Though it's very different in tone and style, the Vietnam War movie "We Were Soldiers" bears some uncanny similarities to "Black Hawk Down," starting with the promise of its hero, Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson), to leave no man behind. Both movies, based on real events, present themselves as tributes to the soldiers who fought and died in war. The sentiment expressed at the end of writer-director Randall Wallace's movie-- "In the end, we fought for each other... we didn't fight for flag and country"--is the same message delivered by Ridley Scott's film about our troops in Somalia.
Hollywood has figured out a way to present war movies without seeming to rattle sabers or wave flags, and at the same time appeal to our patriotic spirit. To achieve this, anything overtly political is sidestepped. In "We Were Soldiers," the question of whether we should have been in Vietnam in the first place is never asked. Two motives seem to be at work: the admirable one of paying belated testimony to the sacrifices our troops made, and the calculated one of not wanting to alienate any potential ticket buyers.
The other thing Wallace's movie shares with "Black Hawk" is its brutally graphic depiction of warfare: the majority of the movie is fighting. "We Were Soldiers" spares few details in revealing the horrors that occurred in November 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley in the central highlands of Vietnam. (It's based on a book by Moore and journalist Joseph L. Galloway, who not only covered the battle but took up arms.) This was, the movie tells us, the first major battle between Vietnamese and American troops. In a technical sense, we were considered the victors. (Outnumbered and surrounded by North Vietnamese troops as they were, it's a miracle any Americans survived at all.) But there's no triumph in the movie, just as there was none in the war's outcome. The enemy is not demonized. The tone is elegiac.
"We Were Soldiers" is, ultimately, a powerful and moving experience--once it overcomes its clunky, badly written and cliched first act, set in Fort Benning, Ga. "What's war, Daddy?" asks Moore's little daughter, just a hint of the kind of heavy-handed exposition we have to endure--along with portentous repeated references to Custer's massacre at Little Big Horn, nudging us in the ribs that something really bad is going to happen. Unlike the stripped-down "Black Hawk," which dispensed with characterizations entirely, Wallace's movie wants us to get up close and personal with its young warriors, so that their deaths will have maximum lump-in-the-throat impact. But when it comes to his human drama, Wallace (who wrote "Braveheart") falls back on lazy Hollywood conventions. You can be sure that when a soldier announces that his wife back home is about to give birth, he's not going to survive the next scene. Off the battlefield, Wallace's dialogue can have all the spontaneity of a training manual.
But when the movie gets to Vietnam and the fighting begins, the movie starts to take hold. You can sense the filmmaker's respect for the hard, specific thrusts of warfare. The terrifying action scenes are masterfully staged, conveying the close-up chaos of war without losing the larger strategic picture. And the scenes that depict the soldiers' wives back in Fort Benning, as they receive telegram after telegram informing them of their husbands' deaths, are truly wrenching. (The women, with their beehive hairdos and heavy eyeliner, look very '60s; the men, with their anachronistic pumped-up bodies, don't.)
The cast is solid, but it's not an actor's movie. Gibson dons a Southern accent and forgets about looking glamorous. Playing this craggy, dedicated soldier, he disappears more than usual inside his character, which is not to say that you forget you're watching a movie star. Sam Elliott has a showy turn as his devoted sergeant major, a soldier so gruff he gets a laugh with every hard-bitten line reading. Madeleine Stowe plays Moore's devoted wife, nervously watching out her window for the yellow cabs that bring those Western Union announcements. Chris Klein's newlywed soldier seems less a real person than a sop to the youth market. But if "We Were Soldiers" isn't all it could have been--the banal moments compromise the fierce honesty of the combat scenes--you'll have to be a lot stronger than I am to resist its emotional wallop.