We were... bored
What's that smell? Could it be...words? A lot of critics are going to be eating their words and some may want to cook them first.
I'm talking about those of us who found fault with Black Hawk Down because it didn't devote any time to establishing its characters before plunging them into a battle that lasted to the end of the picture. We Were Soldiers shows what was missing and makes us realize how lucky we were to miss it.
A Mel Gibson vanity piece from first frame to last, We Were Soldiers is based on a Vietnam War memoir by Lt. General Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway. After a prologue showing the 1954 massacre of French troops in what was then Indochina, the film spends nearly 40 minutes at Fort Benning, Georgia, establishing the character of what was then Lt. Colonel Moore (Gibson).
A Korean War veteran with a Harvard degree in international relations, Moore is picked to lead a new type of force in a new (for the U.S.) type of war. We see way more than we need to of his home life with wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe with new lips— can't blame her for changing her appearance after Impostor — that make her look like a cross between Julia Roberts and Angelina Jolie) and their five children (Moore's Catholic). The youngest daughter even asks, "Daddy, what is a war?"
Through Moore we meet some of the men he'll be serving with and through his wife we meet some of their wives. Greg Kinnear plays Maj. Crandall, the hotshot helicopter pilot known as "Snakeshit" because that's how low he flies. Sam Elliott (channeling F. Lee Ermey) is Plumley, the grizzled old Sgt. Major. Chris Klein is the untested young Lt. Geoghegan, who shows leadership potential (Josh Hartnett in Black Hawk Down, except that he doesn't take command). He's married to Keri Russell.
Moore's Air Mobile Division is renamed the Seventh Cavalry, the troop Custer commanded, and Moore does extensive research on both Custer's Last Stand and the French massacre seen earlier to avoid repeating their mistakes. The battle of Ia Drang Valley, condensed to three days and two nights, takes place about a year after the Georgia scenes, in November 1965. It's the first major encounter between U.S. troops and the North Vietnamese Army.
The 395 men (marked down from the 400 in The Charge of the Light Brigade) under Moore's command are ferried by helicopter to the valley, facing a mountain where an unknown number of enemy troops (a captured Vietnamese says there are 4,000) are headquartered in caves. They're not shown as mindless guerrillas as in most movies, but well-trained troops under an intelligent strategist.
One American platoon is soon cut off from the others, and the men feel stranded, surrounded, and outnumbered. On their side, however, is support from artillery that, though five miles away, can hit enemy troops with pinpoint accuracy.
Somewhere in the midst of numerous skirmishes UPI reporter Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper) jumps on Snakeshit's chopper and flies into the fray, armed only with cameras. As casualties mount on both sides we're twice pulled back to the States for sequences about the notification of widows. Julie volunteers to deliver the telegrams herself rather than have them brought by a cab driver.
Moore is never less than a total hero. He insists on being the first to enter the scene of battle and the last to leave and insists (shades of Black Hawk Down), "I will leave no one behind. Dead or alive, we will all come home together." Asked about reconciling his dual roles as soldier and father he says, "I hope that being good at one makes me better at the other." After the battle he laments, "I'll never forgive myself... that my men died and I didn't."
Most ridiculous are two scenes in which Moore stands, striking heroic poses, while they're under fire and his men are wisely lying as close to the ground as they can get. He seems as absurdly invulnerable as Owen Wilson's character in Behind Enemy Lines, a movie that didn't aspire to realism.
Realism in war movies today means the most gruesome casualties imaginable, and you can just picture the special effects teams working to outdo each other, as they once did in horror movies. If you can get past the bugler's exploding neck in the first five minutes you won't have a problem with anything in We Were Soldiers.
A friend and I once whiled away the time working on a combat survival guide based on war movie clichés, most of which turn up in We Were Soldiers. If you want to live to the end of the movie, don’t: have a girl back home, have a wife who just had a baby, have plans to start a business after the war, or be black; do: plan to write a book about the war, be reluctant to fight, or be Mel Gibson.
I've no doubt that there were true acts of heroism in the battle for Ia Drang Valley and that heroic acts are being performed every day in the current war. But I take no reinforcement or reassurance from a phony-baloney movie in which a dying soldier's last words are, "I'm glad I could die for my country."