Close on the heels of Black Hawk Down, the ante for the war film has been upped yet again. Still, We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down are two different animals. While Black Hawk works best as a physical and emotional onslaught on both viewers and characters, We Were Soldiers is much stronger on the character-study end of things.
There are plenty of explosions and gunfire, along with a couple of turn-away scenes for those audience members with weaker constitutions (word of warning: one of them comes just after a soldier's face catches on fire). But this film, based on the Vietnam memoir We Were Soldiers Once, and Young, by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, matches the violence with a series of thought-provoking scenarios. The first hour is dedicated to meeting Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) and his family as he begins training sessions for the Air Cavalry members he'll be heading to Vietnam with. There are also peeks into the lives of Moore's second-in-command, Sgt.-Maj. Plumley (Sam Elliott, who hasn't appeared this tough since he fought and swaggered his way through Road House), Maj. Crandall (Greg Kinnear, who isn't given enough screen time, but makes good use of what he's got), Lt. Geoghegan (Chris Klein, who should soon be able to forget about Rollerball), and UPI reporter Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper, who recently played Roger Maris in the TV movie 61).
The whole complexion of the film changes in the second part, signaled by the appearance of rows of buses in the middle of the night that have come to take the trainees to transports that will bring them to Vietnam in late 1965. There, they become part of the first wave of American soldiers to battle the Vietcong, culminating in the Ia Drang Valley where 79 Americans died in a fierce battle that no one was really prepared for.
And in this second part there are some unprecedented ingredients for a war film. First is the in-depth look at what was going on back home in the lives of the soldiers' families, with much attention to those awful Western Union letters that came bearing the worst possible news from the front. And the film goes inside the Vietcong camps, eavesdropping on the officers and soldiers running their campaign from underground bunkers, with the Americans above caught in a place where the enemy knew the land and could easily surround those who didn't.
But if just one subject has to be chosen for what this film is about, it would be leadership. Gibson turns in a very strong performance, painting a picture of Moore as a man who is brave, honest, sincere and upstanding, even when all odds are against him. He never stops thinking and acting, never loses hope, even when his commanders back in Saigon do. The first order Moore is given when he gets there is "find the enemy and kill 'em," which he attempts to do, but as a man with religious and philosophical convictions.
And soon, outnumbered -- no one knows how many of the enemy are actually out there -- and outmaneuvered, Moore and his men see the air fill with bullets and the ground fill with blood (some of it even splatters on the camera lens).
Writer-director Randall Wallace knows his way around big movie battles, having scripted Braveheart and Pearl Harbor. Yet once on the frightening battlefield in this one, the dialogue loses a great deal of importance; most of it is yelled, but still can't be heard because of the artillery.
Still, the actors here manage to get their parts and points across. The powerful performance by Gibson is always at the center of things, but he's nearly matched by his cadre of supporting actors, including Elliott, whose gruffness makes for many of the film's scattered comic lines. Pepper undergoes a major transformation between the time he's introduced and film's end -- and he participates in one of the film's oddest conversations (about buying shoes). Madeleine Stowe is strong as Julie, Moore's sturdy but shaken wife.
The funny moments are few, the tension is almost always turned to "high," and concern for the people on the screen is never more apparent than when one scared American soldier, pinned down by constant gunfire, says to another, "Our guys are gonna come for us, aren't they?"
The use of extreme violence for emotional impact is sporadic but extremely effective, and the film's amazing sound design (in properly equipped theaters) makes sure everyone watching it is as surrounded by gunfire as the soldiers. The film winds up with a provocative series of endings that look at issues on both sides of the battle line. It manages to celebrate these people who are out there just doing their jobs, while at the same time condemning war.