We Were Soldiers

"I will be the first to step on the field, and the last to step off."

I will admit that I may have liked We Were Soldiers had I seen it before the cinematic ass-kicking that is Black Hawk Down. Technically, it’s a fine achievement; the war scenes are reasonably realistic and suspenseful, Mel Gibson is even better than he was in The Patriot, and there are parts in which the movie succeeds tremendously. But the movie is clearly diluted for mass consumption. It simplifies is characters and shies away from any sort of humanity and ambiguity; worse, random Hollywood cliches are inserted to make us all comfortable with the material.

We Were Soldiers wants to be a kinder, gentler war movie, blending the battle scenes with vignettes of the protagonist’s family life as well as of the soldiers’ wives as they wait, and grieve. The film’s focus is on the events in what would soon be known as the Valley of Death, as Lt. Colonel Hal Moore attempts to avoid the fate of the French in Vietnam, shown in the prologue. Moore’s Company fits conveniently into war movie conventions: the young, innocent newlywed father (Chris Klein), the amateur, frightened soldier who is assigned an Important Task (in this case, being the radio man), the gung-ho fighter who’s looking for medals, etc.

In the meantime, Moore’s wife takes upon herself the difficult task of distributing the condolence postcards to the wives of the newly deceased. She asks the postman to just deliver them to her and then, along with the wife of Klein’s character (who, being the young, innocent newlywed father, has to die fairly early in the movie), takes them to the houses of the other wives. This is done in a poignant montage obviously intended to give us a break from the war action. I hate to keep making comparisons, but Black Hawk Down didn’t patronize us like that.

Then there are smaller but equally irritating things that should have been left out. Greg Kinnear’s goofball ace pilot, who breaks the rules at the beginning of the movie and then comes back to Save the Day at Just the Right Moment, giving a meaningful wave and nod out of the window of his plane made me shout “Oh, Please!” at the screen, greatly annoying the enraptured audience around me. The movie attempts t be sympathetic in its portrayal of the enemy Koreans the same half-assed way that Pearl Harbor attempted it, but there’s little sympathy evident when thousands of them are wiped off the face of the earth.

Gibson does a terrific job as the Lieutenant Colonel, but the script makes his character so one-dimensionally noble that I lost interest in him as a person. How can anyone truly invest his emotions in a guy who is so clearly a saint, more virtuous than any member of the audience can ever aspire to be? And since his family is shown only so much as they relate to him, I couldn’t bring myself to care about them either.

We Were Soldiers is probably more “entertaining” than Black Hawk Down was, to the extend that one expects entertainment in a war movie. The two had the same goal — a hyper-realistic depiction of one extraordinary, disastrous mission — but while I left BHD literally shaking, We Were Soldiers left me shaking my head.

-- Eugene Novikov

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