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"WE WERE SOLDIERS"
(2002) (Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Action: A veteran officer leads his men into Vietnam only to find themselves surrounded and outnumbered in what would become the first big battle for the U.S. in the war.
PLOT:
It's 1964 and Lt. Col. Hal Moore (MEL GIBSON) and his wife, Julie (MADELEINE STOWE), and children have arrived at Fort Benning, GA where he's to preside over the Air Cavalry unit there with the assistance of Sgt. Major Basil Plumley (SAM ELLIOT). A deeply religious family man, Moore has come up with the revolutionary concept of using helicopters to drop men into battle situations and has thus enlisted chopper pilot Maj. Bruce Crandall (GREG KINNEAR) to assist in training his men.

Among them is Lt. Jack Geoghegan (CHRIS KLEIN), who's just become a parent along with wife Barbara (KERI RUSSELL). Moore and Plumley then train him and many others until they're finally sent off to Vietnam just as Moore is given command of the 7th Cavalry, a point he ironically states was also under Gen. Custer's leadership long ago.

Arriving in Ia Drang - a.k.a. "The Valley of Death" - in November 1965, Moore and his men suddenly find themselves vastly outnumbered by the Vietnamese forces that quickly surround them. Over a several day period, and as documented by photojournalist Joe Galloway (BARRY PEPPER), the Americans - despite suffering heavy losses that Julie and Barbara dutifully report to the other wives - don't give up as they try to figure out how to get themselves out of the precarious situation.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Other than the various WWII movies about the attack on Pearl Harbor, most war pictures don't examine the catalytic events or forces that start the particular war, or show the early times in it once it's started. That's often because most of the pivotal and famous or infamous events don't occur until sometime later in them. There's also the point that war movies, like most others, are better when they start in the middle of an ongoing story rather than all the way back at the very beginning.

That's particularly true for wars about Vietnam. Rarely do we see much about the pre-U.S. involvement (the first event actually took place right after WWII and the French were then involved for many years before American troops were ever deployed there), or even the early years of that during the 1960s before the conflict escalated into full-scale war.

"We Were Soldiers," the tale of the first major military battle the Americans fought in Vietnam, thus feels somewhat novel as it takes place in 1965, long before most other such related films are set there. In addition, it thus doesn't include the hardened or skeptical Vietnam vets who've come to realize they've been fighting a losing battle, or the sociopolitical posturing of so many other 'Nam films.

Based on the novel "We Were Soldiers Once...And Young" by retired Lieutenant General Harold G. Moore and civilian war correspondent Joseph L. Galloway, the film is a generally well-made and engaging look at those early war years and how nave the U.S. was -but quickly learned - about how ill prepared it was for the ensuing escalation that would last for nearly another decade.

Similar in both theme and plot to "Black Hawk Down," writer/director Randall Wallace's adaptation of the novel sets the American forces in the middle of a vicious and dire maelstrom. Once in the figurative hornets' nest, things only get worse as the American forces find themselves surrounded and outnumbered by hostile forces intent on killing them.

Despite the high body count and long odds, however, they persevere and make sure to leave no man behind, whether dead or alive. Like Ridley Scott's film about the U.S. involvement in Somalia, this film - which reunites star Mel Gibson with Wallace (writer of "Pearl Harbor" and director of "The Man in the Iron Mask") for the first time since their Oscar winning collaborative work on "Braveheart" - contains many bloody, gory and extremely violent battle scenes that immerse the viewer in the mayhem.

Notwithstanding the intensity of some of the scenes and sequences - that rival "Aliens" and "Starship Troopers" for that wide-eyed reaction to the sight of so many enemy forces storming the heroes' position - the film doesn't quite elicit that horrible "you are there" feeling that permeated "BHD" or "Saving Private Ryan."

Where the film excels - and what undermined "BHD" a bit by its absence - is in including more of the emotional element in the proceedings. Whether it's the early "at home" scenes, the slower moments during the battle, or an officer's wife delivering the bad news to newly widowed wives on the base, the film sets its emotional hooks into the viewer and never lets go. While it's not uncommon for a war film to present some sort of emotional material, this one does a terrific job of doing so and thus makes the overall effort that much better.

Where it fails somewhat, however, is in presenting the view from the other side, namely that of the Vietnamese forces. While the enemy's military tactics are present as usual - both to let the viewer in on what's going to occur and to ratchet up the suspense - the comparative emotional moments don't ring true and come off as halfhearted.

It's almost as if the filmmakers felt obligated to include such moments of showing the Vietnamese as humans too, but didn't want to explore it enough to make it seem like anything more than some tacked on, politically correct moments.

As far as the performances are concerned - on the American side - they range from good to terrific, although most of the characters remain nameless cogs in the machine, whether as soldiers or their wives. Mel Gibson ("What Women Want," "The Patriot"), though, delivers a terrific take on the protagonist, a deeply religious, family man who trains and then leads the men into battle. Although I can't attest to his historical representation of the real man, Gibson is superb in the role and delivers one of his best performances by bringing a great deal of emotion and humanity to the part.

As his close assistant, Sam Elliot ("The Contender," "The Hi-Lo Country") is a hoot to watch as the grizzled, gruff and fearless veteran who's as capable of delivering some funny, if decidedly off color quips as he is in shooting down the enemy like an old gunslinger. Barry Pepper ("The Green Mile," "Saving Private Ryan") is also good as the photojournalist despite an awkward and far too artsy-craftsy montage of his character in action during one distracting moment in the film.

Greg Kinnear ("Someone Like You," "The Gift") and Chris Klein ("Rollerball," "Here on Earth") partially redeem some of their previously wooden or blas performances by their work here, while Madeleine Stowe ("Impostor," "The General's Daughter") and Keri Russell ("Mad About Mambo," TV's "Felicity") are both quite good as military base wives who must deliver the bad news to other wives all while worrying that they might be the next recipients.

Despite its few flaws that prevent it from being a war movie masterpiece, this is still a riveting, engaging and even occasionally quite touching work that benefits from some terrific performances and technically well-crafted battle sequences. "We Were Soldiers" thus rates as a 7.5 out of 10.




Reviewed February 13, 2002 / Posted March 1, 2002


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