We Were Soldiers
First screened and reviewed in April 2002
Director: Randall Wallace. Cast: Mel Gibson, Sam Elliott, Barry Pepper, Greg Kinnear, Chris Klein, Madeleine Stowe, Keri Russell, Don Duong, Clark Gregg, Brian Tee, Josh Daugherty, Dylan Walsh, Ryan Hurst, Simbi Khali. Screenplay: Randall Wallace (based on the memoir We Were Soldiers Once...and Young by Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway).

Twitter Capsule: Decent, but reliably hedges bets every time it appears to test new ground. Awfully affirming for a Vietnam movie.

VOR:   The modicum of respect for Vietnamese point of view should be a minimum; sad truth is this represents a real gesture. In every other way, pretty by-the-numbers for its genre.

Photo © 2002 Paramount Pictures/Icon Entertainment
The soldiers whom Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers is designed to honor were indeed brave, self-sacrificing, and tested beyond what any human being should expect to experience. This is both the central assertion of Wallace's movie—adapted from the joint memoir of Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph Galloway, the characters played here by Mel Gibson and Barry Pepper—and also the hugest anxiety bedeviling the picture. As a whole, We Were Soldiers is an honorable effort but also a redundant one, not because it tells a story familiar from other films, and certainly not because the story deserves no retellings, but because it reprises an error that lesser war films are always in danger of committing. Though Wallace, most famous as the screenwriter of Braveheart, would probably never admit this, his film undermines the courage and goodness of its protagonists just as often as it celebrates them, because he indulges so many plotlines and character details that have nothing to do with his central purpose.

If We Were Soldiers genuinely believed that the stamina, commitment, and self-endangerment of soldiers on the battlefield were tantamount, self-justifying virtues, it is unlikely that the picture would load itself with so many scenes and images that are transparently engineered to make these men our heroes: Gibson and Chris Klein praying in a hospital chapel, Gibson leading his mob of angel-faced children in collective address to God, Greg Kinnear flashing his blue peepers and pearly whites, or Sam Elliott cracking wise with market-tested punchlines. Wallace intimates not so much that soldiers in battle are brave, but that these guys, categorically, are good blokes, and that fighting a war—like praying, or playing softball with your men, or making love to your wife—is but one of many conventional, interchangeable ways of expressing this inherent honorability. The film seems not to believe that we will root for these soldiers or grasp the scale of their bravery if it has not first convinced us that they are decent, Christian folk. If what I am saying sounds crazy or confusing, an excellent point of contrast is Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, which preceded We Were Soldiers in American cineplexes by only a matter of weeks. I harbor some ambivalences about other aspects of Black Hawk Down, but one thing Scott's film gets absolutely right is that it respects its characters enough to let their behaviors, decisions, and even their lapses as military men speak for themselves. Countless viewers have faulted Black Hawk Down for skimping on character detail, but in fact what distinguishes the film is precisely this emphasis on soldiery as a self-sufficient dramatic enterprise, one which does not necessarily "reveal character" or externalize any inborn goodness in the combatants. At the opposite end of the creative spectrum, Wallace's preferred strategy for celebrating the courage of his soldiers is to sink us in nearly an hour of narrative that has nothing to do with soldiery.

Things improve measurably once General Moore's forces arrive in Vietnam, and not just for the reasons I have described. Though Dean Semler's photography shows a disturbing tendency to aestheticize the countryside into orange sunsets and leafy vistas, as though he has learned no new tricks since Dances With Wolves, the editing gets tighter, the acting is stronger and more terse, and James Horner's musical score mostly gets out of the way. These are all victories, though in other ways the film never stops hedging its bets. For instance, a few stray scenes in a Vietnamese base camp have been widely trumpeted as a rare gesture to "humanizing the enemy" in an American war film, an attitude which many critics found to be lacking in Black Hawk Down. Indeed, Nazis, kamikazes, and Viet Cong have subsisted for so long in our cinematic canon as faceless scourges that the very impulse of We Were Soldiers to buck the trend is quite refreshing—but the careful viewer will still observe that Vietnamese troops retain the exclusive privilege of having their flesh desecrated in graphic, lingering slow-motion, a spectacle whose tastelessness would probably be more obvious if applied to American bodies. Another instance of honoring an age-old boundary that the film only appears to trascend involves its treatment of journalists. Just when Pepper's character, a war photographer, is handed a gun and absorbed into battle—implying, quite rarely for this genre, that newsmen and image-makers are not helplessly ineffectual—a late-arriving press corps reaffirms that the Meddlesome Liberal Media, people who (gasp!) wish to ask questions about armed conflict, remains a safe object for ridicule in pictures like this.

So it becomes a pattern in We Were Soldiers, even as its second half improves drastically on its first, that for every dramatic or structural step forward, there is usually a step back. The pattern recurs again in the honorable impulse to cede several scenes to the wives and girlfriends "back home," in stagily constructed and cosmetically awkward scenes that suggest the filmmakers' discomfort with this domestic idiom. On final reflection, the formal modesty and safely middlebrow themes of We Were Soldiers (combat devotion = religious devotion = family devotion, a sentiment most loudly articulated when Moore espouses about fatherhood and soldiery that "hopefully being good at one makes me better at the other") may well be the movie's most surprising gesture, since these attributes are much more customary in World War II films than in the fractious, left-leaning tradition of Vietnam narratives on screen. We Were Soldiers ultimately takes shape as a Vietnam movie that hard-right Repbulicans can get into bed with, and for better or for worse, that in itself must be some kind of feat. Grade: C+

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