The last time Mel Gibson and Randall Wallace got together, they made a little known film that won a lot of awards called Braveheart. This time around, they try to make it to in a row with the Vietnam War film We Were Soldiers, based on the grueling first American battle in Vietnam led by Colonel Hal Moore.
Things weren't looking too hopeful for We Were Soldiers, which is only one in a many war movies to be released since September 11. A couple of them were pretty successful, but the most recent, the World War II saga Hart's War, which also had some pretty impressive star power considering Bruce Willis's involvement, flopped. If this was any indication, the American audience was tiring of war films. Would Mel Gibson's "yet another Vietnam film" be the next causality? As it turns out, Hart's War flopped because it just wasn't as interesting, and We Were Soldiers shows that war is still interesting as long as you're stepping into new territory.
We Were Soldiers, like all war movies, needs to be compared to Saving Private Ryan, because that is obviously the benchmark for modern war films. Surprisingly, Soldiers stands pretty well, even though there are very few of the directorial aspects of the Spielberg picture in it. From a technical viewpoint, Soldiers shows the brutality of warfare in a very brutal way, but the look and feel is quite different from Private Ryan's gritty and jittery camerawork. Most of the shots here are pretty solid, and there is a lot more clarity in the picture. I'm not saying that the approach is better, but it is different, and it is nice to see different in a war movie (and Black Hawk Down has yet another approach, yet is very successful). There were some scenes where the sound is pretty muted, and I thought that those moments were cheap copies of similar scenes in Ryan, but other than that, We Were Soldiers has its own look and feel, which pays off. There are a few hideously gruesome scenes, showing just how nasty more-modern warfare can be.
Another nice thing about We Were Soldiers is the story that it is telling. We never really get to see movies set at the beginning of Vietnam, and this one depicts the first battle. The movie explains how the United States didn't know exactly what it was getting into, and how it was somewhat of a test and fail situation. Whereas in other Vietnam flicks you often have a new soldier arrive at a regiment of war-stricken "veterans," Soldiers shows the transformation of a whole group of unknowing men into very hardened figures in a matter of days.
The best part about We Were Soldiers, and what I consider the bravest, especially considering that at the time of this movie's release we are at war, which prompts a lot of one-sidedness from people, is that it shows at least some of the battle from the Viet Cong side. While Moore (Gibson) is strategizing on the battle field, his "enemy," some commanding officer in a bunker, is doing the exact same thing for his troops, just defending his country. The movie also introduces us to a normal foot soldier of the Viet Cong, and while he doesn't say one word in the whole movie, you feel for him. And when you see his wife at the end, you realize that most of these men fighting on one side are no different from those on the other.
The weakest part of the movie lies in its attempt to build character. Instead of focusing on the men while on the battlefield, the movie chooses to portray their wives; so when a man is killed, we get to see the wife's anguish. This isn't a bad idea, except for it really takes away from the pace of the film. For some weird reason Soldiers pulls away from Vietnam halfway through and focuses on the wives for a few minutes (namely Madeleine Stowe) as they begin to receive telegrams. Maybe this is an important piece of warfare, but not of this specific movie. It just screws up the pace of the film, and really does not work that well in making us feel for the characters. I want to get to know the men fighting; I don't just want to see glimpses of their wives who will suffer if they die.
This leads to Hal Moore himself (Mel Gibson), who is the only really developed character in the entire movie. Gibson has his usual charm about him, and while he is brutal and strategic on the battlefield, he also has a flare about him that we have seen in the other movies. I am just wondering how similar the character we see on screen is to the real man, and I especially have to question how glamorized he is. The first twenty minutes or so, before the movie hits Vietnam, we get to see Moore interacting with his wife, children, and soldiers. He's comedic, talks about war a lot, and also about God. Everything just seems a little overblown and a little too dramatic, and a little too praiseworthy. Okay, so he's a good soldier, is a religious man, and loves his children; I don't need it thrust in my face for half an hour.
We Were Soldiers is a riveting and explosive war movie from the man that brought us Braveheart, the only thing keeping it from greatness being the non-action scenes, which are a little overdone and a little underworked.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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