At the Movies with Alan Gekko: We Were Soldiers “02”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: War/Stars: Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott, Chris Klein, Luke Benward, Taylor Momsen, Devon Werkheiser, Keri Russell, Barry Pepper, Mark McCracken, Đơn Dương, Ryan Hurst, Marc Blucas, Jsu Garcia, Jon Hamm, Clark Gregg, Blake Heron, Desmond Harrington, Dylan Walsh, Brian Tee, Robert Bagnell, Bellamy Young, Patrick St. Esprit, Jim Grimshaw/ Runtime: 138 minutes

When it first came out all the way back in the long-ago year of 2002 I suspect that there were people like myself who really had their fingers crossed that the slice of cinema I am reviewing today, We Were Soldiers, would be the slice of cinema which would prove to be the spark to reignite the land of movie magic’s desire to return to making truly phenomenal war films that were set during the war in Vietnam. A subgenre I might add which literally was all over movie theaters back in the 80s, but had since gone quietly dormant. Indeed there can be no denying that from the Oscar Best Picture winner Platoon, the oft quoted to this day Full Metal Jacket, or even the visceral gut punch provided by the highly underrated Hamburger Hill and Causalities of War respectively, the 80s really didn’t hold back in how it chose to cinematically showcase one of the most questionable conflicts that the United States has ever chosen to take part in (Iraq and Korea included). Sadly, in the time since those slices of cinema graced the silver screen, the only nearly as potent cinematic look at Vietnam besides this slice of cinema that comes to mind was the truly phenomenally Rescue Dawn from 2006. A slice of cinema that incidentally also made from a distinct 180 from the usual slice of cinema about Vietnam in how it chose to place its concentration more so on the pathos of the human psych instead of just being a series of gun battles with a message of morality weaved into the mix. This slice of cinema on the other hand is one that by and large avoids any visible political thematic concepts and is instead content to regale us with a to the point and viscerally real saga about a battle from Vietnam as told by a trinity of distinct points of view in the form of the American combatants, the North Vietnamese combatants, and the wives/families of the American combatants respectively. Suffice it to say that this slice of cinema might just be one of the more divisive war films about Vietnam in how this one doesn’t really seem to contain an anti-combat bent like a lot of the films from the 1980s did. With that in mind, I don’t think this slice of cinema is one that is a pro-combat film. Rather, I think this is a phenomenally-cast and incredibly well-made film that is set on showing the movie goer the viscerality and potency of combat in a way that is both emotional and yet also honest and in that regard this film is a true success.

The plot is as follows: We Were Soldiers takes us back in time to the mid-1960s and gets underway as we see that, in the aftermath of then-President Lyndon Johnson making the decision to increase the amount of American soldiers present in a little country known as Vietnam, that an Ivy League family man who is also a combat vet and scholar to say nothing of natural leader by the name of Lt. Colonel Hal Moore finds himself designated to be the leader of the infamous yet elite 1st of the 7th which is set to see action here pretty soon. As a result, we see Moore, alongside a tough as nails Army lifer by the name of Sgt. Major Basil Plumley, swiftly get to work at the military base of Fort Benning in Georgia in the act of training a team of skilled and determined, but also daisy-fresh young recruits for a deadly combat mission in the Ia Drang Valley. Suffice it to say that, because of his first-hand knowledge of the terrors that await his men in combat, we see that Moore puts the recruits through the various ins and outs of combat training. Training that we see comes to include the utilization of both the M-16 as a primary weapon and the Huey helicopter as a transport unit for both men and supplies in the heat of battle. Along with all of that however, we see that Moore also is able to provide a wonderful degree of assertiveness and respect from the men serving under him thanks in large part to his wonderfully honest humanization of what awaits them in what they are about to take part in as well as making them all an oath that not only will he be the first to step foot into the combat zone and the last to head out, but that he won’t leave a single one of them behind on the field of battle be they alive or dead. We soon see an intriguing wrinkle emerge however when, upon their arrival in Vietnam, the higher-ups request for Moore and only about 400 of his men to head in….only for them to quickly be assailed upon by no less than 2000 North Vietnamese troops. Yet even though Moore and Plumley as soon as they arrive in the combat zone come to figure out that they have just been placed dead set in the middle of a highly deadly ambush, they don’t decide to high tail it out of there so they can try to reevaluate the situation and try to make it work to their benefit. Instead this duo and the men that serve under them decide to heroically plant their feet right where they are and, even with aid not being easily accessible let alone a lot of the men being separated from the main unit, decide to hold the ground as best as they possibly can thus getting these warriors the tragic yet heroic opportunity to provide us with new definitions to the words valiant, loyalty, honor, sacrifice, hero, and above all brotherhood.

Now right off the bat, it should be noted that film helmer/scribe Randall Wallace does a truly wonderful job of mixing together the trinity of fronts that this slice of cinema is operating with and going back and forth between them with a skilled and efficient precision. On top of that, Wallace’s attention to detail does a splendid job of contributing quite a bit to the intensity of the overall movie. Indeed from actual uniforms worn by soldiers on both sides during that time to the weapons that both sides utilized in combat against each other, this is one war film that manages to be both riveting and realistic in equal measure in that regard. Along with that, it should be said that when it comes to the moments in the film where we are locked in combat with Gibson and co Wallace and his team do a truly terrific job of showcasing for us not only the dirtiness of combat, but also the horror that is ever apparent as well to say nothing of the terrible anxiety that starts to gnaw away at you as the minutes tick by with the speed of a snail and yet you have no idea what is happening or what is waiting for you out there in the thick of it all. To that end, we see Wallace and his camera crew manage to show us this through the utilization of phenomenal if not downright jaw-dropping 360 degree camera shots that, with phenomenal accuracy, paints this cinematic picture from virtually every angle possible. At the same time, this slice of cinema also makes the wonderful creative choice to include a fair amount of more quietly solemn instances that are just as tragic including close-ups of soldiers’ faces when they are shot and death begins taking them away as well as when the newly-widowed wives are sent the tragic news, but because the military was not aware of how bad things were going to get it they are delivered not by a caring and kind chaplain, but by a very rumpled-looking and confused as to why this is being put on him cab driver thus inadvertently adding to the heartbreak exponentially.

Not content with just being an effective and visceral slice of cinema which deals with a particularly bloody combat zone however, we see that this slice of cinema also aims to be an analysis on both Moore as well as the men serving with and under him to say nothing of their loved ones back and the force that is opposing them respectively. In that regard, this slice of cinema is also a triumph due in large part to the riveting and gripping performances from the terrific cast in front of the camera. This starts with Mel Gibson in the lead role of Moore and honestly it is one of the best in his career. Indeed Gibson does a brilliant job at playing a man who is a mix of on-point, solemn, authoritative, and yet loyal to a t to God, his country, and the men serving under him all whilst working with a moral compass that makes him one man that honestly I would follow into battle any day. We also get terrific, albeit moustache-less, work here from a perfectly cast Sam Elliott as Moore’s 2nd in Command Plumley. Indeed Elliott does a phenomenal job here at playing one of the bluntest, most gung-ho, and tough as nails soldiers you will ever meet and he just fits into the overall atmosphere of the film perfectly. Along with that, I also loved the work done in this by the always enjoyable Greg Kinnear in his portrayal of Major Bruce “Snakeshit” Crandall who was a skilled helicopter pilot recruited by Moore to lead what he saw as “the new cavalry” and during the battle heroically came back time and time again to both bring the squad extra supplies, but also to get their deceased and wounded out of harm’s way. No it’s not the most dialogue-heavy part in the movie, but Kinnear does a great job at saying a lot with both very little dialogue as well as with his facial expressions especially as he is carting away the deceased from the field of combat. Finally, praise should also be given to the work done in this by Barry Pepper in the role of a photojournalist/ 5th generation military man named Joe Galloway who arrives to take photos of the battle, but who is more than willing to pick up a rifle and do his part should the situation call for it. Suffice it to say that Pepper, who was just as terrific in 1998’s masterpiece Saving Private Ryan, does a terrific job here as well. Yet even when you factor in terrific work from such performers as Madeline Stowe and Keri Russell as two of the wives and Jon Hamm, Clark Gregg, Desmond Harrington, Dylan Walsh, and Brian Tee to name but a few of the many soldiers serving in the unit, we see that this is one slice of cinema is fairly stocked with potent talent.

All in all there is no denying that We Were Soldiers, much in the same vein as any slice of cinema in the War genre worth giving your time and energy to, might just leave you, the movie goer very much sapped from an emotional perspective by the time this slice of cinema comes to an end and the credits begin to roll. Of course if you are given the chance to witness firsthand the genuine viscerality to say nothing of the terror of seeing these degree of combat up close on the big screen is almost on the level of horrifying as it would be if you had to see it firsthand be it through time spent in the armed forces in an overseas posting or if you are the loved one of someone who is serving overseas as showcased in this slice of cinema by the men’s wives who have just as much an important part in regaling us with this narrative as their husbands in uniform do. With that in mind, it should be said that the 2002 slice of cinema that is We Were Soldiers might not be the best of the best of this particular genre of movie magic let alone the most potent or even for that matter the most visceral that I have ever seen. At the same time though, this is also an incredibly realistic, extremely pathos-driven, and one of the most even-keeled slices of cinema that make up the war genre of movie magic that I have had the pleasure and privilege of watching. Indeed the fact that this slice of cinema is so direct and honestly heartbreaking in how it deals with combat makes it a truly hard to watch viewing experience, but it is also one that quite a few people I know, and who have had courageously served our country, told me is one of the more realistic slices of cinema ever conjured up in that this one accurately showcases what is was like to be a soldier during the turbulent Vietnam War era. In fact, when they asked him about what he thought about the cinematic adaptation of his book, the real-life Hal Moore felt that this slice of cinema was one that was done “right”. Suffice it to say that yes I could praise the directing or the work done by any of the other departments behind the camera to say nothing of the powerful performances done in front of the camera, but for me the knowledge that the man behind this story, and who actually took part in the real-life battle, thought this film did right by him to say nothing of the men who laid down their lives is more than enough praise for this reviewer. Take that as you will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give We Were Soldiers “02” a solid 4 out of 5.