Monday, March 8, 2010

In Country


In the 1980s, I was obsessed with the Vietnam War. My gateway drug, as it was for a lot of people I suspect, was Platoon (1986). After seeing Oliver Stone’s film, I wanted more information. I read all sorts of books about the subject, from fiction like Going After Cacciato, about a soldier who goes AWOL, to memoirs like Chickenhawk, about a helicopter pilot’s experiences during the war. Hell, I even read the TimeLife books, collected Marvel Comics’ groundbreaking series The ‘Nam and watched television shows like Tour of Duty and China Beach. This fascination extended to depictions of the fallout of the war – how it changed the people that came back, men that suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or from the effects of being subjected to Agent Orange while over there.

In the ‘80s, there were two excellent films that examined the lives of veterans after they returned home: the criminally underrated Robert De Niro/Ed Harris drama Jacknife (1989) and Norman Jewison’s In Country (1989). Jewison never wanted to make a film about the Vietnam War as it was a subject that he felt too strongly about – so much so that he left the United States in the 1970s because of it. However, he was drawn to Bobbie Ann Mason’s novel of the same name, which had been published in 1985 and went on to become a best-seller. It told the story about a teenage girl named Samantha Hughes (Emily Lloyd) and her quest to learn more about her father who died in the Vietnam War through her uncle Emmett (Bruce Willis), an emotionally scarred veteran.

The film was hyped as Bruce Willis’ first serious role where he finally dropped his wisecracking persona and really disappeared into a character. In Country received mixed reviews and was generally ignored by a movie-going public that was still not ready to deal with the deep-rooted effects of the war. They chose to ignore it rather than deal with it as the characters in this film do.

Jewison does a good job creating a sense of place, like in the brief scenes where we see Sam jogging to “I’m On Fire” by Bruce Springsteen as she runs through her hometown of Hopewell, Kentucky. One gets the feeling that it’s the kind of small-town where not much happens and not much has changed over the years. We meet Sam as she graduates from high school. Her daily routine consists of jogging in the morning and then hanging out briefly with Emmett and his fellow vets at a local diner. Talking to them piques her curiosity about the Vietnam War. She wants to learn more but Emmett isn’t too forthcoming with details and neither are his friends. There is this unspoken bond between them about not to bring it up.

One day, while going through her mother’s (Joan Allen) closet of old clothes from the 1960s, Sam discovers a box of letters her father wrote to her mother while he was in Vietnam. Reading them gives Sam some insight into a man she never knew. In her quest to understand what her father, Emmett and the others went through over there, she has a one-night stand with Tom (John Terry), one of her uncle’s war buddies. From this, she gets intimate insight into how emotionally damaged these guys are.

The veterans dance that Sam and Emmett attend illustrates, not just the tension that exists between the veterans and the town, but between the vets themselves. For example, Emmett and two other vets get into an argument about whether the war was winnable or not. It eventually boils over into a brief fistfight and Emmett is forced to act as peacemaker. We see the intense bond that exists between these men, a shared painful experience that no one who wasn’t there would understand.

With his handlebar mustache and disheveled thinning hair, Bruce Willis looks nothing like what he usually did at the time in films like Die Hard (1986) or T.V. shows like Moonlighting. He does a fantastic job showing Emmett’s deep-rooted problems, from little things like wearing a skirt around the house, to big things like the traumatizing effect a particularly violent thunderstorm has, causing him to experience terrible flashbacks of a firefight he survived in Vietnam. Willis delivers a powerful monologue about what it was like for him in Vietnam and how he survived over there, as well as how he still lives with the painful memories. In this scene, he conveys an astonishing vulnerability and does some of the best acting of his career. His excellent performance hinted at future dramatic roles and showed that he had range as an actor. For perhaps the first time, Willis wasn’t afraid to mess with his good looks in order to become a flawed character, warts and all.

When In Country was being cast, Willis was looking for a role that would challenge him. He had just done four-and-a-half years of playing the same character on Moonlighting and wanted to do something different. When Willis first agreed to do the role he was concerned about it because he didn’t know right away how he was going to play it. However, the subject matter struck a personal chord with him because, as he said in an interview, “had things been a little different, or had I been a little older, this could have been my path.” During the war, Willis was actually drafted when he turned 18 but never saw action. Later on in the 1970s, he tended bar in New York City and would talk to veterans about their experiences in Vietnam. To help get into character and to prepare for the role, he gained 30 pounds. Willis spent four months making the film in Kentucky and said that it was the “kind of movie you travel along with and it leaves you wrenched out.”

It’s hard to believe that Emily Lloyd is British by birth judging from the authentic southern accent she sports throughout In Country. To prepare for the role, she stayed with a lawyer and his family in Paducah, Kentucky. Sam’s inquisitive nature and unflappable optimism comes in sharp contrast to Emmett’s jaded cynicism. At the heart of the film is the relationship between Sam and Emmett. Lloyd and Willis play well off each other and excellently portray two people who’ve known each other for a long time as evident in the verbal short hand between them and how they relate to one another. For the role of Sam, Jewison saw many American actresses between 16 and 22 but he kept coming back to Lloyd because, like her character, he found the actress, “bursting with life, almost manic in her energy.”

In Country was generally well-received by critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, "The movie is like a time bomb. You sit there, interested, absorbed, sometimes amused, sometimes moved, but wondering in the back of your mind what all of this is going to add up to. Then you find out.” The Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen praised Emily Lloyd’s performance for being “letter perfect – her accent impeccable and her energy immense.” Like Ebert, USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and praised Willis’ "subsidiary performance as Lloyd's reclusive guardian-uncle is admirably short on showboating.” In his review for The Guardian, Derek Malcolm praised Lloyd for her "portrait is of a lively waif who does not intend to be easily defeated by the comedy of life without adding a few jokes of her own, and it is the most complete thing she has so far done on the screen, good as she was in Wish You Were Here.” Time magazine was more mixed in its reaction as it felt that the script "perhaps pursues too many banal and inconsequential matters as it portrays teen life in a small town," but that "the film starts to gather force and direction when a dance, organized to honor the local Viet vets, works out awkwardly." Furthermore, its critic felt that the film was "a lovely, necessary little stitch in our torn time.”

However, The New York Times’ Caryn James criticized the "cheap and easy touches ... that reduce it to the shallowness of a television movie," and found James Horner’s score, "offensive and distracting.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, "While one can respect its lofty intentions, the movie doesn't seem to have any better sense than its high-school heroine of just what it's looking for. At once underdramatized and faintly stagy, it keeps promising revelations that never quite materialize.” Finally, her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, "What's meant to be a cohesive family portrait, a suffering American microcosm, is a shambles of threads dangling and characters adrift. Jewison leaves it to stymied viewers to figure out the gist of it.”

Not much happens plot-wise but that’s okay because In Country’s narrative is driven by its characters. It is one of those slice-of-life films about a girl trying to figure out who her father was and understand what her uncle went through. The film is leisurely paced as it allows us to get to know these interesting characters and the world they inhabit. The dialogue is well-written and really sounds like the way people talk. It’s not showy but honest and heartfelt.

In Country helped satiate my obsession with the Vietnam War and helped bring me some closure as I related to Sam’s own interest in the subject and quest to understand it. By the film’s end, I felt like I understood it a bit more, much like Sam. The film’s emotional payoff comes at its conclusion when Sam and Emmett go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. As they walk past all the names engraved on this impressive monument, it’s hard not to be affected by it and I can only imagine what it must be like in person. Jewison described the place as “the most sacred shrine in America” and called it, “the Wailing Wall of America.” It’s a moving scene done with very little dialogue, just simple gestures that convey more than any fancy speech could, and this is as good a way as ever to end the film on a poignant note. Ultimately, In Country points out that the healing process is long overdue and as a country the United States needs to come to terms with the Vietnam War and finally embrace the people who fought in it, not just those that died over there but the ones that made it back and are still living with it every day of their lives.


SOURCES

Nightingale, Benedict. "The Americanization of Emily." The New York Times. August 20, 1989.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. "At the Movies." The New York Times. August 18, 1989.

19 comments:

  1. JD, this sounds fascinating - I am definitely going to look for it. Your description reminds me of Running on Empty, another film about the children of the sixties generation dealing with the confusing legacy of their parents' youth. (I enjoyed your post on that film too a while back.)

    This all ties into a post I've been wanting to do, on Field of Dreams, which touches on the way mainstream eighties cinema reflected on the sixties. For some reason (maybe because I was born in that decade, and my parents grew up in the 60s) I'm really drawn to that theme.

    Great stuff.

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  2. MovieMan0283:

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words. This is a really neat little film and definitely worth checking out. I hadn't even thought about the RUNNING ON EMPTY connection and thanks for pointing that out!

    I would very much like to read your thoughts on FIELD OF DREAMS, a film near and dear to my heart and one that, whenever it's on TV, I end up watching all the way to the end. Like yourself, my parents grew up in the 1960s and I grew up in the 1980s so I was fascinated by films and TV that looked back at that decade.

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  3. Great review, J.D. I understand your obsession with the subject. As someone who graduated high school in '72 (and registered for the draft but not called up), this left an impression with me. I'd cover a lot of ground in film, documentaries, and books on Vietnam to seek an in from of that outsider perspective. Another thing we have in common, my friend.

    I thought this was a very good film by Jewison, and Willis was amazing in it, as was Lloyd. The fact that it did little box office seemed par for the course for films of this war. Things didn't really change till PLATOON arrived, it seems. This is still a fascinating but haunting history. I still remember the time I first watched the Canadian documentary, Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War in the early 80's. Last year's reading of Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway's We Were Soldiers Once... and Young book and watching Errol Morris' THE FOG OF WAR doc still had the power to captivate me on this subject.

    Thanks very much for this, J.D. The films of this time on this subject cover a lot.

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  4. le0pard13:

    Thank you for the kind words, my friend. Good to see we both share the same obsession with this subject matter. At some point, I'd like to write a review of JACKNIFE as it is such an underrated film that deserves more love.

    Yeah, I think that IN COUNTRY's failure at the box office was just the simple fact that it was a big, crowd pleaser of a film, just a small, character-study/slice-of-life-type deal. But that's OK, too. Lloyd was so good in this it's a shame that her life took a tragic turn soon after and her career has never recovered. I always liked Jewison's films and I'm not just sayin' that 'cos he's a fellow Canuck. ; ) MOONSTRUCK is another of his films that I love dearly.

    But you're right in pointing out how PLATOON was the game changer in terms of making films about the Vietnam War commercially successful. And good call on THE FOG OF WAR doc. What an excellent film that is.

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  5. I actually reviewed this on its release, but haven't seen it since. I do remember liking it quite a bit though.

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  6. I have not seen this film J.D. but need to get a copy. As a Viet Vet and a film nut I have always taken an interest in Vietnam themed films. For me, the first important Vietnam themed war film was Ashby’s “Coming Home.” While it was part love story the scenes with paraplegics, who were real war vets, were extremely powerful. Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, is abstract and brilliant. The opening scene with the bombs dropping and The Doors song “The End” playing just blew me away. The Doors first album was big when I was in ‘Nam (along with Hendrix and CCR) so it was a bit of a flashback watching that and a bit unnerving .

    There is an excellent documentary called “The Anderson Platoon”, where a French film crew followed an American platoon, part of the 1st Calvary, in 1966. The original film came out in 1967, won some festival awards and got a small release in the U.S. It has an interesting history of being censored, edited and reedited. Believe it is out on DVD.

    Tim O’Brien’s “Going After Caicciato” is a great book. His memoir “If I Die in a Combat Zone, (Box Me Up and Ship Me Home)” is also excellent. Thanks J.D. for a great review!!!

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  7. Mark Salisbury:

    Yeah, it is definitely worth re-visiting and it's a shame that the film has largely become forgotten.


    John:

    I would be very curious to read your thoughts on this film if you ever get a chance to see it, esp. what you thought of Bruce Willis' performance.

    Good call on COMING HOME. I love Hal Ashby's work and this is certainly one of his best. I too, have a fascination with films about the Vietnam War and hope to take a look at PLATOON some time in the near future.

    I have not seen or heard of THE ANDERSON PLATOON but your description sounds very intriguing. I may have to track that one down.

    Thanks for mentioning IF I DIE IN A COMBAT ZONE. That is also a great book and I'm kicking myself for not mentioning it as well. It's been ages since I've read it and really need to revisit.

    Thank you also for sharing your unique perspective - it really means a lot to me. Just curious, what did you think of FULL METAL JACKET?

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  8. "MOONSTRUCK is another of his films that I love dearly."

    I have fond memories of this one, too. Courting my future bride at the time when we took this one it. Still remember the theater we went to (NuWilshire Theatre in Santa Monica in early '88), and I still love the film. Thanks.

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  9. le0pard13:

    Ah, good to see another fan of this film! On the odd occasion I find myself quoting this film as it has quite a few memorable lines of dialogue. I wouldn't mind doing a write-up of MOONSTRUCK some day. If you think about it Hollywood just doesn't make romantic comedies like that anymore. You really have to look at indie cinema now for anything decent.

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  10. I liked “Full Metal Jacket”, the first half with the basic training is memorable, Drill Sgts. are SOB’s. At least they are trained to be, supposedly to make men out of maggots (lol). They strip you of your individuality and force you work as a team. The idea of course is that the only person you can depend on is your buddy and you need each other in life and death situations. Kubrick gives you a good feel for what basic training is like. There is always a Vincent D’Onofrio type, the guy who gets picked on because he can’t keep up with the rest. It may be stereotypical but it true, at least I saw it in my time. I liked Modine’s character, Joker , I guess he represents man’s conflicting nature (the Peace sign and Born to Kill). I think the film looks at how regular guys, like Joker, are put into a situation where you are forced or rather actually have to accept the fact that you have to kill and tell yourself its okay. That’s what happens when Joker shoots the wounded Vietnamese sniper and then says something like “its good to be alive.” War desensitizes you and you do things that in “normal life” you wouldn’t do. I liked the film but found it unsettling.

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  11. J.D.: I'm very sorry to say I have not seen this Norman Jewison film, though I've been aware of it. Your review was a fascinating read (I did remember that Caryn James had panned this film, though she was always a tough cookie) and the follow-up comments here were top-drawer. I do love Hal Asby, and I have always held PLATOON in high regard despite the fall from grace, and I also love teh opening segment of FULL METAL JACKET.

    But FIELD OF DREAMS???

    I will gush on that one J.D. and hope you will be inspired to write a review for that magnificent film that ranks among my favorite American films of the 90's.

    Needless to say this is a banner post in every sense.

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  12. John:

    Thanks for your thoughts on FULL METAL JACKET. When I was in high school I had a history teacher that went through Marine boot camp on Parris Island around the time that Kubrick's film takes place and he thought they made R. Lee Ermy's Drill Sgt. too nice?!! Which blew my mind when he said that.

    It is very interesting to hear your perspective on this film and I agree that it is a very unsettling film to watch, intentionally so.


    Sam Juliano:

    Thanks for stopping by and for the compliments. If you get a chance, I highly recommend checking out IN COUNTRY.

    Good to see that you are a fan of Ashby's work and also dig PLATOON and FMJ.

    As for FIELD OF DREAMS... ah, what can I say? The whole father-son thing gets me every time. I mean, how can you not get choked up at the end of the film? I'm not made of stone, dammit! ; )

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  13. J.D., I'm currently working on (or rather working towards, as I've been watching the movie, reading about its history, and formulating ideas, but having written anything yet) my Field of Dreams piece. I'm wondering if you can think of any other late 80s/early 90s films/cultural products that are immersed in the 60s and boomer nostalgia. Wonder Years, Field of Dreams, Running on Empty, 1969 all come to mind (along with the re-release of the Beatles catalogue and, as a kind of predecessor to the films which arrived on the scene a good 5 years later, The Big Chill and its own precursor, Return of the Secaucus 7). However, you seem to know way more films, especially forgotten ones, from this era than I do and I was wondering if you had any suggestions to explore. Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated (and of course, I'll let you know when the piece is up).

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  14. (Born on the 4th of July just occurred to me too - there really WAS something in the air in '88/'89...)

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  15. MovieMan0283:

    "I'm wondering if you can think of any other late 80s/early 90s films/cultural products that are immersed in the 60s and boomer nostalgia...I was wondering if you had any suggestions to explore. Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated (and of course, I'll let you know when the piece is up)."

    Cool! Well, let me think... Of course, there's the darker side of the after effects of the '60s and Vietname with CUTTER'S WAY and JACKNIFE, both about troubled vets trying to cope with the effects of the war. Wasn't FORREST GUMP considered to be a very nostalgic ode to the 1960s? Maybe JACOB'S LADDER which reimagines the nostalgia into a horror film. Oh, THE INDIAN RUNNER might be a good one to check out - Sean Penn's directorial debut.

    I haven't seen it but AMERICANA (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082011/) sounds like it might fit the criteria you're looking for.

    And you are right about '88/'89, that seemed to be the height of the 'Nam/'60s fascination and then it bottomed out afterwards.

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  16. J.D., thanks for the suggestions. Perhaps one can posit a divide between the different types of 60s-in-80s films/TV shows: those which indulge in boomer nostalgia, usually with yuppie/prosperous characters looking back at the era and trying to reconcile their youthful ideals with family responsiblities and bourgeois comforts, and those which take a darker look at the aftereffect of the era - invariably, it would seem, by focusing on Vietnam. Indeed it strikes me that Field of Dreams, the thirtysomething pilot (I haven't seen the rest of the series yet), The Big Chill (unless I'm forgetting something) don't really address 'Nam at all. Those films/shows actually set in this period - Wonder Years, Forrest Gump, 1969, can't help but address the war, even their overall tone is closer to the boomer-nostalgia thing.

    Heck, that in itself would make an interesting essay though at the moment I'm focusing on the Field of Dreams, and hence more the boomer-nostalgia note. Actually, there's gotta be a book there. Has anyone written one that I'm unaware of? (Not so much on the 60s in film, but on the boomer generation's self-perception, expressed through popular media once they hit middle age and became the generation "in charge"...)

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  17. "Heck, that in itself would make an interesting essay though at the moment I'm focusing on the Field of Dreams, and hence more the boomer-nostalgia note. Actually, there's gotta be a book there. Has anyone written one that I'm unaware of? (Not so much on the 60s in film, but on the boomer generation's self-perception, expressed through popular media once they hit middle age and became the generation "in charge"...)"

    Wow, that would be a great book! I don't recall every encountering a book like that. You'd have to take a quick scan on Amazon but that does sound like a fascinating concept.

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  18. This is an interesting film that suffers from a weird structure. It's not the first film Jewison has made with flashbacks overlapping a contemporary setting, of course: A Soldier's Story constantly returns to a murder scene, Agnes of God constantly refers back to Sister Agnes' hysterical fits, and the later The Hurricane constantly goes back to Rubin Carter's past. But what was precisely so great about all three of those films was that the flashbacks informed everything about each scene in each movie. The problem with In Country is that half of the movie is on-topic, and the other half just cries out to be thrown into the garbage disposal.

    Oddly enough, In Country still manages to be a good movie -- I just wish it were better. The best scenes in the movie deal with Sam's investigation into her father's past, and with Emmett's psychological problems. When the movie ventures out onto pointless side-stories like Sam's best friend getting pregnant, Sam's troubles with her boyfriend, Sam's troubles with her mom and grandparents and Sam's creepy affair with the older veteran who runs the local auto yard, the movie runs out of steam... fast. Of the latter example, I don't know if it's just me, but I was a little crept out by the thought of an 18-year old girl getting spanked and salivated over by all the horny veterans in town.

    Because the movie came out the same year as Born on the Fourth of July and Casualties of War, it makes me wonder why Jewison couldn't have simply made a full-blown war film of his own, despite his reservations about the subject. The Oliver Stone film does a better job showing us how the vets were treated when they came home, and the De Palma film does a better job of showing us the horrors the vets witnessed in combat. What's frustrating about In Country is that it only provides small samples of both worlds and never quite coalesces into a concrete whole--that is, until the final 30 minutes, which I must admit are pretty great. The memorial sequence is so mesmerizing, and so clearly the heart of the film, that I've been considering how much better the movie might have been if it had been entirely centered on the road trip journey leading up to the memorial. Maybe then the movie might have even been elevated to masterpiece status.

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  19. Adam Zanzie:

    Well said! I certainly can't argue with your criticism of the film. You're spot on and yet the stuff that works is so good that I'm pretty much willing to forgive its flaws. I get the impression that Jewison didn't want to do a straight-on Vietnam War film as there were already several out there by the time he made IN COUNTRY and he was more interested in examining the effect it had on soldiers who came back and tried to integrate back into society. However, I've always felt that the under-appreciated JACKNIFE does this better. That being said, Willis and Lloyd's performances really shine, here, and make IN COUNTRY worth watching, IMO.

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