A Drama of Vietnam Vets

`In Country' deals credibly with the war's aftermath. FILM: REVIEW

`IN COUNTRY' belongs to the new breed of post-Vietnam films that deal not with the morality of the war, but with the difficulty of healing the scars it left in the American psyche. It's a dubious practice, I think, to disregard the question of whether this war should have been fought in the first place, much less the question of whether war itself can be justified as a human activity in any but the most desperate of circumstances. Yet the aftermath of Vietnam is a worthy subject in its own right, and some corrective is needed to the idea (implicitly dealt with in ``Dog Soldiers'' and a few other films) that soldiers who were drafted to fight in Vietnam are best ignored now that the war is history. With much sincerity and a modicum of intelligence - certainly more intelligence than the finale of the current ``Casualties of War'' shows - ``In Country'' addresses their plight and some issues related to it.

The story takes place mainly in a small Kentucky town called Hopewell, where most folks have done their best to forget about Southeast Asia and the slaughter that took place there. But the aftermath of a war is a lingering thing, and, try as they might to put Vietnam out of their minds, the community finds the upsets of that experience are hard to erase. Eventually, the film's main characters are drawn to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, where their emotions come into the daylight and are dealt with openly at last.

``In Country'' has two protagonists. One, played by Emily Lloyd, is a teen-age girl named Samantha, whose own father (whom she never knew) died on a Vietnam battlefield. The other is her Uncle Emmett, played by Bruce Willis, a veteran whose amiable personality is marred by some very eccentric behavior. Each of them is troubled by this war that ended years ago: Emmett is haunted by memories of what happened there, Samantha by questions about it. ``In Country'' is the story of their slow progress toward some kind of understanding - with each other, and with the past that's been a burden for them both.

I saw ``In Country'' shortly before its United States premi`ere, when it was the opening-night attraction at the annual Festival of Festivals here in Toronto. Most of the audience found it shallow and unconvincing. I eventually encountered a handful of people who agreed with me that it raises an important subject - the need to remember and understand a national trauma - and that its performances have a lot to recommend them. Still, even I have to agree that the last half-hour, set at the Vietnam Memorial, is pretty weak, sliding into the weepiest kind of sentimentality.

I hope ``In Country'' finds a reasonably big audience despite its shortcomings, however, since it treats the lingering effects of Vietnam with welcome seriousness and avoids any hint of sensationalism. The acting in the film also deserves a nod of approval: Mr. Willis shows a subtlety that I haven't seen in his work before, and the gifted Ms. Lloyd can apparently do just about anything, as her work in this picture - following her portrayals of an English girl in ``Wish You Were Here'' and a Brooklynite in ``Cookie'' - heartily demonstrates.

Directed by Norman Jewison, a filmmaker with a long (though mixed) track record, ``In Country'' has its failings. But its sincerity and conviction lift it above much of the instantly disposable cinema now on our movie screens.

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