Times -- and Vietnam War movies -- have changed
[Photos: Paramount Picture]
Mel Gibson, center, stars as Lt. Col. Harold G. Moore and Sam Elliott, right, as Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley in We Were Soldiers.
By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 28, 2002
There aren't any insane Vietnam vets in We Were Soldiers, no My Lai guilt trips or hallucinatory symbols of that conflict's madness. This is the movie that survivors of the war in Southeast Asia have deserved for decades, one setting aside politics in favor of bravery overlooked too long.
We Were Soldiers, based on the first major battle with North Vietnamese forces, depicts the war's pride and pain without the politics.
Based on the true story of the first major U.S. battle with North Vietnam forces, We Were Soldiers plunges moviegoers into the frenzied precision of military violence. Not to the dazzling extent of Black Hawk Down, because Randall Wallace isn't half the director Ridley Scott can be. Wallace relies instead on fairly standard camera and editing procedures.
But while Scott's movie was masterfully tactical, Wallace's film also pushes emotional buttons that have constantly been ignored, as if losing a war automatically negates the losses. It took a long time for a Vietnam War memorial to seem like a good idea, and only now has a filmmaker addressed the supportive feelings of families left behind.
Mel Gibson, right, and Sam Elliott land in the Ia Drang Valley, the site of an intense conflict in We Were Soldiers.
This isn't the angry, disillusioned home front of Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July. The Army wives of We Were Soldiers have their own resolve, carrying on what passes as normal life, hoping a tragic telegram of protocol regret never comes. The movie is set in 1965, before antiwar protests, when dying for American values wasn't loudly questioned. Sept. 11 brought us back to that perspective, making Wallace's movie relevant despite the four-decade time difference.
Mel Gibson is a striking presence as Lt. Col. Hal Moore, commander of the 7th Cavalry helicopter strike force and a father figure on both sides of the world. John Wayne played a similar role for a more popular war in Sands of Iwo Jima. Gibson adopts a folksy twang in his voice, toning down the frisky sincerity of most of his roles. The result is one of his best performances, a compelling portrait of focused complexity. We'd follow this man into battle, church or anyplace else.
His better half -- and the movie's -- is Madeleine Stowe as Julie Moore, the wife left behind to guide other officers' wives. One of the smartest moves Wallace makes as a screenwriter is refusing to give Stowe a scene playing overt anguish. Julie's pain is quieter because, like Hal, she can't afford to let her "troops" see her crack. She takes it upon herself to deliver those killed-in-action telegrams, leading to a heartbreaking montage of new widows' faces, a succinct emblem of Vietnam's overlooked legacy.
We Were Soldiers works best in those stateside sequences, whether it's wives comparing shopping tips with fear underlying the small talk or Moore's training sessions for a type of warfare never attempted before. The most effective passage in We Were Soldiers is the leaving rather than the returning home: last kisses, silent shifts to professionalism and soldiers sharing glances to confirm each other's resolve.
When the choppers land in the vital Ia Drang Valley and the action gets hot, Wallace can't keep the confusion under cinematic control. The skirmishes over a three-day period are brutally graphic with some memorable singular images, like a flare exposing enemy soldiers too close for comfort. Yet so many bodies get mangled that it's hard to tell which side gains advantage until somebody tells us.
As in most war movies, individual personalities are barely defined except for a cliched wise guy (Greg Kinnear) and an idealistic new father (Chris Klein). Only Sam Elliott's ramrod presence as Moore's right-hand bully makes an impression, mostly through profane comic relief.
The film is based on Moore's book, co-written with former Associated Press reporter Joe Galloway, but that character doesn't arrive until the final hour, with Barry Pepper (*61) making up for lost time with a heroically brittle performance.
Galloway's narration notes that this story is dedicated to U.S. veterans and, in an uncommon display of warrior respect, the People's Army of Vietnam, our enemy. One Vietnamese soldier represents their human loss, and a thoughtful commander (Don Duong) shows their military acumen. Compare that to the jingoistic hysterics of Wayne's 1968 The Green Berets for a hint of how times have changed. We Were Soldiers evidences the war's pride and pain without the politics and stubbornness that kept it suppressed so long. Even the Duke might salute.
We Were Soldiers
- Grade: A-
- Director: Randall Wallace
- Cast: Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Sam Elliott, Greg Kinnear, Chris Klein, Barry Pepper, Keri Russell
- Screenplay: Randall Wallace, based on the book We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young by Joe Galloway and Gen. Hal Moore
- Rating: R; graphic and sustained war violence, profanity
- Running time: 138 min.
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