We Were Soldiers

(2002) *** R
138 min. Paramount. Directors: Randall Wallace, Allan Graf. Cast: Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott, Chris Klein.

Though we've never been long without one, it seems war movies are all the rage again. In particular, Hollywood has resurrected the brotherhood theme in depicting our brave fighting men. Screenwriter Randall Wallace, with his directorial debut We Were Soldiers, makes another compelling argument for what most Americans accept: war is hell, and there but for the grace of God go we. Before claiming the director's chair, Wallace famously wrote Braveheart and (infamously, I suppose) Pearl Harbor. We Were Soldiers falls somewhere in between, with a main course of bloody, emotionally framed history and a side of schmaltz.

Among the advantages of cutting out the middleman and directing one's own script is maintaining the integrity of the material. Among the disadvantages is the potential lack of perspective in making the tough choices in the editing room. Wallace skillfully capitalizes on the first and indulgently falls prey to the latter. Based on We Were Soldiers Once...And Young by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and war correspondent Joseph L. Galloway, Wallace's film provides uncomplicated clarity (for better and worse) of the political complications and military limitations which led to the extended battle between 2000 North Vietnamese soldiers and 400 U.S. Air Cavalry troopers--our first major engagement of the Vietnam War--on November 14, 1965. Unfortunately, Wallace also succumbs to redundancy and sentiment before the smoke clears.

As prelude, Wallace introduces us to Moore (Mel Gibson), commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry. When informed of this designation, Moore quietly notes, "7th. Same as Custer." Wallace patiently observes the pervading gloom before the battle: Moore's homework (including training drills, the signing of his will, and portentous study of Custer's last stand) and fond farewells to family (Gibson leaves wife Madeleine Stowe and a brood of five behind). Wallace also captures, early on, the spirit Moore and his men mustered to accept their duty and ship out. This opening section, calculatedly designed to build anticipation for the inevitable nightmarish confrontation, succeeds in this goal, but with limited scene-to-scene effect due to the repetitiveness of the first act.

With "simple orders--find the enemy and kill him"--Moore and his Air Cavalry drop into Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley, dubbed the "Valley of Death." The platoon is embodied ably enough by Chris Klein, Greg Kinnear, and Sam Elliott, but the focus is mostly split between Moore, his born-leader wife at home, and Galloway (Saving Private Ryan alumnus Barry Pepper), who touches down at X-Ray midway through the hairy contest, in time to record the gruesome scene. Pepper and Gibson get the most emotional mileage, with their rueful, wounded heroism.

The brutal snafus of the battle resonate with those of Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. Like Scott, Wallace expertly conveys the chronological and topographical context, so the resulting war episodes play like a well-choreographed inverse of Oliver Stone's football-as-war metaphor Any Given Sunday: war as football, with Gibson as the tenacious, well-prepared coach holding the playbook and refusing to be ejected from the game by the "owners" in the booth (nervous generals threaten to pull Moore before he becomes a symbolic casualty). Wallace shows a flair for memorable imagery: silent trainees listening to a real battle over radio, Gibson's booted feet dwarfing the barefoot feet of his unspoiled child, a hand drenched in blood closing the eyes of a dead soldier and another slicing burning phosphorous off the face of a screaming comrade. Despite the tragic air, Wallace leavens the film with surprising good humor, much of it courtesy of Elliott's terrifically deadpan Sgt. Maj. Plumley.

But the opening and closing of the film tend to overstatement both polemic and emotional. The former category includes tossed-bone scenes supposedly representing the Vietnamese perspective ("Kill all they send. And they will stop coming"); the latter category a clumsy, sore-thumb scene about racism and the persistent, out-of-proportion family theme. Wallace most loudly proclaims this theme in a clunky hospital chapel scene between new father Klein and Gibson, who when asked if he is troubled to be a soldier and a father, repsonds, "I hope that being good at one makes me better at the other." Indeed, Gibson is portrayed as the father (though more a "people person" than John Wayne's gruff military patriarch) to the "band of brothers."

Finally, We Were Warriors, though simple, illuminates an intriguing moment before the Vietnam War was history, and when we see the last men standing, we know they will never recover.

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