by Collin Souter
About half-way through “We Were Soldiers,” something interesting happened. Right smack in the middle of all the ground warfare, wounded bodies and heavy artillery, a character shows up who has very little grasp of the machines, but has the keenest eyes and ears to tell the story about what is actually happening. The photojournalist, Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper), feels that this would be the best way for him to serve his country. Towards the end, and I’m not giving anything away here, he becomes speechless. Suddenly, “We Were Soldiers,” found a story worth telling.Randall Wallace wrote and directed “We Were Soldiers,” and while he certainly shows signs of promise here and there as a good director, I would still like to send him back to Screenwriting School. Wallace wrote the great “Braveheart” as well as the sickening “Pearl Harbor” movie. While ”Soldiers” is a bit of an improvement over the latter, it still has its share of Bay/Bruckheimerisms. Wallace leaves no combat cliché left unturned and a few unintentionally funny lines of dialogue leak through. Not only that but “Soldiers,” as does the endlessly flawed “Pearl Harbor,” doesn’t know a good story when it sees one.
"Wallace's metal jacket is only half-full"
Instead, we get what appears to be a Mel Gibson vehicle. He plays Lt. Col. Harold G. Moore, a man who lands the unfortunate task of being the first to lead a platoon into Vietnam, or to be more precise, Ia Drang. He has a wife and four children. Joining him are Maj. Bruce “Snakeshit” Crandall (Greg Kinnear), the gruff, but lovable Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliot) and 2nd Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein), and countless, nameless others. Moore then leads them through the rudimentary basic training sequence we’ve seen a zillion times before.
Meanwhile, Moore’s wife, Julie (Madeleine Stowe), has about 15 other officer’s wives over for a meeting where one woman says she can’t figure out why her laundromat won’t let her wash anything but whites. She explains to everyone about the sign on the door that says “White’s only.” Everyone in the room then has one of those “You wanna tell her or should I?” moments. Here, we wonder if Wallace will actually play the scene out with a straight face. He does. After she has that whole nasty racism thing explained to her, she looks at the one black woman in the room and wonders how she can put up with such abuse. The movie has its first “Pearl Harbor” moment when the black woman explains, “I know why my husband is fighting and that’s why I can smile.”
The dialogue improves ten-fold, however, when Moore delivers a speech to his soldiers about how he will see to it that all men will return home, dead or alive. Furthermore, he will not only be the first one off the helicopter, but the last one to get on as well. Gibson delivers the speech, I’ve heard, word for word as the real Moore originally spoke it. It’s one of the better scenes in the movie, but only because Gibson delivers it with conviction. It’s one of the rare moments in the movie where he doesn’t appear to be on autopilot.
One of Randall’s better moments as a director comes when he shows, very quietly, the men kissing their wives goodbye on the night they leave for Vietnam. The music picks up tempo as the men meet one by one under a street lamp then board the copter one by one in the morning light. The music picks up-tempo again and gets louder and louder as the men land in Vietnam and all hell breaks loose. Suddenly, it occurred to me what just happened. SOMEBODY RIPPED OFF THE SOUNDTRACK TO “THE THIN RED LINE” AGAIN! Okay, okay, I know I’m one of the few people who notice this, but I can’t stand it anymore. First the “Pearl Harbor” trailer, then “Black Hawk Down,” and now this. Same music cue, same tempo, same everything.
Why does this matter? Because, it just goes to show how standard and pedestrian this movie really is. War movies have become so inherently stylized and mannered since “Saving Private Ryan.” The crass commercialization of “Pearl Harbor” didn’t help the genre either. Nothing occurs in this movie that brings new light to our perception of war. Once again, a director tries to out-do the first 30 minutes of “Private Ryan.” Once again, we have a character, Jack Geoghegan, who has a pregnant wife back home (guess what happens to him?). Once again, we are meant to leave the theater on a mission to crack open the history books to learn more about the men who died for our country.
I know I sound like one of those cynical ‘young punks’ with no sense of patriotism or empathy. Believe me, I’m not. It angers me to no end that so many died for so little. I’m just wondering why this particular story needed to be told. It didn’t cause me to stop and think about the world in which we live. It didn’t attempt to change my perceptions about history. And, frankly, it didn’t move me in the slightest. The battle sequences repeat themselves as though they have been spliced together on a continuous loop. Also, Wallace has his Montage-o-Matic on overdrive. What am I meant to get out of this? War is hell? Don’t we know that already?
The war movie genre needs to go away for a while. I realize Hollywood, now more than ever, wants to do its patriotic duty and pay respects to those who lost their lives for our country. Or do they? When a movie has nothing interesting to say about war, does it really serve a purpose? Consider this: Tonight on TV, I saw a commercial for a violent video game. The commercial had all the graphics, all the kicking, punching and all the explosions, all with heavy metal music in the background. Next, I saw a commercial for “We Were Soldiers” and, other than the graphics, I couldn’t tell the two ads apart. I’m not joking, music and all.
I realize I can’t criticize the actual events depicted in “We Were Soldiers.” The movie simply follows what Moore and Galloway wrote in the book “We Were Soldiers Once…and Young” and the true events which took place. But I still felt frustrated as the movie went on. Perhaps if I read the book, I’ll understand why Galloway’s story had less relevance than did Moore’s. It seems as though it should have been a no-brainer on the part of the screenwriter. Because, after all, what is the story arch we have here? Moore leaves for Vietnam. War is hell. Moore comes home. End of story. Certainly, there had to be more to the story than that.
(SPOILERS END)I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Just because it’s a true story, that doesn’t mean it’s a great one.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=5778&reviewer=233
originally posted: 03/07/02 04:17:47