April 2, 2020
In Country – US, 1989
In my senior year of high school, a veteran of the Vietnam War visited my AP History class, and one of the first things he told us was that most veterans did not constantly look over their shoulders or think everyone was out to get them. In other words, they were not like Rambo, who had burst onto the silver screen just nine years earlier. It was a point worth making, for at that time, Rambo was the most well-known “veteran” of that war among minors, and, for many of us, its depiction of a buffed-out, emotionally troubled, militarily savvy soldier became the norm rather than the exception. Even my best friend at that time accepted that Rambo was an accurate depiction of a Vietnam veteran despite the fact that his own father – a veteran himself - was nothing like that. Norman Jewison’s In Country was released in 1989, three years after the release of Platoon ushered in a wave of Vietnam War movies, and I’d have to believe that part of Jewison’s motivation for making it was to counter the impression of veterans that those films were creating.
The central character in In Country is a high school student named Samantha Hughes, and we first see her on the day of her graduation, smiling proudly with a look on her face that beams of confidence but also hints at what will become a nagging thought later on, What now? She turns and smiles at an older man. His hair is a bit disheveled, and he seems to be sitting apart from the other members of her family. And for a moment, we’re forgiven for thinking he is her father. He isn’t. Samantha is the daughter of Dwayne Hughes, a man who must have been her age when he first touched down on Vietnamese soil. He returned in a casket.
The man is Samantha’s uncle, Emmett, and like her father, he too fought in Vietnam. We learn that Samantha has been staying with him (or is it the other way around?) ever since her mother Irene, played by a youthful Joan Allen, remarried and moved out. It is a mistake, of course, for Emmett could hardly be called a responsible caregiver or role model, and there are numerous instances of her taking better care of him than he does of her. They live in a very small town, the kind in which nothing stays a secret for long and where a young woman could reasonably be expected to marry her high school sweetheart and have a baby at a relatively young age. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the veterans had never left home before going abroad to fight.
Much of the film involves Samantha trying to decide what to do with her life. She is dating a high school jock whose only claim to fame is that he scored the winning basket in a local championship series. Nothing we learn about him implies that he burnt the midnight oil studying. Her mother wants her to move out and attend college near her, but Samantha is worried about Emmett. Her life is further complicated by the discovery of a box of photos and letters from her father. Why she just now discovers the box is a bit of a mystery, seeing as how it is sitting in plain sight, but I digress.
Context is everything in a film like this. The Vietnam War had ended just fourteen years earlier, and the gung-ho, patriotic years of the Reagan Administration has just given way to the Bush Sr. years. In many ways, America was still processing the Vietnam War. Just seven years earlier the Vietnam Memorial had opened in Washington D.C., and the general public could be excused for not fully understanding the psychological impact it had on those that made the trek to walk along it. Few would do so now. You might expect then for the ending of the film, which involves the memorial, to resonate less. It does not, and much of this has to do will how well the film has built up to that journey. We understand why it means so much to them, and I suspect that the scene will still cause viewers to have to wipe away a tear or two.
Emmett is played by Bruce Willis; the film was his follow-up to Die Hard, and I appreciated his work here. If Willis doesn’t seem to have the dramatic flair of some of his contemporaries, it is because he does not conform to most of our images of the Vietnam vet, many of which, unfortunately, have their origins in Hollywood films. At that time, Willis was not yet the muscular specimen he is now, and his average-guy build helps him greatly. His eyes often reflect both sadness and weariness. There are also hints that his character could have been so much more were it not for the war, something that could be said of so many of those sent off to fight.
Sure, Emmett stereotypically has flashbacks of the war, but they are realistically brought on by a combination of emotional and environmental factors. While Willis gives a strong performance overall, two moments in particular stand out to me. In one, Emmett breaks up a fight between friends, and in the other he finally opens up about his experiences during the war. The latter is a bit conventional; however, having seen the film, I can’t imagine any other actor playing those scenes. Other actors would likely have overplayed them, making them more theatrical or dramatic than Willis does. Willis simply plays them as if they are just part of his character’s nature. In one, he’s confident; in the other, he is inwardly raging against a decade of slight and injustice, while trying to put words to experiences he’s tried hard to suppress – perhaps too hard. The two scenes showcase the divide in most of us – the self-assuredness we show in some circumstances and the hesitancy we display in others. I wish Willis had made more films like this.
As Samantha, Emily Lloyd is excellent. I admired the strength she gives the character and how Emily always seems more interested in determining her destiny than being led by it. Her scenes have an infectious energy, and her rapport with Willis is excellent. In a perfect world, fate would have been kinder to her, and her star would have risen to greater heights than it has. As for In Country, it remains a moving experience. It is the kind of film that can alter the way you perceive people and events, making you more sympathetic to those with experiences so traumatic that they become taboo to talk about. We’re fortunately that there are films like In Country, and I hope we get more of them. (on DVD)