I tried to post this review yesterday, but my Internet went down.
When I realized today is National Vietnam War Veterans Day, I knew I needed to post a review of a movie about veterans. So, I looked at my extensive collection of Vietnam War movie reviews and none seemed appropriate. I then looked for a good movie about veterans to watch and review. I didn’t want a movie like “Rambo: First Blood” where a vet snaps and violence ensues. I wanted a movie that was more realistic about a vet suffering from PTSD. I settled on “In Country”, a movie that had been on my to-be-watched list for years.
“In Country” was based on a bestseller by Bobbie Ann Mason. It was directed by Norman Jewison (“A Soldier’s Story”, “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming”). Emily Lloyd was cast as the lead after a smashing debut in “Wish You Were Here”. Although from England, you wouldn’t know it as she nails the Kentucky accent. Bruce Willis was coming off his superstar turn in “Die Hard”. It is hard to believe that he starred in “In Country” after that movie. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. Reportedly Lloyd and Willis did not get along. I wonder whose fault that was.
The movie opens with soldiers going off to Vietnam. Their sergeant tells them: “You depart today to fight the forces of godless communism… America is never going to forget you.” There is a brief scene of a patrol moving through a swamp at night. It looks like a swamp in Kentucky where the movie was shot. Not a good start. Suddenly we are in the present at the high school graduation of Samantha (Lloyd). Her father was one of the men in the patrol and he did not come back from Vietnam. Samantha was born after her father died and she knows little about him. She wants to find out about him and about the experiences of veterans. One of them is her uncle Emmett (Willis), who she lives with. He has PTSD and is unemployed. He refuses to talk about the war. He is not mentally unstable, although during a thunderstorm he climbs a tree. He does suffer from headaches and rashes, but he is not suicidal. He is part of the local vet community and Sam interacts with other vets.
Sam finds some letters her father wrote to her mother and his diary. She camps out in the forest when she reads the diary. Her father narrates what she reads. The movie cuts back to the patrol in the swamp scene to show us what happened to her father. (We know what she never finds out.) The reading inspires her to take Emmett and her grandmother to Washington to visit the Wall. This brings some closure, but the movie leaves Emmitt’s future up in the air.
“In Country” is an interesting movie. I was surprised that it did not amplify veteran tropes. Emmitt and his friends have their problems, but none is Rambo or Travis Bickle. Emmitt is typically laconic. However, he is never on the verge of snapping. He cares about Samantha and their relationship is the heart of the film. The one memory of the war that he shares is the egrets that hung around the water buffalo. He tells of a time when an explosion scared off a tree full of the white birds. It was beautiful. We assume that was a rare moment of beauty. Emmitt is not a ranting cynic, but he does respond to Sam’s prodding by telling her: “Nobody cares. Nobody gives a shit.” But she does. She wants to understand and the movie wants to help the audience understand.
While the movie does not advance veteran tropes, it does perpetuate cliches about the grunts in the war. There is reference to collecting Viet Cong ears. The killing of a Vietnamese family is declared a common occurrence and excused as “that’s what they were sent there to do.” Thankfully, those references are not hammered and Dwayne (Sam’s father) is not shown doing bad things. I know enough about the war to know the movie lays it on too thick about atrocities the boys did. However, I am less sure about how the movie depicts the various veteran problems. My father was a veteran, but he was a pilot so his experiences were quite different from Emmitt and the others. I would be interested to know if members of this group who are veterans would find these observations to ring true. (I paraphrased some of them.)
- “They didn’t let us win.”
- “My mind takes me where I don’t want to go.”
- “Your senses are so keen over there that when you come home everyone seems weak.”
- “You stop feeling after a few of your friends are killed.”
- “My dead buddies are still in my head. They are waiting for me.”
- “There’s a hole in my heart.”
- “I’m half dead.”
The movie is well-acted. Willis gives one of his best performances, although his commitment to the accent is not that of Lloyd. Lloyd is great as the teenager who is unsure of her future and is aware that her father (who was about her age when he died) did not have a future and did not get to make decisions like the ones she is having to make. The vets she interacts with have a variety of problems and the cast give realistic portrayals, even though only one (Jim Beaver as Earl) was a vet. The movie does not make us pity their characters. It is not intrusive. We never find out what happened to Emmitt, for instance.
“In Country” is perhaps the best movie about Vietnam veterans. That is partly because it is not really about veterans. The main character is not Emmitt, it is a teenage girl who is on a quest to find out about her father. The veterans interact with her in a natural way. They are not caricatured. There are no happy endings for them, nor do they crack under the pressures of PTSD. They appear to be more characteristic of Vietnam vets than we have seen in many movies. I’d like to know if this community agrees with that.
GRADE = B