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November 18, 2016

Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam

by Franz Patrick


Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (1987)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Bill Couturié’s documentary consists of real footages taken during the United States’ complete involvement during the Vietnam War. What makes it even more special is that on top of the unforgettable images, real letters of those who participated in the war are read, from soldiers to nurses, thereby creating a most unique experience. The correspondences are read by actors which allows for a small layer of interpretation.

When I read the words “Vietnam” and “War” next to each other, I admit that I do not know what to think sometimes. Maybe it is due to the fact that I was neither born in America nor did I grow up during that era. My imaginings of that time in history rely on films like Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter,” the way sadness and tragedy permeate through people’s lives, Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” the manner in which rage is communicated through the duality of man, and Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” due to the war’s unpredictable and unimaginable horrors. And then there is Tim O’Brien’s novel “The Things They Carried,” a novel that I did not expect to love given that it was an assigned reading in Honors English. (Assigned readings in high school were a notorious bore to me.) Though the names of its characters are a blur to me now, what remains vivid are the feelings of poetry and lyricism of the words.

“Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam” are about the words. Details like the soldiers having to wash their only piece of clothing in streams make as big a mark as a soldier admitting to his loved ones that sometimes he feels like he will never get a chance to come home alive. By summoning details that are mundane and personal—at times right next to each other, other times utilized as recurring themes—the film constructs a reality as if the viewer were actually there.

The style of reading that works best is when the voices almost downplay or muffle the letters’ sorrow, confusion, and fury. A mood is established and it communicates the helplessness of those who believed that they could make a difference in the war. Most memorable is a soldier telling his parents of a dead body he was asked to identify. He was so shaken, he could not even recognize the face of his closest friend. The way it is read not only communicates anguish but also the shame of not being able to identify his friend’s face immediately. However, when a voice plays it up by, for example, being in tears, I was reminded that I was hearing a performance. Although it may not be the intention, it feels like shoving the viewers toward an emotional catharsis.

Although the words are the centerpiece, the images provide great support. The early recordings of soldiers smelling their letters from home made me smile while wounded bodies or corpses being carried away from the crossfire made me hold my breath. B-52s dropping so many bombs all at once is equally shocking as images of the land being turned inside out. It works as a symbol of Americans entering a foreign soil and not knowing or fully understanding the enemy. It is a more feral experience knowing that what we are seeing is something that really happened. Unlike scenes shot in a studio or with the help of computers, real soldiers entering a potentially dangerous area have only one chance to get everything right in order to prevent more casualties.

The film is about honoring and remembering Americans who were involved in the Vietnam War but it is far from a propaganda. When dead bodies of both Americans and Vietnamese are shown, the attention turns to (or should be on) what we can do—or not do—to prevent history from repeating.

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