Patriotic Movie Review: "We Were Soldiers"

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Screenwriter Randall Wallace, a specialist in sweeping historical epics, steps behind the camera for this fact-based Vietnam War drama that reunites him with his Braveheart (1995) star Mel Gibson. Gibson is Lt. Col. Hal Moore, commander of the First Battalion, Seventh Cavalry, the same regiment fatefully led by George Armstrong Custer. As part of the Pleiku Campaign of late 1965, Moore is assigned to an action at Landing Zone X-Ray in the Drang Valley, an area that would come to be known as the "The Valley of Death." Moore soon finds himself and his men contained to an area about the size of a football field, surrounded by more than 2,000 enemy troops and engaged in the first major battle of the war. Heroism becomes the order of the day as men like Moore, chopper pilot Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear), and Lt. Henry Herrick (Marc Blucas) refuse to yield, in spite of heavy losses of life. The film co-stars Madeleine Stowe, Chris Klein, Keri Russell, and Sam Elliott.
3.5

Rating: R

Length: 138 minutes

Release Date: March 1, 2002

Directed by: Randall Wallace

Genre: Action / Drama / History

 

"We Were Soldiers" is a film about the first land battle fought in the Vietnam War. The period piece features Mel Gibson as Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, Madeleine Stow as his wife, Julie Moore, and Sam Elliott as Sergeant Major Basil Plumley. Plumley and Moore lead a battalion of 400 Army soldiers into a trap in which they end up surrounded by thousands of Vietnamese soldiers. While waiting for reinforcements to arrive, the soldiers are forced to bond together and fight for their lives. Along for the ride is journalist Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper), who intends to do an expose on the war. Galloway gets a very different story than the one he was expecting when the ambush causes him to give up his bias and fight alongside the soldiers in order to survive.

As the men fight overseas, the women who love them struggle to continue life as normally as possible for themselves and their children. As casualties begin to pile up during the battle, a Yellow Cab driver becomes a frequent fixture in the neighborhood as he delivers telegrams informing new widows of their husbands' deaths. Seeing the toll it takes on the women to not only receive such terrible news but to receive it in such an impersonal way, Julie takes over for the cab driver. She orders him to deliver all of the telegrams to her, and then she delivers them personally. Despite the horror of the battle and the large number of casualties, the film has a somewhat happy ending. The remaining soldiers are airlifted out of the battlefield, and Moore returns home to Julie and their five children. Closure is even afforded to the Vietnamese, who are allowed to collect their dead from the field. After his return, Moore mails a journal found on the dead body of a Vietnamese soldier to his wife with a heartfelt letter praising her husband's courage. 

The story of "We Were Soldiers" is told from three different perspectives: the American soldiers, the wives of the American soldiers back in the United States on an Army base, and the Vietnamese soldiers. Throughout the film, Wallace intercuts between these different perspectives to weave together a complete storyline. Wallace gives the film a story that is somewhat unique to war films. The enemy, in this case the Vietnamese, is not portrayed as faceless and evil. They are humanized, given faces, stories and wives waiting for them at home. By the end of the film, these men, despite being the enemies of the American soldiers, are sympathetic characters. The audience may not know all of their names, but by the end of the film it's easy to see them as something more than an evil force to be vanquished. Wallace does an excellent job of depicting the soldiers on both sides as people who are trying to do the best that they can in a terrible situation. 

The film is basically a sequence of war scenes. These scenes are broken up by strategic planning sessions on both sides and at-home shots of the women attempting to keep things as normal as possible for the children and wives on the Army base. The at-home scenes of the wives and children lend a greater humanity to the soldiers fighting overseas and provide the audience with an emotional connection to the characters. The courage depicted by these women, particularly Stowe's Julie, helps to reinforce the bravery and the emotional conflict the soldiers feel as their courage and faith are tested on the battlefield.

The way in which the film is shot gives it a sense of urgency. Even without having a historical context to place the film into, the audience can easily understand that the main story of the film takes place in a relatively short amount of time and under extreme emotional and physical conditions. There are no aerial shots to show the placement of soldiers on the battlefield. Wallace instead chooses to rely on the established locations depicted by the sets and the use of practical effects to show nearing and lessening explosions and gunfire as the soldiers advance and retreat. Scenes with the American soldiers feel claustrophobic, and the shots are often very close to more than one character at a time. This gives the audience the feeling of being in the film rather than simply watching it, as many of the shots can be imagined to be from the perspective of a soldier in the regiment. 

The conclusion of the film may not be very satisfying for many viewers, even with the reunion of Moore and Julie. This seems to have been done intentionally by the filmmakers. The last impression that the audience receives of "We Were Soldiers" is unsatisfying because the battle itself had no satisfactory conclusion. It did not end with a clear winner or loser, only survivors. One of the most powerful images of the film is when Galloway drops his notebook to pick up a rifle and begin to fight to save the soldiers at his side. When the battle is over and other journalists swarm the site seeking the story, he simply walks away, refusing to say anything. His silence in the face of everything he has experienced with the soldiers is itself a strong commentary on the battle and the Vietnam War by the filmmakers.

"We Were Soldiers" is not a feel-good movie for audiences, nor are its battle scenes designed to shock. This is a film with something to say that seems to fulfill its purpose as long as audiences leave it feeling thoughtful and somewhat disturbed. The film is artfully done, and the stellar cast gives poignant performances that stay with audiences long after the credits roll. For anyone who enjoys a good drama or a war film, it's a must-see.