"We Were Soldiers" (IMDb listing) has a tough road ahead of it. Coming in the midst of a resurgence in war-themed films that contain a heavy patriotic syrup, "Soldiers" is a more modest combat film. Not modest in terms of the battle scenes (which are some of the most violent in years) but modest in its depiction of soldiers as they wage the first battle in the hell called Vietnam. "We Were Soldiers" is powerful, direct, mournful and exasperating. It also manages to achieve the unexpected and warm up this unusually chilly winter (in artistic terms) for big screen features.
"We Were Soldiers" tells the true story of Lieutenant General Harold G. Moore (Mel Gibson), a father of five children and loving husband to Julie Moore (Madeline Stowe), who leads his young troops (including Chris Klein and Barry Pepper) to Landing Zone X-Ray in the la Drang Valley to fight the first major battle of the Vietnam War. With only 400 hundred men, Moore faced the onslaught of more than 2,000 North Vietnamese troops in a struggle that would turn the lush green landscape red with the blood of terrified soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
Director Randall Wallace has his work cut out for him with "We Were Soldiers." It's a gigantic war film on a scale that dwarfs its competition, but this screenwriter of "Braveheart" doesn't seem fazed by the challenge. Wallace's film is a massive undertaking, yet retains the human element that marked "Braveheart" and kept it from being just another period bloodbath. Wallace stages the action with breathless intensity and accuracy. He has a good eye (brought to life by cinematographer Dean Semler), and doesn't fall into the recent traps of slow-shutter photography that marred "Saving Private Ryan," or the slick sheen Ridley Scott brought to his lauded "Black Hawk Down." Wallace has a refreshingly clear vision for his picture and is confident enough to let the film alone lead the way.
Against the odds, Wallace also happens to find fertile ground in the well-worn battlefield of Vietnam films. Using an angle to the story that, to my knowledge, no other picture has touched, Wallace is able to find the blend of tenacity and pessimism that other films of the same cloth can't grasp. "Soldiers" is a warfare film, overflowing with blood and death to a point of numbness. Unlike Oliver Stone, Wallace maintains a steady command in keeping the focus on the story, not the political subtext. It keeps "Soldiers" from deteriorating into never-ending gloom, yet provides a thorough portrait of the dawn of the unwinnable war. Wallace defines his battle through his characters, not the headlines. Aside from a B-plot featuring the wives back home, "Soldiers" is directly about the men who fought the war. By keeping the politics out, though he does get carried away with some heavy-handed symbolism, Wallace can render the combat with more urgency and less preaching. The sermonizing gets him in the end though, as the film concludes with the expected patriotism the film had so easily (and blessedly) sidestepped for the majority of the picture. I understand and respect its necessity, I just disagree with its predictability.
In the lead role, Mel Gibson also has some aces up his sleeve. As the courageous but battle-weary Lieutenant General, Gibson chooses wisely to create his character as not a man of action, but a man of compassion. Hal Moore does his job without question, but understands the consequences of war. Trust me, in lesser hands, this could've easily turned into another cigar-chomping, obscenity-laden military characterization. Gibson isn't interested in that. He fashions his role from an angle of understanding. A father of five and a husband to one, Moore has seen enough combat in his life to know what truly lies ahead in the uncharted Vietnam. Gibson plays it beautifully with his authoritative military voice, yet apprehensive, informed eyes. Though this is not the flashiest role Gibson has had, he turns in a performance that vaults to one of his best since "Braveheart."
The supporting cast has less success then Gibson, if only because Wallace can't quite seem to nail down their purpose. While Madeline Stowe and Keri Russell ("Felicity") do a competent job with their war-bride roles, it is the fighting grunts who have the most trouble maintaining three dimensional proportions. Greg Kinnear is wasted in the small role of a chopper pilot, as is the ornery Sam Elliot as another commanding officer of the invading units. Where Wallace truly fumbles is in the casting of actor Chris Klein ("American Pie", ">Rollerball") as a naive soldier who essentially represents the audience's point of view on the story. While the performance is not badly executed (a rare thing, considering Klein's absence of talent), Klein's character is quickly forgotten as the focus switches over to Barry Pepper ("Saving Private Ryan") to continue the audience's journey through this hell on Earth. The effect is jarring, as Wallace spends a large amount of screentime setting up the Klein character in the first act, yet never pays him off. When suddenly we are expected to join Pepper's character on this journey, it doesn't gel the way Wallace intends. The POV should lie solely with Gibson's Moore, and because Wallace doesn't recognize that same perspective right away, his film stammers a bit because of it.
"We Were Soldiers," while expectedly brutal and humbling, isn't quite the flag-waving war I've come to expect from Hollywood. It actually is a better film without all the expected patriotic rhetoric and sermonizing. It deals more immediately and genuinely with the horrors of war than a lesser film like "Black Hawk Down" did. I know the combat films are coming a bit too fast and furious these days, but "We Were Soldiers" is definitely worth a look.
Filmfodder Grade: A-