We Were Soldiers (2002)

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

While the scars that the Vietnam War left on America’s conscience will never go away, such hauntings can be the provocation for profound artistic exploration. Some of America’s most memorable films have come out of that pain — Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and The Deer Hunter, for example. We are drawn to the muddy moral dilemmas of the war. Should America have become involved? Was our objective worth the cost of so many lives? Or was it a civil war that we should have left well enough alone? What did we accomplish? Why do so many veterans tell horror stories not only about the combat with a resourceful enemy, but about the misbehavior of American soldiers?

We Were Soldiers, the new film written and directed by Randall Wallace (who wrote Braveheart) may be distinguished as the Vietnam film devoid of any politics. It stands out from the pack of dark, cynical, and bleak portraits of the war, focusing on the virtues of men who will follow orders bravely.

We watch the heroic Colonel Hal Moore lead a group of youngsters into the first major land battle in Vietnam, the bloody and chaotic disaster in the I Drang Valley which earned the name “the Valley of Death.” As they sacrifice their lives, these Americans look more like the heroes of John Wayne films than the frightened fighters of Apocalypse Now or the soul-searching boys of Malick’s The Thin Red Line. But were they really, as the film claims, giving their lives “for their country”? Why did this battle have to happen?

The movie doesn’t say. This avoidance of political details has disgruntled some critics. “Essentially, We Were Soldiers assimilates Vietnam into the Second World War,” argues David Denby in The New Yorker. “It recapitulates the many movies … which portrayed the Americans as good people fighting for a just cause. Only this time no one says what the cause is. Communism is never mentioned. Neither is China or Russia, and there’s no sign of … the South Vietnamese. ‘I’m glad I can die for my country,’ one young soldier says, his face turning white as the life drains out of him. That unlikely line indicates what [the film] believes in — dying well as an American, and making a speech about it.”

Others, however, praise the central lesson of the film — that however suspicious the political context, American soldiers care about each other in a way that provokes them to bravery and selflessness. This is a story about how men worked together to achieve difficult objectives, defend their honor, and defend each other. Further, many praise Wallace’s respectful and even compassionate perspectives on the wives and children of the soldiers and on the Vietnamese soldiers “who died by our hand.”

Some are also impressed at the emphasis on faith. Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly writes: “Always grateful for instances in which expressions of specific religious faith are incorporated naturally in movies like the everyday occurrences they can be, rather than hysterically like the unidentified spiritual woowoo Hollywood usually thinks they have to be, I’m particularly refreshed by the delicacy with which Wallace and Gibson demonstrate the effect of Moore’s Catholic faith on his character.”

Religious press critics were particularly pleased with the film, largely because of its favorable portrayal of men with spiritual discipline. Michael Elliott of Movie Parables writes, “Wallace may very well have made the best Vietnam War film to date. In addition to the realistic depiction of war, he gives us clearly defined and compassionate characters, a look at the trying emotional times endured by the wives back home, and a hint at the poor decisions being made by American leaders unprepared for the war in which their country was now engaged.”

I disagree. While I was indeed impressed by Wallace’s emphasis of Moore’s faith, the film’s violence struck me as excessive, taking valuable screen time that could have been used to develop other characters.

Sure, it’s a war film, and combat is ugly. But eventually I quit thinking about the story and wondered, “How did they make that soldier’s head explode so convincingly? And how did that one burn up without injuring the stuntman?” The film might have been called 101 Ways Bullets Can Shred a Soldier.

At one point, Moore shouts into his radio, “It’s getting pretty sporty down here!” Indeed — like a sports highlight reel of killings. Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) goes so far as to call the film “war pornography.” Violence included merely to stir the emotions of the audience is gratuitous.

I have been criticized for defending violent films before — gangster flicks like Pulp Fiction and Miller’s Crossing, and war films like Three Kings and Private Ryan, to name a few — but I only defend onscreen violence when it moves the story forward and helps develop characters. Soldiers only has one well-developed character and about a thousand brutal onscreen deaths. What Elliott describes as “clearly defined and compassionate characters” seemed to me to be anonymous action figures being ripped apart — in grisly slow motion — by enemy fire, one after the other.

Saving Private Ryan has set a new standard for combat realism in war films. “Gory details” worked for Spielberg because his attention to detail extended to the soldiers’ personalities and personal histories as well. Several years later, I still remember vivid distinguishing characteristics of each man in that squad. I remember their stories, what fears they overcame, and how they responded to their commander in subtly different ways. But I can’t tell you any interesting anecdotes about Colonel Moore’s brave boys, and I saw it just yesterday. Wallace has advanced the science of fake bloodshed, but who will come along to advance the storytelling?

To be fair, there are three memorable performances here. In his best performance since Hamlet, Gibson is the backbone of the film. Colonel Moore is given a lot of general personal details: he’s devoutly Catholic, hard working, and devoted to his wife and kids. By avoiding his trademark macho expressions, Gibson makes Moore a real character. You never see that legendary Gibson rage — you know the moment — that instant when he turns from the scene of a tragedy and rises, eyes half-closed, jaw set, ready to unleash fury with a rifle or a sword or a hatchet. Instead, he charges in and does his job amidst a hail of bullets. He’s riveting.

Gibson gets help from Private Ryan’s sharpshooter Barry Pepper, who brings personality to the mix as a bold journalist in the film’s last, long 30 minutes. But the delight of Soldiers is the legendary Sam Elliott. Elliott makes the most of the film’s few flashes of humor, bringing fresh life to conventional combat scenes. Unfortunately, his scenes are few and far between.

Soldiers is being praised for portraying the struggle of frightened, grieving wives. I didn’t see memorable women; I saw a bunch of actresses given nothing to do but scowl, cry, and offer small talk about laundry and babies. Most women I know would be offended by such a shallow portrayal of womanhood. As Moore’s wife, the wonderful Madeleine Stowe has nothing to do but worry, wring her hands, and offer a teary-eyed gaze of sympathy to the other wives. Another of the film’s many missed opportunities.

At the conclusion of Soldiers, a devastated Colonel Moore exhorts the journalist, “Tell the American people how my troopers died.” Oh, We Were Soldiers definitely does that, ad nauseum. But it doesn’t bother at all to tell us how they lived. If I were a wounded Vietnam veteran and somebody asked to make a film that would honor me, I would ask them, “Please, show something more about me than how my faced burned away.”

Director – Randall Wallace
Screenwriter – Randall Wallace
Cinematographer – Dean Semler
Producer – Randall Wallace
Producer – Bruce Davey
Book Author – Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore
Set Decorator – Gary Fettis
Composer (Music Score) – Nick Glennie-Smith
Visual Effects Supervisor – David Goldberg
STARRING: Mel Gibson (Lt. Col. Harold G. Moore), Sam Elliott (SGM Basil Plumley), Chris Klein (Lt. John L. Geoghegan), Robert Bagnell (1st Lt. Charlie Hastings), Josh Daugherty (Spec. 4 Bob Ouellette), Jsu Garcia (Capt. Tony Nadal), Don Duong (Lt. Col. Nguyen Huu An), Barry Pepper (Joseph L. Galloway), Keri Russell (Barbara Geoghegan), Madeleine Stowe (Julie Moore), Greg Kinnear (Major Bruce Crandall), Blake Heron (Spec. 4 Galen Bungum), Erik MacArthur (Spec. 4 Russell Adams)
137 minutes. Rated R for graphic violence and harsh language.

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