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‘Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 16, 1988


Bill Couturie
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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"Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam," the HBO movie now being released theatrically, is the first film about Vietnam to come to us free of bias, free of rhetoric.

What "Dear America" gives us, through letters sent back to the United States from the men and women who served there, is a record of what the real players in this drama were thinking and feeling, with a minimum of tampering and mediation. "Dear Mom," their letters begin, or "Dear Dad," or "Dear Aunt Penny." Their words -- read in voice-over by Robert De Niro, Ellen Burstyn, Sean Penn, Willem Dafoe, Robin Williams, Kathleen Turner and others -- are heard over newsreel images, video footage and personal film clips of the men in battle, in camp and on leave. They write about the food, the bugs, the cold and the damp. They also write about death, though some put a brave face on it. "Tell Mom not to worry," one soldier writes. "It's nothing I can't handle."

You realize, listening to these letters and watching footage of the soldiers as they open theirs, that these bits of paper were the soldiers' only contact with the real world. One soldier writes, "When I am reading your letters, I'm a normal person ... not worrying about killing people or being killed."

There are real treasures here. Sometimes a poetic chord is struck. One soldier refers to Vietnam as a "country of thorns and cuts." Another tells of the silence that descended one night during Christmas after the sounds of the bombing had stopped and, off in the distance, the strains of "Silent Night" could be heard. "It echoed through the valley for a long time and died out slowly," he wrote. "I'm positive it has seldom been sung with more gut feeling and pure, homesick emotion, a strange, beautiful thing in this terrible, death-ridden land."

Other messages, though, such as one letter from a nurse, are artless and raw. "I hate this place ... I'm sick of facing every day a new bunch of children ripped to pieces. They're just kids ... I'm sick to death of it. I've gotta get outta here."

A running account of the progress of the war -- Khe Sanh, Tet, Operation Niagara -- the atmosphere back home, the troop levels and casualties is provided, and, at one point, the filmmakers gives us a handy film lexicon, called "A Grunt's Primer: Pictures & Words From a Search & Destroy Mission."

Most of the sentiments expressed by the soldiers are familiar, but in this context they take on an added poignancy and weight. Some, like one soldier's letter to the mother of his dead buddy, are nearly unbearable: "I'm hollow, Mrs. Perkow. I'm a shell. When I'm scared I rattle. I'm no one to tell you about your son. I can't. I'm sorry."

The movie, which was directed by Bill Couturie from a book of the same title, is not merely an invitation to mourn. There are lighter moments, like the scene in which a young infantryman is introduced to a beautiful woman from India on stage at a Bob Hope show and, at loss for words, raises his hand and says, "How!"

But it's as a catharsis that perhaps the film has its most lasting value. There's a purity in the approach these filmmakers have taken, and its effect is to create in us a feeling that we are experiencing these events from the closest possible vantage point. The result is thrilling, powerful. There have been a lot of movies made about Vietnam, some of them good. Now a great one has been made.

Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam, at the Dupont Circle Cineplex Odeon, is rated PG-13.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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