In Country: Out of Synch
From 1961 to 1975 thousands of American soldiers fought a war which the United States never recognized. Those who were lucky enough to make it home came back to a country which was and to some extent still is trying desperately to disassociate itself from the war and its veterans.
A Warner Bros. Film
Directed by Norman Jewison
Opening today at the Loews Charles
The Vietnam War was fought "in country" in that the battlefield of that conflict was the entire countryside of Vietnam. Veterans of the war referred to their time spent "in country" as a way of separating their experiences in the war from their lives in "the world"--the term they used to refer to their homes back in America.
Today, as America attempts to understand its collective experiences with Vietnam the war has followed its veterans back home. In Country, a new film by Norman Jewison attempts to deal with the Vietnam War in this larger sense. Though a substantial body of recent films have attempted to examine the Vietnam conflict In Country is the first film to deal directly with the impact of the war on its survivors--the children family and friends of those who fought and died as well as the veterans themselves.
In Country is an ambitions undertaking, addressing a volatile episode in American social history that today is just beginning to unfold. The complex emotions and problems the film deals with have yet to be fully realized and it remains unclear whether America will ever be able to truly deal with the sense of loss and guilt that Vietnam provoked.
It therefore is all the more disappointing that this project coordinated by an award-winning director and staffed by a mostly stellar cast fails to live up to its promise and its potential. In Country is burdened by a badly written screenplay and a poor performance by co-star Emily Lloyd. Ultimately, the best of intentions and outstanding performances by co-star Bruce Willis and a very capable supporting cast are not enough for In Country to fulfill its potential as a true and meaningful commentary on an important and ongoing American experience.
The film opens as a group of American combat soldiers stand before a C-130 transport plane ready to carry them to the Vietnamese front. A voice from above the plane perhaps that of their sergeant tells them that they are the best soldiers that America has to offer and that they are about to go out and teach a bunch of "communist gooks" to respect America or die.
The scene then briefly changes to a swamp in Vietnam where that group of American soldiers is quickly shot down by the Viet Cong. It changes again to a high school graduation in 1989 where the commencement speaker tells his audience in words hauntingly reminiscent of that wartime sergeant that the class of '89 is the best America has to offer and that by struggling hard, they can forge an America that the world will respect once again.
Vietnam veteran Emmett Smith (Bruce Willis) is in the audience watching the graduation of his niece Samantha Hughes (Emily Lloyd) from the local high school in Hopewell, Kentucky Samantha never knew her father who was her age when he left to fight in Vietnam but she does become obsessed with the need to find out about her father, and she is dismayed to find that no one around her is willing to talk about the war.
In Country was meant to be a story of one girl's search for the meaning and justice behind a war that deprived her of a family. But the movie gets bogged down in the ancillary characters and events which make up Samantha's life without providing any insights into the character that would allow audiences to better empathize with her.
Part of the problem with the movie lies in the fact that Lloyd's portrayal of Samantha as a dizzy, under-educated Southerner fails to lend her character either sympathy or depth. Part of the problem lies with the screenwriters Frank Pierson and Cynthia Cidre, whose dialogue is often inept and who are unable to find the coherence behind the episodic novel by Bobbie Ann Mason upon which In Country is based.
The result of a bad screenplay and a poor acting job on the part of Lloyd is a movie which lacks pacing, coherence and emotional depth for its first hour. But as In Country shifts its focus more toward the relationship between Samantha and Emmett, the movie gains a lot of the truth and pathos which was missing from the start.
Willis does a wonderful job of portraying Emmett Smith the reclusive, cynical and alienated veteran of the Vietnam conflict. He brings a hard-edged intensity to an underwritten character who should have commanded more of In Country's focus. Richard Hamilton and Peggy Rea also lend a much needed sense of realism to the movie with their fine portrayals of Samantha's grandparents.
The final few scenes of the movie, which bring together Emmett, Samantha and her grandmother at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington D.C. are undeniably moving. They show by their contrast with the rest of In Country exactly how fine a film was lost in the production of this motion picture.