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We Were Soldiers
Official Site
Director: Randall Wallace
Producers: Bruce Davey, Stephen McEveety, Randall Wallace
Written by: Randall Wallace; from the book We Were Soldiers Once... and Young, by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway
Cast: Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott, Chris Klein, Keri Russell, Barry Pepper

Rating: out of 5

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.

Roxanne Bogucka


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