by Ben Kenigsberg Arriving nine years after Oliver Stone ended his Vietnam trilogy, We Were Soldiers is, in a sense, the first Vietnam movie for a new era. The ...

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by Ben Kenigsberg

Arriving nine years after Oliver Stone ended his Vietnam trilogy,

We Were Soldiers

is, in a sense, the first Vietnam movie for a new era. The two great war films of the past decade,

Saving Private Ryan


The Thin Red Line

, both played it safe and used World War II as a backdrop. Undoubtedly, certain kids will use

We Were Soldiers

as their first introduction to the Vietnam War. What they'll get is a gripping anti-war film, albeit the least politically charged film about the war to date.

We Were Soldiers

, which is based on the true story of one of the earliest conflicts in the war -- in which American soldiers ended up getting massacred -- often plays as if it aspires to be an extremely expensive history lesson. At one point, the main character makes a list of the reasons the French failed to keep Vietnam, which might well be taken from a high-school textbook. (We learn, for instance, that the French didn't know the terrain.) Earlier, the wife of one of the soldiers remarks that it's strange that the local laundromat won't let her wash her colored T-shirts there -- after all, it has a sign that says "no coloreds" in the window. Upon being informed that "no coloreds" means no African-Americans, she replies, "That's awful!" The characters think and speak exactly the way the average modern schoolchild would want them to think -- which, I gather, is not what was going on in 1964.

It's uncertain whether the film's (non-)attitude towards 'Nam was influenced by current events; the movie's the only direct indictment of the war's politics is in its portrayal of the hero's superior officers, who make all the wrong decisions. The film often seems to be dodging the issue of why Americans were in Vietnam in the first place, not wanting to remind the nation of its most momentous military fiasco during wartime. But

We Were Soldiers

is more about those who fought in the war than it is about the war itself, which makes it refreshing. In a good way, it's the opposite of Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece

Full Metal Jacket

, which showed the dehumanizing effects of war.

We Were Soldiers

, more than any movie since


, captures the mindset of a soldier who knows he's marching into certain death. One of the best scenes shows the soldiers in training, soon before they are ordered to Vietnam. Because of atmospheric disturbance, the radio starts picking up troop communication in Vietnam: the trainees listen and hear their peers being slaughtered.

Whether the battle sequences are more or less impressive than the ones in



Private Ryan

is a question suited for a film editor. What matters is that they feel every bit as effective.

We Were Soldiers

contains some of the most personal battle sequences ever filmed: we meet the characters before they enter the heat of battle, so we feel more for them later on.

In one of the earliest shoot-outs, we watch horrified at the consequences of a soldier pausing for a second to check on his wounded friend. When a grenade goes off, we watch as the flames consume the face of one of the men. There's an astonishing shot, thematically similar to one in


, in which the Americans illuminate the perimeter and suddenly realize that they are surrounded. After a day of fighting, we see blood being washed off the medical truck.

The portrayal of the home front is strong, too. The wives project pride even when, inside, they fear for their husbands. At one point, a metaphorical cut contrasts the sight of the soldiers getting killed with the image of one of the wives vacuuming. The movie includes the saddening detail that telegrams announcing soldiers' deaths came via taxicab, not via chaplain because, as Madeleine Stowe's character puts it, "the army wasn't ready."

Mel Gibson is quite good in the lead as Lt. Col. Hal Moore, who believes in all the ideals that being in the army stands for and who manages to speak words of encouragement to his soldiers even in the most dire hours. ("We gave them more than they gave us," he tells the troops.)

There are some pretty unforgivable things in

We Were Soldiers

. At 138 minutes, the picture is too long. The film overemphasizes points by presenting several scenes in slow motion. The drum-roll-and-trumpet motif in Nick Glennie-Smith's score is shameful. The scenes that take place in the North Vietnamese command station are so brief and pointless that they might as well have been cut. The movie too often cuts away from showing actors right after they've been told important news, before we have time to see their reactions. Some of the dialogue is lame, as one would expect in a movie written by the man who wrote

Pearl Harbor


But writer-director Randall Wallace can be forgiven for penning that World War II-era debacle. Despite its flaws, his latest war picture, while not quite on par with


, which he wrote but didn't direct, has integrity, visceral power, and a strong sense of character.