13 September 2010

Distant Thunder

United States - 1988
Director - Rick Rosenthal
Paramount Home Video, 1989, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 54 minutes
Starring - Ralph Macchio and John Lithgow

Distant Thunder is a formulaic Viet-Vet film starring John Lithgow as a deep reconnaissance Navy S.E.A.L (or perhaps a LRRP) who has returned home but estranged himself from his family and secluded himself deep in the Washington wilderness with a number of other loose-cannon veterans. On the verge of graduating from high-school, his son, Ralph Macchio discovers that his father is in fact alive and not killed in action as he had believed.

Distant Thunder is one of a fairly large body of films that deals with the returned Vietnam veteran and the difficulty he has re-assimilating into civilian society. All of the films in this tiny subgenre characterize Vietnam vets as psychologically or emotionally damaged (always male; usually but not always white) by their experiences and either violent or withdrawn or both. If the vet is not outwardly damaged he usually acts as the foil for another crazy friend (as in Jacknife or Cease Fire) whose recovery or inevitable (but cathartic) death he must sanction, for he is the only one who can possibly understand (Deer Hunter or again, Cease Fire.) If the veteran doesn't have any war buddies with whom to commiserate, he may be lucky enough to have a family member or friend who refuses to give up on him. In all cases, and Distant Thunder is the archetype here, the veteran feels guilty for something he and/or his comrades did in the war, something for which he and his friend/family/buddy must forgive him and for which he must forgive himself. The entire narrative is a veiled effort to discuss the U.S. national trauma of the Vietnam War (Era), and its attempt to come to terms with what it had done and to move on. It was a proxy self analysis which externalized the blame from the system (all of us) to the individual (the participant).

Macchio makes contact with a woman who has been sympathetic to Lithgow's troubles and travels to Washington to try and meet his father. In white jeans and a windbreaker, he climbs deep into the mountains to find the isolated vet-encampment and stirs up a hornet's nest of partially restrained PTSD violence which very nearly destroys them all. It's an overstuffed version of a well worn storyline, but despite this is well acted. Even Macchio puts in a good performance in this one, but Lithgow in particular transcends the cookie-cutterness of his role and imbues the haunted-Vet trope with significant pathos. The first time I saw this in 1991, it was on a bus  in South America and I didn't speak Spanish. It should say something that Distant Thunder was memorable enough for me to track down over a decade later and rewatch.

From Movie Poster Shop.

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