinions about vets), his wife suggests that group therapy might be in order – but Johnson is so tightly wound, it doesn’t seem to do him any good.

This story, sad to say, has an over­familiar ring to it. The problem of the readjusting veteran is an import­ant subject, yet the idea has been worked so often in movies and TV that it needs a fresh approach, and Cease Fire doesn’t give it that.

Many plot points are telegraphed from miles away – especially that the instability of Lyons’ character is going to result in self-destruction. And Blount, who played David Keith’s girlfriend in An Officer and a Gentleman, has a thankless task with the unflattering role of the wife. Cease Fire is the pet project of George Fernandez, himself a Vietnam vet and the author of the Vietnam Trilogy, a stage play from which Cease Fire has been adapted. Fernandez also served as executive producer and got a former classmate from the University of Miami film school, David Nutter, to direct.

They’ve certainly got nothing to be ashamed of, but – and this is a good reminder for anyone who thinks that socially-conscious subject matter excuses dull filmmaking – it only hurts their own cause when the movie itself falls into banal conclusions and formulaic traps. Rather than being excited into empathy, audiences will more likely leave the theater numbed by a familiar experience.

First published in The Herald, October 1985

Turns out director Nutter went on to have a robust career in television, including three Emmys; he’s been on Games of Thrones, ER, The X-Files, all kinds of things. You never know. IMDb says that Johnson gave an interview in which he said he did not remember making the film. I can believe that.

The Rescue

March 24, 2020

rescue1Even though it’s only a silly action flick, The Rescue feels seriously out of date. If this thing had been released at the height of the 1984 flag-waving frenzy, when fantasy movies about hostage rescues were all the rage, then it might have had a chance.

But Chuck Norris no longer searches for the missing in action, and even Rambo has taken a header this summer. The Rescue is some sort of mid-’80s relic.

And a particularly ludicrously conceived one at that. When a crack American task force is captured on a secret mission off the coast of North Korea, the U.S. government chills a plan to go in and rescue them. As usual in these movies, the government is lily-livered and ineffective. (The unnamed president, we are assured, “would be in there in a minute” if it were up to him, but his hands are tied.)

While the American soldiers are languishing in a prison camp, their children – yes, their children – decide that it’s time to take matters into their own hands. So five spunky offspring steal the secret plans of the North Korean camp. And then they move in.

Audiences have been giggling for months now at this premise, as presented by coming-attractions trailers. (The idea is an echo of Iron Eagle, in which a teen stole a jet to nab his imprisoned father from a Middle Eastern hostage camp.) In full-length form, the concept isn’t much less ridiculous, especially in such moments as the kids putting aside the enormity of invading a hostile Communist country and inviting certain death in order to decide whether they should let a girl go along.

The kids involved are played by Kevin Dillon (Matt’s little brother, also on display this weekend in the remake of The Blob), Christina Harnos, Ned Vaughn, Mare Price and Ian Giatti. They are more-or-less serviceable, fulfilling the usual roles the moody one, the square one, the funny one, etc.

Two things can be said for this movie. One is that the locations are spectacular; ace cameraman Russell Boyd makes the mountains of New Zealand double for Korea.

The other thing is that Ferdinand Fairfax (Nate and Hayes) has directed it about as well as anyone could have, given the material. The script, by Jim Thomas and John Thomas, would be a tough assignment for any director with the slightest sense of the real world, but Fairfax actually puts some zip into a couple of sequences, and in the big prison-breakout scene, really works up a lather. But at that point, nothing can bust this film out.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

From this distance, the idea – kids rescuing their SEAL daddies – doesn’t sound especially strange, but then I’ve been worn down by decades of high concept. I note the participation of director Fairfax, whose Nates and Hayes does have some zip, and who went back into British TV after this for a nice long career (he died in 2008). The screenwriters had just come off the success of Predator.

The Killing Fields

December 2, 2019

killingfieldsThere is a tremendous movie in the middle of The Killing Fields. It lasts for about 90 minutes or so, and during that time you can’t take your eyes off the screen.

This section begins with a group of international journalists being captured by the hostile Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in 1975. When the reporters are rounded up and held at gunpoint, with their extermination apparently imminent, one of them, Dith Pran (played by Dr. Haing S. Ngor), the only Cambodian in the group, starts doing some fast talking to the captors. After an exhausting session, Pran manages to save their necks, and the journalists are moved to the neutral zone of Phnom Penh’s French Embassy, where they wait for deportation.

There, the Westerners must do for Pran what he did for them, because anyone with a Cambodian passport will be detained in the country (and be subject to almost certain execution). Thus follow some frantic efforts to construct a false passport for Pran.

These sequences are riveting, and brilliantly filmed (in Thailand) by first-time director Roland Joffe and cinematographer Chris Menges (whose most recent credit – about as far from The Killing Fields as you can get – was Comfort and Joy). The sequence during which Pran’s family leaves Phnom Penh, staged in a whirl of helicopter blades and con­fusion, is stunning in its grasp of what makes for compelling cinema.

The film, which is based on the true story recounted by New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, has many such vivid scenes, although it has some problems, too. It begins with Schanberg (Sam Waterston) arriving in Cambodia in 1973, just as that country was being introduced to the bombings during the Vietnam War.

Schanberg is an abrasive, self­ righteous journalist who strikes up a friendship with Pran. The movie, while dealing with the issues of deception and inhumanity in Cambodia, is really more about the developing comradeship between these two unlikely friends.

As such, it works well enough, although the film details Pran’s life better than Schanberg’s. It’s interesting that a big-budget film would have the courage to devote much of its running time – especially in the final 45 minutes – to this nonactor playing essentially wordless scenes, during Pran’s internment in a hellish Cambodian prison camp.

Although a lot of The Killing Fields hits home with force, I was left with a vague feeling of disappointment. Director Joffe, who during the lengthy (and sometimes shapeless) exposition sequences shows a gift for throwaway shock effects, also has a tendency to overstate his case.

This ranges from a few too many shots of burned and mangled victims’ bodies to the use of a popular song (I won ‘t tell which one) over the final scene. Some people will watch that final scene and think it exactly right; I found it overdone. Sometimes restraint is the highest eloquence.

This is the latest of British Producer David Puttnam’s string of important films, many of which were done by novice (or near-novice) directors. He’s done Midnight Express, Local Hero, and Chariots of Fire, and he’s very definitely turned into a one-man industry to watch.

Also very watchable is John Malkovich, the blind man in Places in the Heart, who really lights up the screen as Schanberg’s photographer buddy. Malkovich ought to bag a supporting actor Oscar nomination this spring – the only question is, for which movie?

But The Killing Fields belongs to Dr. Haing S. Ngor. He doesn’t exactly give off sparks, but Ngor, with his quiet, natural screen presence, has the audience’s unconditional sympathy throughout. He communicates true but not icky good-heartedness, and his heart is the pulsing center of the film.

First published in the Herald, January 17, 1985

Haing S. Ngor won the Oscar, and the film found great critical success. Joffe did The Mission and some other serious films, and is still working, although his disastrous 1995 version of The Scarlet Letter seemed to take his career from its high platform. 



Born on the Fourth of July

November 11, 2019

bornonfourth“O where have you been, my blue-eyed son/And where have­ you been, my darling young one?” So begins Bob Dylan’s great protest song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” which is featured poignantly in the new film Born on the Fourth of July.

Born on the Fourth of July, like Dylan’s song, is a great American ballad. But its stanzas have the cadence of bitter disillusionment and its words are written in blood. It is based on the 1976 book by Ron Kovic, who recalled his life growing up in a small town (he really was born on the Fourth of July in 1946), where little boys played war games in the woods, “dreamed that some day we would be men,” and did not notice that the veterans marching in the July 4th parades would flinch when firecrackers went off.

Kovic joined the Marines when he got out of high school, and left for Vietnam as a virgin, in many ways. A bullet caught him and made him a paraplegic, paralyzed from the chest down. When he returned to the United States, he passed through a hellish rehab center, an uncomfortable return to his hometown, a confused flight to Mexico, and involvement in the anti-war movement.

Oliver Stone wanted to make a film of Kovic’s story as early as 1978, but a version starring Al Pacino was canceled just before shooting was to begin. Stone, then a writer trying to get his directing career off the ground, swore to Kovic he would get the film made if he ever had the clout.

Now, after Platoon and Wall Street, Stone has the clout. And Born on the Fourth of July has everywhere in it a similar sense of commitment, particularly in its lead performance. Tom Cruise plays the blue-eyed son, Kovic, from gung-ho high school student to political activist.

Cruise is amazing in this film. I don’t know the last time I was this surprised by a performance. Except for his slick turn in The Color of Money, Cruise never resembled much of an actor. Here he seems to be working from some deep, heretofore untapped reserve of feeling, culminating in a bitter scene in his parents’ house, after he has been hauled home from a beer-fueled bar fight. The degree of despair in the scene is terrifying.

The rest of the huge cast is satisfactory, and Stone has thrown in some vivid cameos: Eerily, his Platoon sergeants, Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe, turn up in intriguing small roles, and the late Abbie Hoffman appears briefly as a campus rabble-rouser during Kovic’s days of radicalization.

Stone directs the film with his customary white-hot fervor, treating each new episode as another passage through hell. Stone is frequently guilty of overstatement, he leans on period songs for knee-jerk reactions, and he’s guilty of using caricatures to make a point (why does he have to have Kovic’s brother sing “The Times They Are A-Changing” on the eve of Kovic’s departure for Vietnam?).

But there are certain things Oliver Stone does better than anybody, especially when it comes to capturing a sense of helplessness and chaos. Amid the fury, the film has many moving small moments, as when Kovic, in his parents’ all-American back yard, quietly tells a fellow vet, ”I’d give up all my values to be whole again,” or his tears when he goes to bed with a Mexican prostitute.

If the movie is imperfect, it is because Stone and Kovic (who wrote the script together) have rage, passion, and a story to tell. It is a story of victory, though Kovic’s triumph is not that he wrote a book or spoke at the 1976 Democratic Convention, but that he has attempted to understand his life. That is worth a lot.

First published in the Herald, January 7, 1990

Stone has wandered so far away from popular success and critical respectability that he seems to be rarely considered at all these days. For all his failings, I still appreciate his free-swinging, sometimes reckless style – you have to have these kinds of filmmakers around. Cruise is excellent in the part, better, certainly, than Pacino would have been; watching the all-American boy becomes radicalized is a spectacle that outpoints Stone’s lack of subtlety.