We Were Soldiers (2002) Movie Review

It’s a known fact that the Vietnam War was fought by soldiers who bled and died on the green grass of Vietnam while civilians who had never touched a gun “commanded” the war from the safety of American soil. Regardless of personal opinions concerning the war (oddly enough, the people with the most hardcore views on the war are those who were never in it (myself included)), but by every measuring stick used to gauge the success or failures of wars, there was no way America “lost” Vietnam. My opinion is that the war was simply never ours to “win” or “lose” in the first place, hence its eventual climax (with the Communist North taking over all of the country) had no real bearing on the average American citizen. Consider this: Over 58,000 American soldiers lost their lives in Vietnam, but over a million North Vietnamese soldiers died. Ask any Army General, and he’ll take those numbers in a heartbeat.

“We Were Soldiers” tells the true story of Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) and his First U.S. Air Calvary (soldiers trained to enter combat on helicopters), and how they entered the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam and engaged the North Vietnamese Army for the very first time. At this remote, unimportant speck of land, Moore’s 400 men find themselves quickly surrounded by over 4,000 North Vietnamese Regulars, led by Lt. Col. Huu An Nyugen. After 3 days of battle, over half of Moore’s men lay dead, and over 1,800 of Nyugen’s men would not see their families again. The Ia Drang battle signaled the first “official” military engagement between the two opposing sides, and it wouldn’t be the last.

“We Were Soldiers” is a straightforward film from writer/director Randall Wallace (“Braveheart”), who adapted a book by Moore and co-writer/journalist Joe Galloway (played in the film by Barry Pepper). If there is one fault I can find with the movie it’s that it doesn’t break any new ground, and the Ridley Scott war movie “Black Hawk Down” did a much better job of telling the simple message of survival at all costs and unbreakable brotherhood between soldiers. Wallace tries (and sometimes succeeds, but not always) in evoking emotion from us by shifting focus back home to the Army base where Moore’s wife, Julie (Madeleine Stowe), tries to keep the soldiers’ wives from coming apart, even as telegrams telling them of their husband’s death keeps arriving. Some of the scenes, as the telegrams’ arrival by way of a cold and heartless cab, are highly effective, but most, like a black officer’s wife talking about racism in the States, just feels…awkward.

But this is a war movie, and Wallace achieves great cinematic moments only eclipsed by the savagery of the Act One “Beach Scene” in “Saving Private Ryan” and the chaotic and hellish urban gun battles of “Black Hawk Down.” The action in “We Were Soldiers” is unrelenting and terrifying, and enemy soldiers continually find themselves face-to-face without knowing it. Wallace manages the giant battle scenes well, giving us insights into war tactics used by both Moore and his Vietnamese counterpart, as well as keeping everything coherent and easy to keep in context.

After the initial training sequence early in the film, the rest of this almost 2-hour movie focuses on the battle at Ia Drang itself. Hollywood has become geniuses at staging massive battles, and the 3 days of Ia Drang is delivered in horrific colors of splattered blood, torn limbs, and flying napalm that consumes men from both sides like a greedy and unthinking monster from some dark Greek mythology.

Mel Gibson must really love war movies, and why not? The man is so good at playing the skilled and confidant but vulnerable soldier. Now getting on in age, Gibson’s grizzled and lined face just makes him even more perfect for roles like this. Gibson brings the real-life (and still living) Hal Moore to life with a great and nuance performance. Because this is a war movie, and war movies are notorious for large casts with indistinguishable faces, the soldiers under Moore’s command are mostly, well, indistinguishable.

Chris Klein manages to acquit himself well, especially in the aftermath of the awful display of thespian ability in “Rollerball”, by playing a young and inexperienced officer who has to leave a wife and a young child behind to follow Moore into battle. Klein’s character becomes another son to Moore (he has 2 back at home), and the two men play off each other well, especially Gibson. Sam Elliot, looking appropriately gruff, plays a stoic and unmovable “Sergeant Rock” character usually filled by Tom Sizemore, who has made a career out of playing such roles in both “Black Hawk Down” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Barry Pepper (yet another veteran from “Ryan”) does a reasonably good job as the real-life Joe Galloway, a journalist who ends up becoming a soldier after hitching a ride to the battle. But the real standout performance belongs to Greg Kinnear as a fearless but emotional helicopter pilot. Kinnear (“Sabrina”) is a good actor, and getting better with each movie.

It’s also notable to mention that “We Were Soldiers” breaks from the ranks of many Vietnam War movies and doesn’t play it as moody and downbeat. Yes, people die by the hundreds, but Wallace has made a conscientious decision to keep the movie from becoming yet another bad “Platoon” rip-off. And it works, mostly because this battle took place in 1965, very early on in the war, and before American soldiers became walking zombies as depicted in so many Vietnam War films. But as the film ends, the soldiers are already more than halfway to Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” — they’re dirty, covered in blood and guts and dirt, and their eyes are hollowed out by what they’ve seen and done. “Platoon” is just over the horizon for these men and all those who would follow them to this hole called Vietnam.

What’s most interesting about “Soldiers” is the accuracy with which it predicts the next 10 years (that is, the 10 years of the Vietnam War (1965-1975) that is to follow). As Moore feared, the American commanders never learned a single thing from the Ia Drang battle, and continued to send wave after wave of men to die against men and women and children who had nothing to lose. The Vietnamese were fighting for their country — and the Americans were simply…there.

It was a bad war — and a mistake.

Randall Wallace (director) / Harold G. Moore, Joseph L. Galloway, Randall Wallace (screenplay)
CAST: Mel Gibson …. Lt. Colonel Hal Moore
Madeleine Stowe …. Julie Moore
Greg Kinnear …. Major Bruce Crandall
Sam Elliott …. Sergeant Major Basil Plumley
Chris Klein …. 2nd Lieutenant Jack Geoghegan
Barry Pepper …. Joseph Galloway

Buy We Were Soldiers on DVD