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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

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Review by Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

WE WERE SOLDIERS, written and directed by Randall Wallace, the writer of BRAVEHEART, is the movie that the overpraised BLACK HAWK DOWN should have been. Both tell true stories of a battle, but, whereas BLACK HAWK DOWN de-emphasized the human element in favor of Jerry Bruckheimer's favorite pyrotechnic sizzle, WE WERE SOLDIERS is filled with flesh-and-blood soldiers whose deaths will break your heart. Although it is set during the Vietnam War, the movie has a power and a realism that calls to mind SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. From the "telegram" scenes back home to its simple but extremely effective ending, WE WERE SOLDIERS can easily reduce you to tears, as it did me. Relying on realism and never manipulation to makes its devastating emotional impact, the movie rings as true as the death of a loved one.

The story concerns the first major battle of the Vietnam War between the regular North Vietnam Army (NVA) and the American army. Outgunned 4,000 to 395, our soldiers fought and died like flies, as did the soldiers of the NVA, which the director is careful to show as being just as human as our side. Most long, complex battles are hard to follow, but Wallace works hard to make it as comprehensible as possible and succeeds handsomely.

For forty-five minutes before the movie shifts to Vietnam, we get to meet and know the soldiers of the 7th Air Cavalry, which will use helicopters instead of horses to get to the battle. The Lt. Colonel in charge of the unit, Hal Moore (Mel Gibson), is troubled by the number. The army has assigned him the same number as General Custer's ill-fated unit. He thinks frequently of how Custer was massacred and worries that the number is a bad omen.

Gibson, who is generally much better as an explosive, lone wolf, turns in an impressive performance as a brave commander whose first loyalty is to his troops. Even better is Sam Elliott, who steals the show as the Colonel's right-hand man, Sgt-Maj. Basil Plumley. It's too bad that the Academy's memory rarely lasts back to the beginning of the year since Elliott clearly deserves a supporting Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a funny but tougher-than-nails career soldier. Even commenting on the weather to the Sgt-Maj. can get a man in serious trouble.

No sooner has the Air Cav gotten to Vietnam than they are thrown into the fires of hell -- a mountain headquarters with the aforementioned 4,000 North Vietnamese troops. The body of the movie concerns the multi-day battle between the two forces with the Air Cav trapped on the ground, surrounded and vastly outnumbered by the NVA.

Other members of the good cast include Greg Kinnear as Maj. Bruce 'Snakeshit' Crandall, the brave, lead helicopter pilot, and Chris Klein as Lt. Jack Geoghegan, a green recruit who looks certain to die and leave a young, grieving family behind. Madeleine Stowe is quite good as Julie, Lt. Col. Moore's compassionate and supportive wife. The heavy responsibility of delivering the infamous telegrams falls on her shoulders. A UPI reporter named Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper) bravely stays in the thick of the battle. The script is based on the book, "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young" by Galloway and Moore.

Unlike the Gulf War or the War against Terrorism, the Vietnam War was controversial back home. Those who fought or died came home without much fanfare. But for those of us who lived through that era, it will not be forgotten. And nor will this film.

I dedicate this review to James Francis "Bugsy" Bean from Garland, Texas. "Bugsy," was my next-door neighbor, best friend and constant playmate throughout elementary school. When my family moved across town, Bugsy and I lost touch with each other. We were never able to reconnect since he was a grunt who died in Vietnam. Only when I go to the Vietnam Memorial wall am I ever able to be close to him again. You will be with me forever, Bugsy.

WE WERE SOLDIERS runs 2:18. It is rated R for "sustained sequences of graphic war violence, and for language" and would be acceptable for teenagers with strong stomachs.

Copyright 2002 Steve Rhodes

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