Thursday, November 21, 2013

We Were Soldiers (2010)

We Were SoldiersI live with a Vietnam Vet who served in the late 1960s with 1st Cav. Medivac. During service he earned two Purple Hearts, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal. Since WE WERE SOLDIERS concerns the 1st Cav., Randy wanted to see it. I reluctantly agreed; I am not partial to war films and I dislike Mel Gibson, and Randy is very hard on Vietnam War films. He dismisses PLATOON as a Hollywood 8x10 glossy; says APOCALYPSE NOW is an interesting movie that captures the paranoia, but all the technical details are wrong; and describes DEER HUNTER as excellent in its depiction of the strangeness of coming home but so full of plot holes that he can hardly endure it. And about one and all he says: "It wasn't like that."

He was silent through the film, and when we left the theatre I asked what he thought. He said, "They finally got it. That's what it was like. All the details are right. The actors were just like the men I knew. They looked like that and they talked like that. And the army wives too, they really were like that, at least every one I ever knew." The he was silent for a long time. At last he said, "You remember the scene where the guy tries to pick up a burn victim by the legs and all the skin slides off? Something like that happened to me once. It was at a helicopter crash. I went to pick him up and all the skin just slid right off. It looked just like that, too. I've never told any one about it."

In most respects WE WERE SOLDIERS is a war movie plain and simple. There are several moments when the film relates the war to the politics and social movements that swirled about it, and the near destruction of the 1st. Cav.'s 7th Battalion at Ia Drang clearly arises from the top brass' foolish decision to send the 7th into an obvious ambush--but the film is not so much interested in what was going on at home or at the army's top as it is in what was actually occurring on the ground. And in this it is extremely meticulous, detailed, and often horrifically successful. Neither Randy nor I--nor any one in the theatre I could see--was bored by or dismissive of the film. It grabs you and it grabs you hard, and I can easily say that it is one of the finest war movies I have ever seen, far superior to the likes of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, which seems quite tame in comparison.

Perhaps the single most impressive thing about the film is that it never casts its characters in a heroic light; they are simply soldiers who have been sent to do a job, and they do it knowing the risks, and they do it well in spite of the odds. Mel Gibson, although I generally despise him as both an actor and a human being, is very, very good as commanding officer Hal Moore, and he is equaled by Sam Elliot, Greg Kinnear, Chris Klein, and every other actor on the battlefield. The supporting female cast, seen early in the film and in shorter scenes showing the home front as the battle rages, is also particularly fine, with Julie Moore able to convey in glance what most actresses could not communicate in five pages of dialogue. The script, direction, cinematography, and special effects are sharp, fast, and possess a "you are there" quality that is very powerful.

Randy did have a criticism. "I don't think there would be time for casualty telegrams to actually get home while the battle was going on," he said. "After all, it only lasted three days." I myself had a criticism; there were points in the film when I found the use of a very modernistic, new-agey piece of music to be intrusive and out of place. And we both felt that a scene near the end of the movie, when a Vietnamese commander comments on the battle, to be improbable and faintly absurd. But these are nit-picky quibbles. WE WERE SOLDIERS is a damn fine movie. I'll give Randy, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, the last word: "It may not be 'the' Vietnam movie. I don't think there could ever be 'the' Vietnam movie. But they get everything right. That's how it looked and sounded, and that's what I saw, and this is the best movie about Vietnam I've ever seen."

This is war and it truly is hell. Outnumbered on the field and backed by the politically driven Defense Department of the time, one battalion finds itself outnumbered and fighting for its life in the jungles of Vietnam.

A recent reviewer here mistook what this movie was about. It is NOT about America's war in Vietnam and all the ideology behind it. Its about a battle that occurred in the early years of that war between a new type of specialized fighting unit and a very determined enemy. America wanted to engage the enemy for the first time and this is the battle. The only politics involved here is the decision not to declare a National Emergency thus allowing the Army's most experienced soldiers to leave at the end of their enlistments, when ironically they were most needed. This movie is about a battalion commander training his unit, getting orders and shipping off to war. It also gives an excellent look at what the wives had to endure during that terrible time.

If one wants to look at the politics of this war, check out HBO's Path to War. Path to War shows the speech were LBJ sends this unit, the Air Cav, to Vietnam and the political reasoning behind it. It goes through LBJ's escalation and McNamera's change of heart on the winnablity of the war. Highly recommend it.

Anyway, in realism this ranks up there with Saving Private Ryan. By reading the book you get a much better grasp of what happened as well as the story not told of what happened at LZ Albany. That encounter was even a worse then what happened at LZ X-Ray.

All told this movie gives the feel of how horrible, horrowing and confusing first-hand combat can be. One decision can lead to winning the day, or as the movie shows, getting yourself cut off and most of your men killed. As for accuracy to what occurred, a group of soldiers that were there appeared on The History Channel's "Hollywood vs History" program and they concurred that it was 75-80% factual. 20 25% Hollywood. That's probably a good ratio indeed. Oh, and the little American Flag at the end was real, not Hollywood. And Sam Elliot deserves an Academy Award for his portrait of American Hero Sgt. Major Basil Plumley.

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The title of the memoir that inspired this film, "We Were Soldiers Once...And Young," written by Lt. General Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, says much about what this film ultimately conveys, as in a few words it addresses the state of being of the individuals, as well as the country, which so soon would be embroiled in one of the most controversial wars in the history of America. "We Were Soldiers," adapted for the screen and directed by Randall Wallace, is an uncompromising look at war and the commitment of those who wage it. It's a true story told realistically, and moreover, in terms that are humanistic rather than political, which succeeds in making it a riveting drama that is both absorbing and emotionally involving.

It's November, 1965; some 400 American troops-the 7th Cavalry-led by Colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson), take the field at LZ X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam, where they are quickly surrounded by over 2000 North Vietnamese soldiers. The ensuing battle will last for three days, and it marks the first major confrontation between America and North Vietnam, a battle from which many, on both sides, will not walk away; and on hand to record it as it happens, is reporter Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper). Going in, Moore knows what they are up against, and he promises his men two things: That he will be the first to set foot on the field and the last to leave it; and he will bring every man back home with him, alive or dead-no one will be left behind. And it's a promise he keeps.

With this film, Wallace succeeds where two other, recent depictions of historic battles, "Pearl Harbor" and "Black Hawk Down"-both good films in their own right-failed; and it's because he managed to achieve just the right balance between the rendering of the battle itself and the human element involved. Of the two, "Pearl Harbor" is a close runner-up; the love story leading up to the battle was perhaps a bit extended, though ultimately engaging, whereas "Black Hawk Down" put the viewer in the battle, but was emotionally uninvolving. Here, Wallace not only gives you a battle that is brilliantly staged and presented, but before he takes you there he makes sure you know those who are about to die, and the loved ones they are leaving behind. War has many casualties, and they are not all on the battlefield; and beyond the realism of the fight, this is where Wallace makes his strongest statement, as during the three days of the battle he makes you privy to what the soldiers wives and families are going through at home, as well, waiting for the dreaded Western Union telegrams being delivered by cab drivers because the army wasn't prepared to deal with it.

The film is effective because Wallace keeps the human element at the heart of the story while he presents a perspective to which the audience can relate on very personal terms. In short, he gives you the "whole story," that enables you to know the horror of the firefight, as well as the throat clenching terror of seeing a yellow cab drive up to the front of your house, knowing full well what it means. This is a prime example of filmmaking and storytelling at it's best; and it's a commendable achievement by Wallace.

Gibson is perfectly cast and does an excellent job of bringing Hal Moore to life with a convincing portrayal of a man dedicated to both his family and his life as a soldier. Moore is focused and determined, and Gibson makes us realize that he knows the seriousness of what he is about to undertake, as well as the possible dire consequences thereof. The real strength of the character, however, is in the fact that he is not some kind of superhero out to win the war single-handedly, but a man who lives and loves and feels like anyone else, who bleeds when he is cut and hurts when he loses one of his men. A man who feels guilty that he is still living when his men die. And it's all captured in Gibson's strong and credible performance.

Besides Gibson, there are a number of exceptional supporting performances in this film, most notably, Madeleine Stowe, as Julie Moore, Hal's wife; Sam Elliott, as the gruff and seasoned veteran, Sergeant Major Basil Plumley; Greg Kinnear, as Major Bruce Crandall, the helicopter pilot with a memorable nickname; Chris Klein, as Lieutenant Jack Geoghegan, a new father to whom Moore gives a perspective on the war that enables him to face the job he must do; Keri Russell, as Barbara Geoghegan, the young wife and new mother who must watch her husband go off to fulfill his destiny; and Pepper, turning in an extremely affecting performance as Joe Galloway.

The supporting cast includes Ryan Hurst (Sergeant Savage), Mark McCracken (Ed "Too Tall" Freeman), Edwin Morrow (Willie), Jsu Garcia (Captain Nadal), Matt Mangum (Private Soprano), Brian Tee (Nakayama), Joseph Hieu (NVA Major), Don Duong (Ahn), Alan Dale (Westmoreland) and Simbi Khali (Alma). A film like this goes far in demonstrating the power and effectiveness of the medium that created it; it will never, however, enable us to understand war, because war-in all it's myriad manifestations-is beyond human comprehension. But it has always been with us and always will be, and a film that is well made and presented, a film like "We Were Soldiers," is important because it lends a needed perspective that allows us to take a step back and consider the magnitude of our endeavors in these regards, and the price we must pay for freedom. It leaves one with a sense of pride and patriotism, but tempered with a sobering concern for seeking altruistic alternatives. It may be only a dream; but hopefully, it's one that someday all the people of the world will share.

Read Best Reviews of We Were Soldiers (2010) Here

"We Were Soldiers Once...and Young: Ia Drang : The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam" was written by Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway. A bestseller when first published it is the story of the first significant engagement between American troops and the Viet Cong, which took place between October 23 and November 26, 1965. Moore was the commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, and Galloway was the only reporter present throughout the 34 days of the battle. The Battle of Ia Drang in the central highlands of Vietnam is considered the first time and place where helicopter-based, air-mobile operations were used in combat. However the technological advancements of war become secondary to the story of over 400 U.S. soldiers surrounded by 2000 of the enemy. Heroism under relentless fire becomes the true story of the book and the main virtue of this 2002 film from director Randall Wallace ("The Man in the Iron Mask").

"We Were Soldiers" assumes that the audience does not know about the book on which the film is based; it toys with the audience several times with setting up Moore (Mel Gibson) to be killed. Moore knows history and cannot help but wondering if he is also leading the 7th calvary into a massacre just like Custer in 1876; however, Sgt. Major Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott) pointedly reminds Moore of that fact the colonel ain't Custer. The backbone of the story is Moore's promise to his men that he would be the first one on and the last one off the battlefield and not even orders from his superiors, who do not want to have an American lieutenant colonel killed during a massacre, are going to get him to break his word. But ultimately the entire purpose of this film is to provide a realistic portrait of ground combat during Vietnam and drive home the fact that these soldiers were not fighting and dying for their country but for each other. This particular firefight lasts three days and nights, 56 straight hours of nonstop battle, and time and time again you become convinced that none of these soldiers are going to get out of there alive.

The battle is juxtaposed with scenes of Moore's wife, Julie (Madeline Stowe), who is forced to deliver the telegrams announcing the death of their husbands to their widows because the Army was using taxi cabs drivers. Like a similar scene in "A League of Their Own," such scenes violate our scene of propriety, ingrained in countless other war movies from "The Fighting Sullivans" to "Saving Private Ryan," that the military has a moral imperative in sending officers out to deliver such shattering news in person. However, we end up getting the idea that these telegrams were being sent while the bodies of these men were still lying in body bags on the battlefield.

Hal Moore, who retired as a Lt. General, gave "We Were Soldiers" his stamp of approval as the first Hollywood film to get what fighting was like in Vietnam, which is good enough for me. Watching this film while American troops are again fighting and dying in a war on the other side of the globe makes it even more potent. The performances are uniformly good, with Barry Pepper as the reporter Galloway, who distinguishes himself both with his camera and an automatic rifle during the battle, Greg Kinnear as head chopper pilot Major Bruce Crandall, and Keri Russell as Barbara Geoghegan, the wife of a young 2nd Lt. who sees her husband go off to war right after she had given birth to their first child. My only major complaint about this film is that the score by Nick Glennie-Smith often overwhelms the scenes of battle with music that provides a discordant apotheosis. I can totally appreciate the idea of not providing heroic music, but what we have here goes too far in sanctifying the action. The blood and the guts being displayed by heroic actions and brutal deaths on screen do that without needing the music; just watch the "Broken Arrow" chapter for proof.

Before the final credits the film shows the names of the soldiers who died at L-Z X-Ray ; even more poignant is the fact that there names are inscribed on Panel 3 East of the Vietnam War Memorial, because there were so many panels that follow (70 in all inscribed with 58,000 names). Ultimately, "We Were Soldiers" avoids taking a political stance on the war beyond what is brought to the experience by the audience (the most political scene with Moore debriefed by McNamra & Westmoreland is one of those deleted). Moore's battlefield counterpart, Lt. Col. Nguyen Huu An (Don Duong) is presented as a dedicated, competent leader (the scenes in his underground command post also provide us our clearest understanding of what is actually happening on the battlefield). When Moore looks at the diary of a Vietcong soldier who almost killed him, he finds a picture of a woman, who to my eye anyway looks like Moore's own wife. The symmetry makes it perfectly clear that the troops on the other side were soldiers too.

Want We Were Soldiers (2010) Discount?

"Those of us who have seen war keep seeing it. In the silence of the night, we still hear the screams."

War is hell, and "We Were Soldiers" spends its entire relaying this brutal truth in a story that overflows with patriotic zeal, a convincing sense of chaos, and a harsh depiction of the physical reality of combat conditions. Like Ridley's Scott's "Black Hawk Down," released in the holiday stretch of 2001, writer/director Randall Wallace, in his directorial debut, is careful to remind us of the emotional impact of war rather than sacrificing it for effects and thrills.

It seems that Wallace has learned from previous misfires: the story, adapted from the novel by Lt. Col. Harold Moore and reporter Joseph Galloway, is everything that Wallace's previous script, "Pearl Harbor," was not. Beginning with the introductions to military life as seen through the eyes of various soldiers and officers, we are given a unique opportunity to become involved in their family lives, bearing witness to happier times before President Johnson orders reinforcements into Vietnam.

Mel Gibson is cast as Harold Moore, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, arriving on base with his wife, Julie (Madeleine Stowe), and five young children. Among those singled out by the story to provide emotional connections are young Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein) and his expecting wife, Barbara (Keri Russell), Maj. Bruce 'Snakeshit' Crandall (Greg Kinnear), who shows a great deal of devotion to duty, and Sgt-Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott), who exacts a brutish demeanor as a result of decades of wartime experience.

After a montage of tearful goodbyes that pull at the heartstrings with all their might, Wallace's film nosedives into the hellish combat of the Battle of Ia Drang, as Moore's soldiers are choppered in under heavy fire from the soldiers of the Viet Cong. After splitting into divisions, several men are surrounded, many of whom are seriously wounded, leading Moore to regroup and make attempts to rescue his entrapped soldiers, all the while battling forces surrounding his own.

These brilliantly photographed and acted scenes of battle are some of cinema's most memorable, charged with physical intensity that practically jolts the audience with each explosion and gunshot. Wallace brings the viewer into the experience rather than making him a sideline witness to it, wrapping us in a continuous onslaught of sensory perception, from startling images of bloodshed and mangled bodies, to the non-stop firing of machine guns and heavy artillery.

Accompanying such moments are a constant reminder of the emotional loss and grievances one goes through in times of war. We see young reporter Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper) befriending a Japanese-American soldier in the middle of combat; ten minutes later, he's rushing towards a rescue chopper, his bloodied friend hanging loose in his arms. We see the tear-strained faces of wives informed of their lost husbands. We see these soldiers, once young, their innocence stripped from them as they stare into the eyes of the enemy, and instantly, the emotional magnitude of such an event becomes a stark reality.

But through it all, we see something richer, something well-defined, something forgotten in much of the modern war drivel that has graced the silver screen in years past. "We Were Soldiers" not only packs a physical and emotional punch, but brings to light an overwhelming aura of patriotism that is evident in the heroic acts of its characters, a sense of duty and devotion that makes the movie's dialogue ring true in every way, shape and form.

In playing Harold Moore, Mel Gibson recalls the glory and presence of his performance in "Braveheart;" his ability to juxtapose a stern demeanor with true, heartfelt displays of emotion hasn't lost its luster. The under-used Madeleine Stowe portrays Julie as a strong-willed military wife, while Keri Russell makes good use of her onscreen time. Each of the cast members who make up Moore's cavalry give heartfelt performances, most notably Barry Pepper as Galloway, whose narration bookends the film.

Movies like "We Were Soldiers" benefit from a connection to reality. The inclusion of characters Moore and Galloway serve to remind us of the factual basis for the stunning visual and emotional assault that conveys war and those affected by it. Wallace's film, while being a great tribute to those who fought for a war still misunderstood by many, is a patriotic display of courage, heroism, honor, and the knowledge that for those who have seen war, victory is bittersweet.

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