By Rob Blackwelder
Mel Gibson plays yet another idealized and idealistic father-of-five war hero, bursting at the seams with charge-leading integrity in "We Were Soldiers," a detailed and staggering account of the first harrowing battle of the Vietnam War.
This may sound like a bit much to take so soon after he single-handedly vanquished the British as a choleric colonial in "The Patriot." But Gibson is well cast in this far heavier and historically accurate picture that only falls back on hackneyed Hollywoodisms when it takes a break from the battlefield (and that isn't very often).
Gibson stars as Lt. Col. Hal Moore, the man who reluctantly but boldly lead the first American ground troops into the Ia Drang Valley on November 14, 1965 -- 11 years after the occupying French were trounced in the same location (as established in the film's brutal World War I-styled prologue).
It becomes clear even before Moore and his Seventh Cavalry (the same unit General Custer commanded) leave Fort Benning, Georgia -- kissing their wives and kids goodbye in a very affecting pre-dawn moment frozen in time -- that he knows they're headed into a near-impossible situation.
Within minutes of disembarking from a squadron of low-flying helicopters (an incredible overhead shot shows the troops rushing into position through a field of tall grass flattened by rotary wind), the Seventh is attacked by Viet Cong defenders, bisected and pinned down for a two-day firefight that makes the recent "Black Hawk Down" look like a minor skirmish.
Under-prepared, outnumbered and ill-informed about the resistance they'd encounter, the unit loses men left and right in a cinematic but chillingly realistic and tensely sustained battle that takes lives without warning and without melodramatic fanfare no matter how central a character might seem.
While writer-director Randall Wallace (who penned "Braveheart" and an early draft of "Pearl Harbor") has true events and real characters on his side (the film is based on a book by Moore and a UPI photographer who documented the battle), he's sometimes too obvious about just who will die. Among the major characters are a gruff, leathery sergeant major (Sam Elliott) who has already fought in two wars and prefers a .45 pistol to the M-16, a fearless helicopter pilot (Greg Kinnear in a surprisingly durable performance) and a 2nd Lieutenant Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein), a new father and an All-American boy who wears a child's bracelet with his newborn daughter's name on it and has built schools for orphans in Africa.
I'd say "oh, brother," but Wallace didn't make this stuff up. OK, maybe the bracelet. But the important thing is that after effectively personalizing the first two deaths on the battlefield, Wallace keeps the rest of the casualties equally cogent without being theatrical about it.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the film's well-timed breaks from the combat. When "We Were Soldiers" returns to the home front for a subplot revolving around the wives (led by Madeline Stowe as the stalwart Mrs. Moore), Wallace starts strong then slaps you in the face with cheap emotional manipulation. The film's most powerful, heartbreaking scene, involving the Army's failure to properly deliver the dreaded telegrams of regret, is ruined by a gratuitously maudlin montage of wives crying through screen doors, superimposed over a waving American flag.
Every time Wallace takes a breather from the bullets, he plays to the balcony in this manner. "Daddy, what's a war?" Moore's precious 5-year-old daughter asks in a highly scripted tender moment before his departure. Later cases of overkill include a pretentious montage of black-and-white battle photos, and one of those ridiculous, only-in-the-movies scenes of a soldier ringing his own doorbell so his wife can burst into tears at the sight of him.
But for all my complaints, each time the firing resumed, I tensed up something fierce. "We Were Soldiers" captures the chaos of this battle that was a harbinger of things to come, the grave danger breathing down the neck of every combatant (both American and Vietnamese), and especially the heroism that resulted.
What's more, Wallace finds potent and invigoratingly novel ways to illustrate these elements. A pilot's point-of-view shot as a supply helicopter encounters anti-aircraft fire in the night sky is incredible. An image of a dead soldier's legs hanging over the side as that chopper lifts off minutes later has just as strong an impact, and so does the sight of blood being washed out of the back of the huey when it later lands at the base of operations.
The close-quarters combat comes through forcefully in a scene of wounded Americans firing at the encroaching hoards even as they cradle bandaged body parts, and especially a gasp-inspiring shot of a surrounded unit holed up in the dark as Vietnamese soldiers advance silently on their position.
"I need illumination!" a commander whispers desperately into the radio. A few seconds later, a mortar flare bathes the whole area in an instant of frightful light, revealing dozens of the enemy barely arm's length away, with weapons drawn.
When the U.S. Army finally gets organized enough to try to extract Moore's battalion, the subsequent buzz-bombing and napalming packs a mighty cinematic punch too.
Wallace falls back on Hollywood contrivance in the battle's finale, which isn't very clear about how the Americans emerged victorious except to imply that it involved the absurd concept of noisy helicopters somehow sneaking up on the enemy. But while occasional combat exaggeration or overwrought tear duct-poking undercut the greatness potential of "We Were Soldiers," the film is still an imposing and inspiring war film that's true to the spirit of Lt. Col. Moore, who always stood by his promise to be the first man to set foot on a battlefield and the last one to leave.
Run time: 138 mins
In Theaters: Friday 1st March 2002
Box Office USA: $78.1M
Box Office Worldwide: $114.7M
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: Paramount Pictures, Icon Productions
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 63%
Fresh: 90 Rotten: 53
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Randall Wallace
Starring: Mel Gibson as Lt. Col. Hal Moore, Greg Kinnear as Maj. Bruce 'Snake' Crandall, Madeleine Stowe as Julie Moore, Sam Elliott as Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley, Chris Klein as 2nd Lt. Jack Geoghegan, Keri Russell as Barbara Geoghegan, Barry Pepper as Joe Galloway, Clark Gregg as Capt. Tom Metsker, Marc Blucas as 2nd Lt. Henry Herrick, Jsu Garcia as Capt. Tony Nadal, Robert Bagnell as 1st Lt. Charlie Hastings, Blake Heron as Sp4 Galen Bungum, Josh Daugherty as Sp4 Robert Ouellette, Jon Hamm as Capt. Matt Dillon, Dylan Walsh as Capt. Robert Edwards, Erik MacArthur as Sp4 Russell Adams, Mark McCracken as Capt. Ed 'Too Tall' Freeman, Desmond Harrington as Sp4 Bill Beck, Duong Don as Lt. Col. Nguyen Huu An, Ryan Hurst as Sgt. Ernie Savage
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