Historical recreations of war are nothing new, but usually it’s the wars of the distant past that are being replicated: the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and so on. In Salem, Oregon though, a group men take their replicated guns, army surplus and fatigues and head into the woods to re-create what most would consider one of the least heroic chapters in American history, Vietnam. Directors Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara follow this group into the woods for their latest mission, In Country.
Now, the first question that comes to mind is why would anyone want to re-create the experience of being in Vietnam? That’s before the movie even begins. What really starts to make you wonder as you get into the film and meet the various characters though, is why would these people want to re-create Vietnam? Included in their ranks are several Vietnam veterans, who act as technical advisors, as well as several Iraq and Afghan war vets, many of whom are between tours of duty overseas. It makes you think, do they not get enough of this already at their “day job?”
Amongst the veterans are Corporals Ford and Cole. Ford is an infantry man and Cole a field medic, both are between tours and both have seen a lot of action and a lot of bloodshed while on duty. Matt Kinney, meanwhile, honestly tells the camera that he came to join the re-creators because he always wanted military experiences without having to join the actual military. (It might be interesting to know what the actual veterans in his platoon think of that mode of thinking.) Also part of the group is a pair of teenagers, one of whom sees playing “Vietnam” as good practice for when he enlists in the Marine Corps after high school.
Initially, it’s kind of frustrating that Attie and O’Hara aren’t making any judgments with their film. How can these guys like war so much? How can they cite inspiration from movies like Platoon and Good Morning Vietnam, and seem to totally miss the point of their message? How can you watch the “experienced” soldiers instruct the newbies on 60s slang, including the racism, and not say, “hey, this is kind of messed up?”
But perhaps looking at Vietnam this way is just your bias as an audience member. One of the re-enactors is an immigrant from Vietnam who fought for the South Vietnam army, and at a pre-battle gathering, the leader of platoon offers apologies, saying, “Sorry our leadership let you guys down.” Later, in the brush, the directors ask the Vietnamese man if re-creating the days leading up to the lose of his country gives him any bad memories. “I don’t know what you mean exactly by bad memories,” he answers.
Thinking about the movie afterwards, you realize that Attie and O’Hara have opted for the old filmmaker’s adage: “Don’t tell, show,” and from what I can tell, there are two arguments being made in the course of the film. The first is the idea of fantasy, that these men are retreating into a make believe world as a way of coping with reality. It just so happens that the fantasy world in question is a real, historical place as opposed to the fantasy worlds of Westeros or Middle Earth.
The other idea is in the balancing of the war games in the Oregon woods with actual news and archival footage of the real war in Vietnam. TV showed Vietnam for all its warts, and all its negatives, up to and including the treatment of civilians caught in the crossfire of the American and Vietcong forces. The directors reinforce the commentary with home movies made by the members of the group in Iraq where they joke while on patrol, or test the ordinance on their Humvees by blowing up random pieces of the desert.
Later in the film, Cpl. Ford confesses that he’s not sure whether or not he wants to stay in the army as he feels that there’s been a negative effect on himself and his family, but while in the army he’s got a job and a means to support those he loves. It occurs to you how strange the situation is as Ford, and surely others like him in the army, feel trapped by the idea of giving their lives and the idea of losing their livelihood. Yet, the irony of play acting a war so many felt equally trapped it, even as he himself feels trapped in the army, doesn’t seem to occur to him.
Attie and O’Hara show a definite fly-on-the-wall kind of style of documentary filmmaking with In Country. Their editing style is elegant, almost seamlessly going back and forth between the forests of Oregon to the jungles of Southeast Asia. There’s still no real commentary about the last effect of Vietnam, now, nearly 40 years later, and the long, hard wounds it’s still left behind. But then again, perhaps there are less crazy ways to continue the healing than re-enacting the whole thing in the backwoods of America.
In Country is both fascinating and frustrating as the film follows a group of men re-creating Vietnam on their weekends in the forests of Oregon without irony. What they’re doing, and what they’re thinking, is left to the viewer to draw their own conclusions.