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Who Can Explain Such Things?
, March 12, 2002
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.
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