Friday, March 1, 2002
It's refreshing to see a pre-acid rock movie about Vietnam.
In 1965 when "We Were Soldiers" takes place, there were no student/hippy protests, no photos of napalm burning little girls and no reports of Lyndon Johnson requisitioning thousands of body bags. As the military geared up for a noble campaign against communism, it's clear that few on the American side had any idea what they were getting into when the first forces arrived in Southeast Asia.
One man who did have suspicions was Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson). As the tale begins, Moore is given the assignment of readying men for active duty in the unfamiliar venue of Vietnam. His new command already has him worried because it involves taking over the First Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry ï¿½ the same regiment as Custer.
After the obligatory character introductions and training montages, the troops arrive in Vietnam, where Moore and 400 men are ordered to flush out an enemy tunnel complex in the Ia Drang Valley. The soldiers are almost instantly cut off by five times the number of North Vietnamese Army forces, leading to a harrowing, three-day firefight that marked the first major encounter (and casualties) between the opposing sides. Capturing these images is civilian war correspondent Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper), who along with Moore wrote the acclaimed novel "We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young" upon which this cinematic adaptation is based.
What differentiates a good modern war movie like "We Were Soldiers" from the great ones like "Black Hawk Down" and "Saving Private Ryan" is that it never achieves an essential gritty realism. While these efforts were at least shot on the same continents as their actual battles (Africa and Europe, respectively), the combat scenes in "Soldiers" were filmed in California, lending a real artifice to the whole look. The state's scenery doubles about as convincingly here for Vietnam as it did for Korea in the TV series "M*A*S*H."
The attention to military detail is a bit more persuasive. Yet while the battle sequences are generally taut and compelling, they are often gratuitous; there are only so many bullet hits, explosions and immolations an audience can take before the scenes grow numbing. It's particularly noticeable in the final sequence, when the NVA forces look like stunt doubles running at the camera with squibs attached to their chests.
This is especially disappointing because the film already has spent so much time trying to humanize the enemy. "Soldiers" is significant in the pantheon of American-made Vietnam War movies in that it admirably presents the enemy's side of battle, from the strategies to the motivations behind it. It's not just handled by cursory cutaways, as in the recent "Pearl Harbor" (which also features a screenplay by "Soldier" writer/director Randall Wallace). Here, the viewpoints of a cerebral NVA major (Joseph Hieu) and a frightened foot soldier who carries "a picture of his gal" are comparably interesting.
Also given quality time are the wives of the American soldiers back home, played with conviction by actresses such as Madeleine Stowe and Keri Russell. Some of the most emotional moments come from their experiences at Fort Benning, Ga., as news of the casualties rolls in via rather impersonal telegrams.
In the way that classics like "Apocalypse Now" and "The Deer Hunter" were a product of the cynical decade in which they were made, this latest installment into the Vietnam War genre is one that reflects the current pro-government mood of the country. It often resorts to painting some of those in the military as saints (Gibson practically has a drab-green halo over his head during the entire film). But it also captures the underlying truthfulness of the momentous battle at the Ia Drang Valley, and does so in a way that is both entertaining and respectful to all those involved.