`Letters Home From Vietnam'. Authentic mail gives TV show emotional impact

Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam HBO/pay cable, Sunday, 9-10:30 p.m. (repeated April 12, 17, 20, 25, and 30). Writers: Richard Dewhurst and Bill Couturie, based on the book, edited by Bernard Edelman. If it had been possible to make ``Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam'' in the 1960s, the Vietnam war might have been ended much sooner than it did. This program is a more devastating portrayal of the tragic waste of life in that war than the hard-hitting Oliver Stone movie, ``Platoon.''

This harrowingly convincing TV document delivers its message about the uncertainty and futility of that war through use of authentic materials - letters and home movies from soldiers, snapshots, and newsreel footage, combined with a sound track of pop rock music of the era. According to the producers, ``Every scene, every shot is real. Nothing has been reenacted.''

The sometimes down-to-earth, often melodramatic, but always moving letters are read off-camera by unidentified actors - among them Tom Berenger, Ellen Burstyn, Robert De Niro, Brian Dennehy, Matt Dillon, Michael J. Fox, Elizabeth McGovern, Sean Penn, Randy Quaid, Martin Sheen, Kathleen Turner, and Robin Williams. They relate the keen and poignant observations about the war through the words of those who were there.

The film also includes TV reports from NBC newsmen and footage of politicians making promises that would not be kept. Every now and then, statistics flash on screen - the number of soldiers in Vietnam, the number of dead, the number of wounded. The numbers grow ominously.

``Dear America'' is a belated letter of condolence. It says to those who suffered that the nation has finally come to understand, and is willing to face up to, the day-to-day effect on its warriors of a war that could not be won.

Be prepared for tears of sorrow and tenderness. Be prepared for the emotional impact of an unforgettable Christmas scene, as the strains of ``Silent Night'' echo from Marine company to company as tracers light up the sky like shooting stars. Be prepared for the heartbreaking letter left at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington by the mother of a victim.

``One thing worries me,'' says a soldier in one of the letters. ``Will people want to hear about it? Or will they want to forget the whole thing happened?''

``Dear America'' will not allow people to forget. It sears its way into the consciousness like a perfectly calibrated missile.

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