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We Were Soldiers

Starring Mel Gibson
Based on the book by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (ret.) and Joe Galloway
Written and Directed by Randall Wallace
website: www.weweresoldiers.com

IN SHORT: An overwhelming film about battle. [Rated R for Sustained Sequences of Graphic War Violence and Language. 135 minutes]

Let us make this clear right now, since we didn't do it well enough in our review of Black Hawk Down. We only care about the movie; a story well told with characters we can identify with, like 'em or not. If you're old enough to remember Vietnam, you're already carrying all the politics you need to argue about We Were Soldiers. If not, this film shows you where the phrase "leave no man behind" came from -- not from a screenwriter's pen but from the lips of Lieutenant Colonel Harold "Hal" Moore (Mel Gibson) to his troops on the day before they shipped out to 'Nam.

Viet Nam was an unknown quantity in 1965. The French had been utterly humiliated, their army destroyed by the Vietnamese. Our Army looked at the French defeat and came up with a new game plan, one utilizing helicopters as cavalry. Fly in. Kill and Destroy. Fly out. The geography of 'Nam made this the only logical battle plan. In charge of the first Air Calvary was Lt. Col. Moore. Writer/Director Randall Wallace focusses on several important characters right off the bat. In addition to Moore, there is his second in command, Sgt. Major Basil Plumley (Sam Elliot), who give new meaning to the description "gruff." Lead chopper pilot is Major Bruce "Snake" Crandall (Greg Kinnear) -- there's an addendum to the "snake" nickname that we can't print here, but it's used frequently in the film and is plastered on Crandall's helmet. Let's just say his character won't end up in "it." Lastly, there is 2nd Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein), his wife Barbara (Keri Russell) with a newborn daughter Camille. Like Moore, Geoghegan is a devout Catholic. Moore and his wife Julie (Madeline Stowe) have four or five of their own and the Colonel looks after the 2nd like a son.

We'll pause to declare Elliot's performance "outstanding," something we rarely do because we think it's the actor's job to deliver a good performance. We'll let Paul rave about Mel over in CrankyCritic StarTalk. Elliot takes what would otherwise be a stereotypical drill sergeant type and, rather than imbue it with beneath the surface sensitivity, redlines it in the other direction. His Plumley grabs your attention from the first and dominates the screen whenever he doesn't share it with Gibson. With Gibson onscreen, he steps back. That's the true meaning of a supporting role.

With relatively green troops and untested battle strategies, Moore and his men are sent into 'Nam to destroy a "nest" of Viet Cong soldiers at a place called Ia Drang. Their brand new M-16 rifles had a tendency to misfire. They faced an army that had already been at war for 20 years, fighting hand-to-hand on a battlefield the size of a football field. The Viet Cong were more interested in evaluating our battle tactics and they had thousands of men waiting to fight. Roughly 400 of our troops went up against 2000 to 4000 Viet Cong. All in all, We Were Soldiers affirms (as did Black Hawk Down before it) that somewhere up the line, all decisions are made by idiots. Setting the theme for what is to come, just before battle, the First Air Calvary is redesignated as the Seventh. Just like George Armstrong Custer. The significance is not lost on Moore. Plumley puts it into perspective in language we can't print here.

The reason for the R rating understates the reality of the visuals you'll see on screen. Some of them go far beyond "graphic". That may be the biggest difference between the war movies of today and the ones that were generic John Wayne films. In the well-made ones, you cannot move, you gasp for breath and pray that the end comes soon. Oliver stones Platoon was the first of these, put Black Hawk Down in that category as well. Director Wallace, at least, focuses short sections in the film on previously unseen grunts and gives us a minute or so to make a connection before moving on to whatever happens to these soldiers. This breathing space is brought to you courtesy the introduction of UPI photographer/reporter Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper), to whom applying the adjective "insane" would be appropriate. His character undergoes the biggest transformation, which will later underscore what a bunch of idiots some of the press down in Saigon were.

Wallace gets a bit heavy handed with his message at times, and has a visual flair that waxes poetic far too much for our taste. Once we get into the actual battle, there is at least one edit completely outside of any logical time continuity, its purpose strictly to get your tear ducts swelling. Emotionally manipulative moments will build as you get near the end of the flick. We didn't particularly care for that. Still, we did get the point. It isn't the battle or the war or the patriotism or the flag that moves these men. It's the need to keep each other alive.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to We Were Soldiers, he would have paid . . .

$4.00

Then again, we're in New York. The current crop of war movies all have at their core, the "need to survive". Hell, if we were in these situations, we'd want to survive, too. But based in the Big Apple, survival is about all we're doing these days and survival is not enough. There may be no such thing as a feel good war movie. If we wanted that, we'd curl up with John Wayne for a while.

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