Review: We Were Soldiers

Set in 1965, this tells the true story of the first American unit that had a major role in the conflict in Vietnam. Mel Gibson is Lt. Col. Moore, in charge of a group of mostly ‘green’ (but properly trained) soldiers who land in Vietnam via newfangled ‘Huey’ helicopters, dropped immediately in front of enemy fire of around 2,000 dedicated, smart, and skilful North Vietnamese soldiers. Moore, a student of history and military tactics tells his men before they head out, that no man will be left behind, and does his best to learn from the mistakes of others in similar positions before him. Sam Elliott is Moore’s gruff, hard-bitten second-in-command, Sgt. Maj. Plumley, Greg Kinnear is a yahoo pilot nicknamed ‘Snakeshit’, and Chris Klein is gentle, pensive Lieutenant Geoghegan, who is a recent father, and a man of faith, like Moore. Barry Pepper plays a photojournalist who meets up with Moore’s men and ends up having to join in the fight in order to stay alive. In scenes that serve as a break from the carnage and visceral frenzy of war, Madeleine Stowe and Keri Russell play the respective spouses of Moore and Geoghegan respectively. Stowe, seeing that a taxi company has been assigned the horrible task of notifying spouses of dead soldiers, takes it upon herself to deliver the telegrams, with Russell eventually joining her.

When I first saw this Randall Wallace (screenwriter of “Braveheart”, director of “The Man in the Iron Mask”) war flick from 2002, I was expecting a flag-waving, pro-war catastrophe, the modern version of “The Green Berets”. And whilst writer-director Wallace does not make an overtly anti-Vietnam War flick, he does make a respectful, pro-soldiers flick, and surely no one can say anything bad about that. War is bad, but soldiers are trying to do good, right? Even the enemy soldiers aren’t demonised, they aren’t featured much, but they’re simply portrayed as soldiers on the ‘other’ side. If anything, Wallace just gives us a war flick free of political leanings, and if you ask me, any war film that captures battle effectively will end up being anti-war anyway, and that is the case here. I’ve heard at least one famed (French) filmmaker suggest that any war movie ultimately ends up glorifying war, but I believe that if the film is well-made and realistic, the opposite will likely be true. Based on a true story from early in the Vietnam conflict, it presents war as chaotic, noisy, bloody, horrifying and convincing enough that it ultimately can’t be seen as a pro-war film. This is certainly no “Green Berets”, it’s a very well-made film that gets away with not taking an overtly Anti-Vietnam War stance partly because this could really be any war. The story basics still apply, no matter what war you’re talking about. It’s not as immersive, intense and unrelenting as “Black Hawk Down”, but on that front it’s still a pretty close second (In fact the three best war films from 1998 to the present have been those two films and “Saving Private Ryan”).

The battle scenes are top-shelf stuff, pretty unrelenting, visceral and violent at times. The opening battle in particular is memorably bloody and impactful. The cinematography by Dean Semler (“Razorback”, “Dances With Wolves”, Mel Gibson’s underrated “Apocalypto”) is terrific, and even the use of shaky-cam is really well-employed and restrained, for once. It also manages to not look like a complete rip-off of “Saving Private Ryan”, like a lot of war films after that film’s release. Through Semler, Wallace depicts the landscape quite differently to say Oliver Stone (whose “Platoon” still remains the best war movie of all-time in my book). Wallace has it looking rather attractive, whereas Stone made it look frighteningly oppressive and confusing, to match his depiction of the actual war. In many ways, this is the film that “The Story of G.I. Joe” and Terence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” should’ve been. This film has far more emotional pull than the remote and episodic “G.I. Joe”. I find Pepper’s war journalist so much more believable than Burgess Meredith’s Ernie Pyle in “G.I. Joe”, because he ends up right in the thick of battle, even having to take arms. Perhaps Pyle’s experiences weren’t like this, but I just found him too passive a screen character. I will say, though, that Pepper enters the picture way too late for someone who actually narrates the film. It actually doesn’t make any logical sense given he wasn’t there for a lot of the events, and we aren’t told whether he talked to anyone about the events before his arrival.

The reason why it improves on “The Thin Red Line” is that although few of these characters are 3D, at least you can tell them apart. Mel Gibson, whatever his personal issues and demons may be in real life, can be one of the best and most commanding presences in a film. He’s rarely bad on screen and this role is a perfect fit for him, as he gives a stoic and quietly heroic turn. He reminds me of Glenn Ford in that respect, and not just because he was in the remake of “Ransom”, based on a Ford flick. One of the strengths of the film is that it shows the burden and responsibility on Gibson’s shoulders, leading these mostly young men into probable death. Admittedly I think Wallace and Gibson lay the praying on a bit too thick, not because I’m an atheist but just because it’s laid on too thick. At one point Gibson jocularly refers to the ‘enemy’ as ‘heathens’, he’s kinda joking but you get the sense he’s kinda serious too, and it is unnecessary. I figure in Mel’s world, only the atheists are fucked but then, that’s a little more open-minded than some ultra-religious people, I guess. Still he has the presence, gravitas, and decency necessary for the part, and manages to inject a little humour and charm into the role too. Gibson is backed up by a pretty impressive cast...and Madeleine Stowe and Keri Russell are there, too (cheap shot, I know). Sam Elliott, for me, is the scene-stealer. I’ve always been a fan of the gruff-voiced actor (here playing a mixture between John Wayne regular Ward Bond and maybe a latter day Richard Widmark), and he’s excellent here, despite not looking like a ‘Plumley’ to me. His gruff, profane line-readings are among the film’s highlight, including these three gems; ‘What’re you, the fuckin’ weatherman now?’- after being greeted with ‘Good Morning’, ‘Any of you sumabitches calls me grandpa, I’ll kill ‘ya!’, and (to Gibson) ‘Sir, Custer was a ain’t!’. That middle one, as gruff Elliott glares menacingly, is my favourite. Smugly charming former TV host Greg Kinnear is far from my favourite actor, but he’s pretty good here. However, he should never, ever be encouraged to sing on film again. I’m not a fan of Chris Klein either, believing him to be a one-trick pony, but this sincere, earnest, and not-as-dumb-as-usual part fits him like a glove. Stowe and Russell definitely bring up the rear with dull performances. However, at least Stowe can claim she was in the brilliant “Last of the Mohicans”, whereas all Russell can say is that she’s the chick in Bon Jovi’s “Always” clip who isn’t Carla Gugino. And if you ain’t Carla Gugino in that clip, I ain’t giving a crap. The scenes with the wives on the home front is admittedly cliché and not nearly as effective as the rest of the film. This is true, but it’s an aspect of the war not often dwelled on as much as this film does. So for that, I kinda appreciated it. Clichéd or not, the montage of Stowe delivering the telegrams just drives home how many lives were lost. It’s incredible.

The film (based on the book by the real-life Moore and Galloway) isn’t perfect, and it has a definite pacing problem. You see, as much as those early scenes help set-up the enormous burden and responsibility on Gibson’s shoulders, it takes forever to actual get to the battle. It takes more than a half hour to get to the battlefield, and that is a definite flaw (It’s not until about an hour in before Pepper shows up, either). However, this film does a lot of things damn near perfectly, and when it is on target, it’s great. Political stance or none, the film is one of the more memorable war films of the 90s-00s period. Terrific, quite varied score by Nick Glennie-Smith (The lukewarm Steven Seagal flick “Fire Down Below”) is occasionally so stirring and thunderous it reminded me of Basil Poledouris (“Robocop”, “Conan the Barbarian”).

Rating: B


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