HBO’s ‘Letters’ carries unforgettable power

For 60 minutes in a crowded, darkened Oriental Theatre on Milwaukee's East Side Thursday night, the voices of ghosts rumbled over the sounds of quiet sobs in the audience.

They weren't the token sobs of heartbreak or joy that you would expect to find in a movie theater. Instead, they were the wrenching sobs of unadorned grief.

Intermingled with the sobs were the knowing chuckles and acknowledging grunts of the men and women who were there.

"The 32nd MPs (military police national guard unit based in Sheboygan) are like my other family," said Lori Witmer, the mother of Wisconsin Army National Guard Specialist Michelle Witmer, who died in Iraq. She and husband John were addressing the audience in opening remarks for the film. "Would all the 32nd MPs here stand?"

About half the audience rose. There was hearty applause. They sat back down. The film, the sobs, the chuckles and the grunts began.

The voices on the screen were channeled through the lips of relatives reading the letters of dead soldiers in the new HBO documentary "Last Letters Home," which will air for the first time from 8 to 9 p.m. today — Veterans Day — on Time Warner Digital Cable, Channel 311. According to a Time Warner representative, the company is temporarily unscrambling HBO so that basic digital subscribers can access the documentary's screening, but university residence halls and apartments are not able to show the documentary since digital cable is not provided.

The documentary is based on a series of letters that first appeared in The New York Times March 21. The original publication is a collection of excerpts from the last letters five American soldiers wrote home before they were killed.

In most cases in the documentary, the family members reading the letters received them after their brother, sister or husband died. It's even more gripping to see the families talk about the authors of the letters in the present tense.

"That's what he's supposed to be doing right now," said Lisa Johnson, the mother of Capt. Pierre Piché of her son's plans to go into education once the war was over. "He's supposed to doing that instead of dead."

In a year torn asunder by the political machinations of either political party, the solace that the movie gives is less from any real comfort, and more from its honesty to its subjects. The grief is neither Republican nor Democratic, nor is it conservative or liberal; it's the grief of America.

Reaction to the film has been varied. Outside the film's debut, at least one mother said she viewed the film favorably.

"I thought it was a very fitting tribute," said Bonnie Collelo, the mother of Specialist Nicole Sobotik, who was blinded and deafened in one ear in Iraq.

Sobotik declined to comment.

"The last letter I got from her said 'Momma' I'm comin' home'," Collelo said. "She wrote her sergeant was like her father to her, her sergeant really meant a lot to her. He's dead now."

She said while her daughter was gone, she stayed home more than usual and didn't listen to the news. She said that despite the losses around her and the incredible grief, she still supported the war effort.

"I'm so proud of what they've done," she said, voice trembling.

Mark Witmer, Michelle Witmer's brother, had a slightly different response.

"There's no easy answer," he said of his feelings toward the war. "That's it, there's just no easy answer."

"You just have to be totally numb to function," he said of the time before his sister was gone, and his eyes flashed a hint of something deeper than mere pain.

At least one member of the 32nd MPs was discontented with the film.

"The movie was very touching and there was not a dry eye in the theater," a man identifying himself as Sergeant First Class David Salsbury wrote on an HBO bulletin board dedicated to the film. "It was very insitefull (sic) into the families trama (sic) of loosing a loved one."

Salsbury wrote that members from the Second Platoon and others from the company got together at a local bar after the debut, and they noticed one mistake.

"While talking about the movie we all pointed out the mistake that many of us noticed," he wrote. "About three stories into the movie you see a picture of a soldier with his back to the camera. He is saluting a memorial. The memorial he is saluting is the one that was for Michelle Witmer held in Iraq and not for the soldier who the story was about.

"Hopefully all that see the film after reading this will know the truth and the error will be corrected."

More information on HBO's "Letters From Home" is available at www.hbo.com.,”Brian O'Connor”