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‘Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 16, 1988

In "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam," the missives get you where you live. They're real. They're from real American youths caught in war, and offscreen readers such as Robert De Niro, Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe bring the soldiers' hopes and horrors back to life.

Director Bill Couterie is certainly following Hollywood with his voiceover use of fictional 'Nam-movie vets, predictably drug-infused rock soundtrack and some montage-moments (created from existing war footage) that suggest "Platoon," "Apocalypse Now" and "Full Metal Jacket." But those images, many of them from NBC's library, are documentary, the real things. And the text -- the scrawlings of young souls caught in a gruesome coming-of-age -- is also unrehearsed.

"I doubt if I'll come out of this alive," writes Pvt. Raymond Griffiths to "Madeleine" in 1966. "It seems every day another young guy 18 or 19 years old like myself is killed in action . . . See ya if it's God's will. I have to make it out of Vietnam though, 'cause I'm lucky. I hope. Ha ha. Love, Ray."

He will be killed four weeks later, on the Fourth of July.

The soldiers' letters are usually sent to girlfriends, parents and friends. They're variously patriotic, upbeat, disillusioned, gloomy, witty, resigned and sad. Anyone who stalks through Vietnam's razor-sharp elephant grass, writes Lt. Alan Bourne, "should automatically get a Purple Heart." A grateful soldier writes, "Thanks for the wingtips. Only one question: Where do I wear them in Vietnam?" Soldiers caught in the Tet Offensive have learned "not to get attached too personally," writes 20-year-old Don Jacques; he dies 22 days later. "You'd be amazed," Bourne continues, "at how much a man can age on one patrol."

Couterie's thoughtfully compiled footage shows GIs stalking the foreboding undergrowth, ducking bullets, mischievously sunning (as opposed to mooning) the camera -- and later, returning home in body bags. A soldier, in shock because his leg has just been blown off, gives an alarmingly matter-of-fact report on how it happened. Familiar TV faces and statistics punctuate the grief in the field: President Johnson declares "The end is not yet," while Gen. William Westmoreland pep-talks soldiers in the field. A youthful David Brinkley reports that troops will soon exceed 300,000; President Nixon later promises to reduce those ranks to 400,000.

Behind the visuals, you'll recognize some of the 33 different voices -- the cadences of Dafoe and De Niro, Robin Williams, Kathleen Turner, Martin Sheen and Michael J. Fox, for instance. But Couterie (also coproducer and coscriptwriter) does not identify them. Their job is not to star in this, after all; it's to bring you closer to kids now lost in time.

Copyright The Washington Post

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