We Were Soldiers (2002)
Director: Randall Wallace
Writer: Randall Wallace
Cinemtographer: Dean Semler
by Jon Cvack
I’ve checked out this film about three times now. I didn’t like it the first time, fairly certain I didn’t make it through the second, and finally slogged through on the third. It starts off as a solid movie, following the training for a new type of air cavalry program, which involves dropping off groups of soldiers via helicopter straight into the hot zone. They’re led by Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson), as your classic best of the best man; a Harvard grad who saw combat in Korea. His right hand man is the stoic, bad cop, tough as nails, M16-denying Sergeant Major Basil L. Plumley (Sam Elliot), who whips the troops into shape and somehow can stand up as bullets fly in every which way, killing most men around him.
In an engaging and creative scene, as the officers are going for a run through battle, the radio team catches a live feed from Vietnam in which the broadcasters are slaughtered in a gunfight. What was once a noble and respectable pursuit suddenly takes on a new reality. As Moore forewarns, this is combat, men are going to die.
Other members of the cast involve the jock from American Pie, Chris Klein, who plays a “born leader”, but in no way can escape his role as the stolid Oz and demonstrates why his career lasted about three years. We also have Greg Kinnear as Major Bruce P. Campbell; an ace helicopter pilot that drops off and picks up the hundreds of soldiers fighting in the hot LZ. The best role probably goes to Barry Pepper who plays Joe Galloway; author of the source material, introduced as an ambitious war photographer.
The men complete their training, they graduate, the women start a club to find out where to buy groceries and do laundry. There’s one woman who’s confused over why the laundromat only allows for ‘whites only’ and no colored clothes. You can literally feel Wallace patting himself on the back for how creative this moment is, and instead we cringe our way through, when the generic snappy black woman talks about how her man doesn’t ask for respect from no white man. I understand the need to include issues of the time., but to portay women as entirely ignorant about the major civil rights issues going on is fairly offensive.
The war arrives, and in a fairly awesome scene with a great score, the 400 American soldiers unknowingly land into an enemy training camp where over 4,000 enemy soldiers are garrisoned underground and within the hills. And then the movie takes a major dip.
I was only about sixteen years old when this film came out. Having been blown away from Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, I was waiting for the Vietnam equivalent, which many tried and no one came close to accomplishing. The issue with We Were Soliders is that for about 75% of the 2 hour 23 minute running time, we have absolutely no sense of the geography. We follow one small platoon as they get lost in the hills, under heavy fire, but even with them we have no idea of their position in relation to the HQ. I understand that by keeping it confusing we were experiencing what the Americans were - enemies coming in from all directions, seemingly out of nowhere, and unendingly. Perhaps it could have worked with a 90 minute film. But once we start pushing the 1 hour and 45 mark, I was exhausted. The formula became increasingly played out. Soldiers would go on the offensive, enemies would appear, the Americans would get drilled down, Greg Kinnear and Co. would drop off fresh soldiers, pick up the dead, and then repeat the process. I didn’t understand where they were, what they were trying to do, what the strategy was, or how they won. One moment they were completely overwhelmed by enemies, and the next they blasted through a small camp and the battle’s over.
It all goes to show that the audience needs to know the motive behind actions. The film periodically cuts to the underground bunker, gratuitously revealing their enemy’s battle plans, and then cutting back to hundreds of soldiers rising from the ground and running down the hill. Even if they cut into a map, showing where everyone was, at least I could have understood the progression. Instead, it seems as though once everyone takes their position, that’s where they remain for the entire two hours. There’s only so much blood and carnage you can take before wanting to know what the strategy is.
I am in awe of what these men went through and am interested in checking out the book. To think that this battle went on for over nine days, with constant attacks, and that hardly anyone probably slept and still had to keep on fighting is incomprehensible. I don’t think those men got the movie they deserved.
BELOW: Definitely gets you pumped - just not as much as other films
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