One wants to be very careful here. I don't like military
movies (well okay, Patton...), flag-waving fails
to amuse, and the box office drawing power of Mel Gibson never
ceases to amaze me. It's been a week now since the screening,
a week during which I've given We Were Soldiers
a great deal of thought.
We Were Soldiers is the anti-anti-Vietnam movie conservative
commentators have been waiting for. A generation of Platoons
and Coming Homes and Apocalypse Nows
has spawned a rather vocal chorus upset by the cinematic and
cultural hanging-out-to-dry of America's Vietnam vets. I'm
by no means an expert on the subject, but to my recollection
no U.S. movie has stood this staunchly behind the American
fighting man in Vietnam since The Green Berets.
To its very great credit, We Were Soldiers stands just
a staunchly behind the fighting man of the NVA, as well as
depicting a somewhat flawed U.S. Army. That, to my mind, is
a testament to the source material, written by a field soldier,
Harold Moore, now a retired lieutenant general. Your better
military movies owe their origins to the Guys Who Know. Patton,
one of the very best, comes in large part from the memoirs
of that ultimate soldier's soldier, Omar Bradley.
I heard a thing or two about Bradley in my youth from my
father, a 30-year Army man. Daddy probably wouldn't have crossed
the road to piss on Patton if he went up in a roaring conflagration,
but Bradley commanded his liking and his respect, and Hal
Moore (Gibson) seems to have been cut from the same cloth.
Moore was a light colonel in 1965, and a devoted husband and
father of five. He was also a throughgoing cavalryman and
a student of military science and history. Even before he
receives his fateful orders to lead the first U.S. incursion
into Vietnam, he knows that Vietnam is the next big hotspot.
Like Patton reading Rommel's book, Moore studies the errors
committed by the French military in Vietnam in the 1950s.
The biggest complaint that one can level at We Were Soldiers
is that it's so Mel! He has a thing for roles where he rises
to the occasion heroically. See Braveheart if
you don't know what I'm talking about. It will not surprise
you that so much big-hearted do-right, such four-square nobility
comes from the writer of Braveheart and Pearl
Harbor. Wallace establishes life on an army base as
so incredibly civilized and harmonious and noble, and Moore
as such a paragon, that I have no doubt the brass at Fort
Bragg fell all over themselves in the full-military-cooperation
department. Mercifully, the film moves on to territory so
familiarly well wrought that any army brat will feel at home.
It's all there-the dinner dances your parents went to at the
club, the faceless, identical base housing (integrated long
before the same could be said for civilian subdivisions, incidentally),
the company formations on parade grounds, the gruff, no-nonsense,
all-Army sergeant major (played so winningly by Sam Elliott
that I thought his lines must have been written especially
for him). What's also there, tellingly, is Moore's response
to his youngest daughter when she asks him what a war is,
and if he'll be killed. No, he assures her; he'll come back.
This is what soldiers tell their kids. It's what my dad told
me before he went to Vietnam; I believed it without question.
Once the movie moves to Vietnam, it will be less compelling
for those who aren't fans of the war procedural. It also missteps
a bit, aided by a sweeping, over-the-top score that flirts
dangerously with glorification. From the Tuvan throat singing
to the Scots ballad over drones to the closing military hymn
co-written by Wallace, masculine nobility is the order of
the day. Still, it beats the tired rock typically used to
shorthand the '60s.
The portrayal of on-the-ground battle action is now an art
that improves by leaps and bounds, much the way computer animation
used to wow us in each new picture. Fortunately the script
writing was on the ball here. Wallace showed the battle as
completely chaotic at the lower levels, but at the upper levels,
the U.S. colonel and the NVA colonel were always saying the
same things-"Let's attack at dawn"; "If I were
them, I'd attack at dawn." We can only hope that this
is true, that there are obvious things to do to those who
can see the big picture of battles, and that commanders indeed
see those big pictures. Hal Moore is a man we can ultimately
like because his interest in that big picture is clearly not
winning, but preserving the lives of as many of his troops
as he can.
On the distaff side, we are privy to camaraderie among military
wives, led by Mrs. Moore (Stowe), that seems a bit unlikely
until the dreaded DoD telegrams begin to trickle in. There
are a few bits of dumbness in the name of patriotism. As an
earnest young lieutenant, Chris Klein has to get his mouth
around a silly speech about how his Peace Corps service in
Africa left him "not wanting to make any orphans,"
which makes you wonder whether he knows why it's called "the
armed forces." And the tide of battle is turned by cavalry
literally coming to the rescue in the form of helicopters
that sneak up on the NVA. Still, from its rather unpromisingly
showy beginnings, We Were Soldiers won my respect.