Worth A Look: 20%
Pretty Bad: 16.43%
Total Crap: 9.29%
6 reviews, 104 user ratings
|We Were Soldiers
by Andrew Howe
“War - what is it good for? ” Billy Bragg reckons it’s good for business, and while he was taking a shot at corporate Britain he could just as easily have been talking about the film industry. Human interest, gut-punch violence, heroism and nobility in the face of certain death - battlegrounds are custom-made for the big-screen treatment, and the memoirs of those who fought in Vietnam have sparked their share of celluloid adaptations.One might question, however, whether there’s anything left to say that hasn’t already been said. Platoon and Full Metal Jacket wrote the book on squad-based combat, Apocalypse Now explored the darkness at the heart of the human condition and The Deer Hunter canvassed the mental anguish suffered by returning veterans. We Were Soldiers splits the difference by presenting us with an extended pitched battle, while taking the time to examine the impact of the conflict on the wives of the combatants. There’s almost nothing we haven’t seen before, but in the heat of the battle boredom is never an option. It’s only when it’s over that you’ll begin to wonder what the point was, for the film amounts to little more than a breathtaking but ultimately insubstantial fireworks display.
"What is Randall Wallace good for? Absolutely nothing."
Mel Gibson is Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, a paragon of patriarchal values who heads off to the Ia Drang Valley to fight the good fight in the early stages of the Vietnam War. The opening 45 minutes sets up the characters, which include (but are by no means limited to) the following stereotypes: Sergeant Major Plumley (Sam Elliot), a grizzled veteran and all-round ornery cuss who looks like he might have seen action at the Alamo; Lieutenant Geoghegan (Chris Klein), a young gun who fights with a bible in one hand and a picture of his pregnant wife in the other; Sergeant Ernie Savage (Ryan Hurst), an easygoing kid who finds unexpected reserves of inner strength when he needs it the most; and Major Crandall (Greg Kinnear), the best damn ‘copter pilot in the land.
In 1965 nobody knew the Viet Cong would prove to be such tenacious opponents, and in a scene reminiscent of the botched invasion from Starship Troopers the American troops land in a field and charge off into the jungle to flush out the enemy. Ninety minutes later the smoke clears, both sides count the cost, and the film ends.
Prior to June 2001 Randall Wallace commanded a certain measure of respect in the industry, but that was before Pearl Harbor led every right-thinking person to question his credentials. Having read his original screenplay for Braveheart, I can vouch for the fact that Gibson’s on-set revision had a great deal to do with the success of that particular film – most of the best lines are absent from Wallace’s version, and in their place you’ll find the kind of superfluous and hackneyed dialogue that’s become his trademark. Moreover, the penchant for platitudes, mawkish sentimentality and sledgehammer moralising he unleashed on Pearl Harbor continues unabated in his latest effort, which is why you’ll be asked to endure the following:
- Wallace wants us to know that Moore was a loving family man. Whether this adds anything to the narrative is open to debate, but Wallace’s decision to use My Three Sons as his reference point results in a nauseating depiction of Moore’s improbably perfect domestic life (“Daddy, what’s war?”, asks his impossibly cute daughter. Gibson proceeds to explain it in terms a five year-old can understand, which is indicative of Wallace’s approach to any important issue he feels compelled to comment upon.)
- Wallace wants us to know that war is just as hard on those left behind, so he scripted a major role for Moore’s wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe, doing her best Cher impersonation). We have, however, seen the “arrival of the telegram on the doorstep” scene many times before, which is practically all there is to this particular subplot. Julie is also strangely unsympathetic – she sets herself up as the Angel of Death by delivering the telegrams, but her obvious relief at not seeing her name on any of them undermines what little compassion her act of charity manages to muster.
- Wallace wants us to know that (i) the colour of your skin doesn’t matter to your brothers in arms; and (ii) Moore is a tough hombre who genuinely cares about his men. We know this because Gibson delivers a speech to that effect before everyone ships out, which is twice as long as his call to arms at the Battle of Stirling and approximately half as inspiring.
- Wallace wants us to know that Moore is the focal point of the film, which is why he wastes most of the opening sequence depicting Moore’s family life when he should have been building the supporting characters. If we’re going to watch these guys engage in mortal combat for an hour-and-a-half we need to develop a stake in their survival, and Wallace’s refusal to allow us to do so undermines one of his primary messages (which, according to the tagline, is “Father, husband, brother – no man is just a soldier”).
Even that’s not the end of it. With all due respect to the real-life Mr. Moore, Wallace’s decision to depict this undeniably courageous soul as a larger-than-life hero derails any possibility of viewer identification. He’s not Captain Willard, and he’s certainly not Sergeant Elias - he’s John Wayne, the kind of steel-plated superman who leads from the front and wouldn’t dream of ducking for cover. Since the opening credits have informed us that the film is based on Moore’s memoirs we’ve got a pretty good idea he makes it through unscathed, and the absence of any uncertainty over his fate removes the only aspect of the character that might have aroused a measure of interest.
The cast do the best they can with their underwritten characters – Gibson is always watchable, but he’s never afforded the opportunity to display the emotional range that made his performance in Braveheart (and, to a lesser extent, The Patriot) so memorable. Elliot is fine in a role that’s tailor-made for his talents, Klein goes some of the way towards atoning for Rollerball, and Barry Pepper shows up late in the piece to work on his sensitive side. The highlights, however, are Kinnear, who delivers the latest in a string of personable performances, and Hurst, who appears destined for great things (he nearly stole Remember the Titans from Denzel Washington, and I would have gladly cut Gibson’s screen time to give him a little more room to move).
Wallace’s efforts in the director’s chair are a vast improvement on his work at the typewriter, and the choreography of the battle sequences belies his relative inexperience. He does, however, make one major blunder – towards the end he presents us with a montage of stills taken by Pepper’s photographer, which might have been a poignant sequence if not for his inexplicable decision to superimpose shots of Pepper snapping away left, right and centre (you’ll understand when you see it – the effect is idiotic). You might also be surprised to hear that the soundtrack eschews the usual hits of the 60’s in favour of an operatic score, but it meshes with the onscreen action surprisingly well (a mournful dirge is put to good use at a couple of key points in the film).
All of which would seem to mark We Were Soldiers as an abject failure. However, there’s still the fireworks to consider, and it’s here the film makes its mark. Black Hawk Down exhibited a similar disdain for short, sharp firefights, choosing instead to drop us into the thick of the action and wear us down with the sheer ferocity of the extended assault. Apart from a couple of cuts to the events back home there’s no respite for the duration, and the cumulative effect of the carnage is shattering. Gut-churning massacres, hand-to-hand combat, napalm strikes, death-or-glory charges, heroic last stands – even if you don’t care about the characters it’s impossible not to identify with the situation, and the weight of wasted life is enough to make even the most militant souls decry the madness of war.
Wallace also deserves praise for attempting to humanise the opposition. It only amounts to a couple of scenes, but it’s rare for the Viet Cong to be painted as anything other than faceless killing machines, and a poignant sequence where the wife of a Vietnamese soldier mourns her loss is no less affecting for being as subtle as a kick in the teeth.
Despite the odd moment of inspiration, the time has come for Wallace to take a good, hard look at himself, since over the last twelve months he’s managed to scuttle two major releases that didn’t want for potential. Both were saved from the trash can by bone-rattling action sequences, but the same could be said of Commando, and if Wallace is incapable of offering anything more then perhaps it’s time he made the move to low-budget action flicks before he wastes any more time and money.Bragg once said that Margaret Thatcher was an accident waiting to happen - she might have tried to ruin a country, but Wallace is demolishing history. Let’s just hope somebody notices before it’s too late.
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originally posted: 04/28/02 12:21:29