Monday, April 3, 2017

Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam

3.5/4

Rated PG-13 (probably for War Violence, Disturbing Images and for Language)

The best war movies work because they present their material with stark, unfiltered clarity.  They don't shy away from bloodshed nor do they overhype the adrenaline.  There's a reason why movies like "Platoon," "Saving Private Ryan" or "American Sniper" linger in our minds long after the end credits roll.  It's because they portray war with unflinching realism, sparing the audience nothing.

"Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam" is a documentary, so its images of war and death (of which there are a few) consist mainly of news footage.  That's actually what makes this film such a powerful experience.  This is not the vision of war from a truly gifted filmmaker.  This is reality.

The film uses letters from real soldiers to provide insight into the minds of the actual grunts on the field.  They are read by famous actors, but most are unrecognizable.  This has its pluses and minuses, but the former outweigh the latter.  The letters, which are filled with insight and perspective, ground this material to reality in ways that not even the best screenwriter could.  On the other hand, the letters are so varied and cover such ground that it feels very scattershot.  We're meant to identify with the war, not the people.  As a result, it starts to feel like a gimmick before the film is over.

Truly, it helps that the letters are narrated by a set of gifted actors.  None of them walk through their performances, small as they may be and for far less money than they're usually offered.  And what a cast it is!  Lending their talents are: Tom Berenger, Ellen Burstyn, Robert DeNiro, John Savage, Mark Harmon, Matt and Kevin Dillon, Willem Dafoe, Martin Sheen, Brian Dennehy, Robert Downey Jr., Michael J. Fox, Elizabeth McGovern, Judd Nelson, Sean Penn, Randy Quaid, Eric Roberts, Howard E. Rollins, Kathleen Turner and Robin Williams.  Now that's a cast!  Special mention has to go to Ellen Burstyn, whose recitation of a letter from a mother to her fallen son is heartbreaking.

One interesting thing the film does is that the letters correspond to the timeline of the Vietnam war (broadcasts listing the mounting casualties strengthen the association).  But the execution has mixed results.  There's a lack of depth in the history lesson that the film presents, with the events it mentions specifically occurring with little to no context.  I get the idea to narrate the film entirely of letters from ordinary people, but if they wanted to go this route, a narrator or letters with more specificity would have helped.

I realize that this review seems quite harsh, as if I didn't actually like it.  Well, I didn't "enjoy" it in the traditional sense of the word, but like "The War Zone" or the other movies mentioned above, I do think it's worth seeing as a historical record.  If nothing else, its existence means that the horrors of the Vietnam war will never die.  For that, we should all be grateful.

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