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We Were Soldiers

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: We Were Soldiers

Starring: Mel Gibson, Sam Elliott
Director: Randall Wallace
Rated: R
RunTime: 138 Minutes
Release Date: March 2002
Genres: Action, War

*Also starring: Clark Gregg, Greg Kinnear, Chris Klein, Barry Pepper, Madeleine Stowe, Keri Russell, Dylan Walsh

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Roger Ebert makes a salient point in his review of the film, noting an experience he had at the Hawaii Film Festival some fifteen years ago a festival to die for since North Vietnamese directors showed up with a group of their films the victors' interpretations of the Vietnam War. One audience member, says Mr. Ebert, noted that the word "Americans" was not even mentioned in any of the North Vietnamese films and complained that the Asian group treated us in the same faceless ways that we have portrayed our enemies in our own war pictures. The answer from one director was a surprise. Instead of stating that "we consider our enemy a faceless mass," he explained that "We have been at war so long, first with the Chinese, then, the French, then the Americans, that we just think in terms of the enemy."

If only we in the U.S. had that foresight which, strangely enough, we did if only we interpreted the data in what now seems the most rational way. We thought that the Chinese were behind the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communist) rebellion against the pro-western South Vietnamese government. We thought that if Vietnam "fell" to the communists, the rest of Asia would topple as well into a strong group of anti-Western nations. Wrong wrong wrong. The Vietnamese Communists did win and not a single Asian country has "gone Communist" since. The Chinese have been traditionally been the enemies of the Vietnamese not their overlords.

Nothing new how does Randall Wallace's movie break any ground...tell us what we did not know before? For one thing, Wallace treats the enemy as not faceless at all but human beings just like us. Yes, we probably knew that they put their pants on one leg at a time, but isn't it surprising how many of us probably never considered asking ourselves that? In one scene, a bespectacled North Vietnamese soldiers fixes his bayonet to his rifle, takes a last look at a picture of his girl friend, puts the book with the picture inside his shirt, and marches into the fray not with a fearless, nationalistic look on his face but with some deep breaths and beads of sweat pouring from his forehead.

The human aspects of the war are far more prevalent on the American side as Wallace shows us the officers at a U.S. army base from sergeant to lieutenant colonel training before their 12,000 mile trip away from home and hones in on their wives who are all young and pert and who say and do the most predictable things. The weakest parts of the film center on the sentiments of the women, who meet regularly under the de facto leadership of Julie Moore (Madeleine Stowe), who is the wife of Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson). To be fair, perhaps to be consistently sincere Wallace is more intent on showing his audience what really gets talked about on the army bases rather than attempting to dramatize in a ham-fisted style. The obligatory expressions of dismay cross their faces when they learn that the local laundromat sports a sign "whites only" and the owner is not referring to clothing. Is it really true that a cleaning establishment doing business with an army base seventeen years after Truman desegregated the units and eleven years after the Supreme Court ordered deliberate segregated schools unconstitutional would have such an advisory?

"We Were Soldiers" is based on a true story of Hal Moore who survived the war despite his insistence on being the first person on the ground and his promise, carried out, to leave no man behind. The battle scenes in the 'nam are more impressive than the TV-level dialogue back home. Wallace is intent on showing that heroism under fire is not about battling to defend your country's flag but simply a struggle of the enlisted men to survive. The story deals with a battle in November 1965, the year that President L.B. Johnson escalated the American role in the conflict by upping the troop level from 75,000 to 125,000. The Americans are outnumbered, depending on superior technology to avoid a Custer-style decimation, and indeed the choppers which became the principal icon of the Vietnam War from the American side are instrumental in taking out hundreds of the enemy while fighter planes drop deadly napalm on the North Vietnamese hiding in the jungles.

Bloody as the battle scenes are we see one man with half his face and both his feet burned off by enemy fire, several taking shots in the head and back when they least expect them Wallace is at his best by showing the array of men who gain their inspiration from the colonel. Greg Kinnear is the daredevil pilot known as Shanekshit Crandall, Chris Klein plays the young, blandly handsome lieutenant just starting a family, Sergeant-Major Basil Plumley's role is played by Sam Elliott as a crusty veteran known secretly to the men as Gramps, and Barry Pepper has the teen-idol guise of a photojournalist who at one point exchanges his Nikon for an M-16.

Wallace provides some respite from the intensity of the battles by frequently cutting back to the wives at home, and makes the point that pathetically, the army was not even ready to send officers to the homes of the newly widowed women...An ordinary cab driver makes the rounds like the Angel of Death until Julie Moore tells the taxi company to deliver all the town's wires to her for distribution to the hapless women.

We sense throughout that "We Were Soldiers" has more in common with "Men of Honor" than with "Black Hawk Down," since off-the-wall histrionics are kept to a minimum in favor of presenting a sober, balanced view of men under fire and wives at home who have little else to do but care for their young and wait hopefully. for the return of their men.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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