Randall Wallace and Gibson last teamed up on Braveheart and came away with a bushel of gold statuettes. Their latest collaboration is a Vietnam war flick called We Were Soldiers based upon the novel by Lt. Col. Hal Moore and photographer Joe Galloway. It details the chaos of the battle at Ia Drang where 400 US soldiers were surrounded in a valley by 2000 North Vietnamese fighters and held their own for three long days.
The opening chunk of We Were Soldiers concerns the domestic side of the soldiers. Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) is a man of great honor and battlefield heroics complete with five kids and a determined and loving wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe). Does anyone have any problems identifying the hero yet? Moore has been commanded to assemble an inexperienced band of soldiers and mold them into the 7th Cavalry division. His men include new father Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein), helicopter pilot Maj. Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear) and grizzled veteran Sgt.-Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott). They’ve been called in to be apart of one of the first strikes of the Vietnam War in 1965. Gibson rallies the troops and they head toward the East. What followed could be deemed a suicide mission as the 7th Cavalry and other divisions were surrounded by the advancing Vietcong and fought to the teeth for their survival.
Director Randall Wallace (who last directed and adapted for the screen Man in the Iron Mask) is a director that doesn’t know a thing about subtlety in his mess of patriotism. Wallace just doesn’t hammer his points and views; he’ll bludgeon you to death with them. Gibson ensures his men that he will be the first one into battle and the last to leave. Sure enough, as the helicopter is setting down we see a big close-up of Gibson’s boot hitting the earth and a thunderous echo follows. The point has been made. Wallace also manages to squeeze in a bit where he can skewer the media. A horde of reporters show up at the end of the battle, ducking at any noise they hear, and stick their mics in Gibson’s face asking absurd questions like “How do you feel about the loss of your men?” Oh Wallace, you are such a shrewd satirist.
The violence in the film is incredibly graphic, as with the tradition of most recent war movies like Black Hawk Down. The violence almost reaches a sadistic level where we see slow motion shot after shot of people with a geyser of blood spewing from head wounds. The blood flows freely and often but loses its impact. I would even go as far as saying that much of the violence in ‘We Were Soldiers’ is overkill under Wallace.
The makeup that accompanies some of the battle wounds is surprisingly disappointing (as is a lot in the film). One character, after an accidental blast from napalm, has half his head looking like a burnt marshmallow. The shoddiness of the look inspires more laughs under your breath than gasps.
The battle of Ia Drang shows reactions from both sides of those fighting. Every now and then the film cuts back to the Vietnamese side in their underground lair. The leadership over explains all their strategic movements in large flailing gestures. It’s like a cheap play-by-play for the audience. We Were Soldiers also follows the recent trend of trying to humanize the enemy. But these attempts are easily seen as the hollow politically correct handouts that they are. One scene shows a Vietnamese soldier writing in a book to his honey back home. It’s nice to see clichés transcend ethnicity.
The film succumbs to the usual war movie clichés and Hollywood formula. The problem with making a supposed “emotional” Vietnam movie is that the definitive Vietnam movies concerning the madness of battle (Apocalypse Now and Platoon) and the crippling after-effects (The Deer Hunter and Born on the Fourth of July) have already been made. We Were Soldiers portrays Vietnam before the politics got in the way and concentrates on the courage of the men who dutifully entered into battle at the heed of their country’s call. I can’t help but feel that the men who bled and died in that battle don’t deserve a better movie.
Gibson as Moore gives a stoic performance and adds a level of humor to the figure, but there’s no questioning the mettle of this soldier. Gibson’s character is almost an exaggerated propaganda action figure. Moore’s courage is unquestionable and that’s the way they want it. Madeleine Stowe is a terrific actress but is generally wasted here. Most of the movie she spends her time hugging people while wearing some horrible Cher wig and looking eerily like Hillary Swank in The Gift. Chris Klein looks entirely out of place, as does his wife played by curly-coifed Felicity actress Keri Russell. Greg Kinnear spends the entire movie sitting in a helicopter chair barely seen. They could have saved some money and hired an extra.
We Were Soldiers is an okay film but it should have been much more. Gibson elevates what could have been worse but Wallace isn’t doing the film any justice. Wallace is too heavy-handed with his direction and flag-waving message and seems to have his film begging to be taken seriously. We Were Soldiers can pass the time all right, but there are better things you could do then watch this force-fed old-fashioned narrative.
Nate’s Grade: C