Judge Michael Rankins thinks Gabrielle the Savage Dockterman would make a cool video game character.
It's never too late to find your way home.
They're out there. Men (and some women too) left scarred physically, and crippled mentally and emotionally by the carnage and horror of the Vietnam War. They haunt our city streets, our freeway underpasses, our mountain caves, our woods and forests. A generation of lost souls, abandoned to sickness, heartbreak, and madness by a thankless government, an uncaring nation, and their own nightmares.
They call themselves "bush vets." They eke out hardscrabble existences by what remains of their wits. And most of us don't know they're alive.
Facts of the Case
According to the history books, the Vietnam War ended 30 years ago. Jake Neeley (Danny Glover, Saw) is still fighting his personal battles, his internal demons. In his handmade cabin on a mountainside in Washington state's densely forested wilderness, Jake hides from the world. He makes occasional forays into the nearest small town to sell loads of wood he hauls down the mountain in his ramshackle truck, the proceeds from which pay for the supplies Jake buys from Kate (Linda Hamilton, The Terminator), the widow who owns the local grocery store. Jake also buys boxes of food he leaves in strategic places for other "bush vets" who inhabit his forest surroundings—people he has never met, and with whom he never interfaces directly, but with whom he shares a bond of common experience.
Jake's isolation is interrupted one day by Henry (David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck), a former member of Jake's infantry unit. Henry is dying of lung cancer, and wants Jake to care for his half-Vietnamese daughter, Lenny (Zoë Weizenbaum, Memoirs of a Geisha). Jake has no interest in playing surrogate father, but when Henry vanishes as suddenly as he appeared, the old soldier and the precocious preteen are thrown together.
Through Lenny's indomitable spirit, Jake begins—in lurching fits and starts—to rediscover life. As they grow closer, the unlikely pair also finds themselves reaching out to others; first Kate the shopkeeper, then the other nearby bush vets. But one of their neighbors—a mute, one-eyed behemoth known only as Red (Ron Perlman, Hellboy)—proves more damaged, and more difficult to reach, than even Jake.
Missing In America reads like a prescription for disaster. It is a story by a first-time screenwriter, co-scripted and directed by a first-time feature filmmaker, and centered around that hoariest of clichés: the cute little kid who breaks through and touches the heart of the mean, crusty old man. Stir in the always challenging-to-handle Vietnam War angle, and suddenly the project develops the potential to lay more eggs than Jake's flock of chickens.
Yet somehow Missing In America works. It isn't perfect, and it makes a couple of unfortunate missteps along its journey, but judged as a whole, its impact can't be denied. Its heart is in the right place, and it knows more about its subject matter than it has space and time to reveal. Credit for the latter goes to writer Ken Miller, a former Green Beret helicopter pilot whose personal connection to the war and the lives it altered palpably informs every frame of the film.
Miller's script shows the marks of a tyro. It thumps a mite heavily on the heartstrings in places where it should pluck gently, and it leans on cliché at times when it doesn't need to. As sharply observed as the portraits of disaffected veterans are, the dynamics of human interactions don't always feel as genuine, and those interactions are subjected more frequently to the machinations of the plot. In particular, the relationship between Jake and Kate takes a couple of arbitrary turns. I suspect that a considerable chunk of substantive byplay between these characters wound up on the cutting room floor. But where Miller's hand falters in the face of his singular vision, the instincts of director Gabrielle Savage Dockterman and script doctor Nancy L. Babine keep the story mostly out of the realm of formulaic melodrama and within the bounds of believability.
A story this emotional can only be as effective as the performers who bring it to life. For a small-budget independent film, Dockterman has assembled a remarkable cast, centered on the powerful Danny Glover. When Glover is on screen, which is most of the time in this film, he commands our attention without begging for it. He completely sells us on the character of Jake—on his history, his pain, and his brokenness. His gradual transformation as Lenny charms her way into his heart is a joy to watch. Glover reveals the awakening of Jake's emotions through his face, his voice, his body language.
Against Glover's compelling presence, Dockterman matches a first-time film actor, 12-year-old Zoë Weizenbaum, whose prior acting experience consisted of a couple of community theater productions. She's a trifle mannered and theatrical, and her read of her character is hazily defined—her affect is too adult at times for her own good—but she captivates the camera and generates beautiful chemistry with her fellow actors. It's an impressive debut.
The other core members of the cast have smaller roles, but each lends invaluable texture to the film. Linda Hamilton exchanges a couple of fine character moments with Glover, and David Strathairn shines as he always does in what amounts to an extended cameo. Ron Perlman is typically Perlmanesque in his tailor-made role as the borderline psychotic mountain man. (When was the last time Perlman got a part that didn't require extensive makeup? He's the Boris Karloff of this generation.)
With the natural wonder of the Pacific Northwest as a canvas (set in western Washington, Missing In America was filmed primarily in British Columbia), cinematographer Ken Kelsch (It Had To Be You) creates a stunning visual display. Kelsch uses every element of the spectacular surroundings to splendid advantage. At times, I imagined I could feel the cool dampness in the mountain air and smell the earthy aroma of the dense Cascade forests.
Without revealing the conclusion, I'll note that I wish the storytellers had found a more suitable way of resolving the narrative. I found myself frustrated with the direction the story takes in the final act. Although I understand—especially after listening to Dockterman's commentary—why the director and her cowriters made the choices they did, but I thought the audience deserved a better return on their emotional investment. Your mileage may vary. (And, to be fair, the alternate ending included as an extra on the DVD shows exactly how much farther wrong the denouement could have veered.)
Despite this, Missing In America remains well worth seeing and appreciating for the talents it showcases, both in front of and behind the camera.
First Look Pictures gives Missing In America a first-class presentation on DVD. Both picture and sound in the main feature are as clear and clean as a viewer could ask. Given that the film works within a narrow color palette most of the time, and is filmed under gray skies amid dense, dark backgrounds, colors appear natural and resonant. My only argument with the transfer is that the brighter scenes all suffer from overactive edge enhancement, creating too stark a contrast with the more realistic-appearing scenes shot indoors or in lower light.
Director Gabrielle Savage Dockterman contributes a full-length audio commentary for her debut film. She isn't the most scintillating monologist you'll ever hear, and she leaves abundant and lengthy silent pauses throughout her low-energy spiel, but she does provide ample background information to place the film and its production in appropriate context.
A set of four so-called deleted scenes offer little added benefit. In truth, these are merely alternate takes or extensions of scenes that remain in the finished film, and there's nothing in any of these that we don't get in different form elsewhere. There's also a sampling of outtakes, none of which are particularly mirth-inducing.
The alternate ending, which would have carried the film's concluding sequence in a clumsily surreal direction, is of value only as an example of an idea that was better off left in the editor's ashcan. If used, this ending would have completely made the viewer rethink much of what went before, to no good reason.
Two behind-the-scenes pieces take place at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C. The first is a three-minute survey of the Wall from one end to the other, shot on Steadicam, with narration by Dockterman. The second shows screenwriter Ken Miller formally presenting a copy of the script at the Wall. Additional background detail is supplied by a nine-screen text feature that includes biographical sketches of Dockterman, Miller, and costar Zoë Weizenbaum.
The film's theatrical trailer is accompanied by previews of three other First Look releases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Viewers intrigued by the film's closing shots of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial may wish to check out Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, a powerful documentary about the Wall and its controversial creator.
Missing In America draws us into a world most of us don't even realize exists—the world of the lost generation of Vietnam War veterans. Highlighted by a strong performance by Danny Glover, Gabrielle Savage Dockterman's film deserves a closer look.
Not guilty. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Gabrielle Savage Dockterman
Review content copyright © 2006 Michael Rankins; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.