Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (1988)

26 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam” is a brilliant documentary that would serve as a companion piece to any of the best narrative films on the subject of the Vietnam War. Watch “Platoon” or “Apocalypse Now” or “Full Metal Jacket,” and then watch “Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam” and you will have a complete movie-viewing experience. This is a film that captures and clasps the terror, sorrow and bravery of the Vietnam War, and it’s all done through real, non-reenacted footage and narration of real words from soldiers writing home from Vietnam.

We see the footage of the soldiers’ own home movies, as well as old TV news footage that provided updates on the war, and much of this footage is very brutal to watch. We even see fire fights and soldiers on the verge of death, mortally wounded in the field. While viewing this footage, we hear the soldiers’ voices, in the words they wrote in their letters home. The voices given to these people were given by many different celebrities, such as Robert De Niro, Martin Sheen, Sean Penn, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, among many others. Some people may be paying attention to who’s providing the voice of whom, but those who do are distracting themselves. I’ll admit I was listening too, but to the credit of the actors & actresses, I found myself not paying as much attention to the voices as much as the words coming from real-life soldiers who either died or were wounded. (Hell, I completely forgot De Niro, Robert Downey Jr., and Charlie Sheen were even part of this process until I looked back at the credits.)

It’s a simple technique used to tell the story of young men who went to a strange new world and either died in the middle of it or were scarred for life in body and/or soul. And it works perfectly for this material, as does the use of popular ‘60s songs to provide the soundtrack.

The ending takes us to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., with one last letter, read by Ellen Burstyn as the voice of the mother of one of the fallen soldiers. It’s a heartbreaking close to say the least; I’ll even admit it got me a little teary-eyed, which is no small feat, to be honest.

“Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam” was originally released on PBS in 1987, but strong critical praise gave it life on the big screen in 1988. Whether you watch it on a big screen or small screen, it’s hard to deny that to experience this film is to feel this film.

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