Zack Looking Back: We Were Soldiers (2002)

Zack Looking Back ('09)/Eastside Entertainment Editor

Director: Randall Wallace (Braveheart, Pearl Harbor)
Main Characters/Cast:
Lt. Col. Hal Moore-Mel Gibson
Julie Moore-Madeleine Stowe
Maj. Bruce ‘Snake’ Crandall-Greg Kinnear
Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley-Sam Elliot
2nd Lt. Jack Geoghegan-Chris Klein
Barbara Geoghegan-Keri Russell
Joe Galloway-Barry Pepper
Sgt. Ernie Savage-Ryan Hurst
Capt. Matt Dillon-Jon Hamm
RottenTomatoes Critical Consensus: “The war clichés are laid on a bit thick, but the movie succeeds at putting a human face on soldiers of both sides in the Vietnam War.”
Review:

The film starts off set in Vietnam during 1954 in the first Indochina War where a French army unit is on patrol. The French are ambushed and executed by the Viet Minh. This brutal opening sequence set the stage for a war that remained as bad eleven years later, when we are introduced to our main character Hal Moore (Mel Gibson).

The first twenty minutes or so of the film (following the opening ‘flashback’) are an attempt to augment character development. We learn a little about the lives of a few of the soldiers and we see how much every member of the team gets along. The back-stories behind each character did seem interesting, but bad casting and poor dialogue made the early portion of the film seem rushed. The most interesting character, Greg Kinnear, was the one that seemed to be largely ignored, and that proved a minor detriment to the film overall. Chris Klein (American Pie) proved nothing here talent-wise, and it was strange how his character was pushed to the forefront of the film. It’s a shame that Jon Hamm (Mad Men) was an unknown commodity at this point because in a more central role he would have thrived.

Once the film finally got away from its attempt at character development, it made a quick transition into guns blazing and non-stop brutality. The war sequences provided arguably the best action I have ever seen in a war movie, rivaling that of even Saving Private Ryan. Even though the film focused in on certain characters that would seemingly be important later on, this film strayed away from the typical war movie cliché and killed off the seemingly sentimental heroes that always seem to survive until the very end. In reality, no matter how heroic a soldier is, anyone can be killed at any moment and this film did a tremendous job of portraying that reality. Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan, Green Mile) narrated the early portion of the film and it was unclear whether or not he would appear, but about halfway through all the warfare, he joined the squad not as a soldier but as a journalist. By the end of the film he had experienced what it was like to be a soldier, and this is what eventually inspired the real life Joe Galloway to co-write the book from which this movie was based with Hal Moore.

If you go in expecting another Braveheart or Patriot type performance from Mel Gibson, prepare to be disappointed. At the start of the film, he was not very believable as the lieutenant (or leader) of the squad. He was portrayed as very sentimental (and easily pleased) which, based off other war films, is not a typical trait of a leader. However, once the emotional scenes with his family and the other soldiers finally passed, he made the transition into battle and he was perfect in his role as a leader. While it appeared his personality was not fit for the army, his relationships with the squad actually did prove to be beneficial, as it gave the squad more trust in their leader. Hal Moore valiantly led 395 men in a battle against more than 4,000 Vietnamese soldiers, and there is no arguing with that.

The main thing that separated We Were Soldiers from other war films was the “view from the other side.” Most war films are solely focused on the “good side” (usually the Americans), but this film made the interesting decision to show some of the battle and decision making from the oppositions point of view. While there obviously was more focus and a little favoritism towards the American side, just seeing the Vietnamese’s reactions and planning made the film that much better.

We Were Soldiers fails in the character development aspect and the dialogue throughout the film is its weakest point. Poor casting in the end did not prove too detrimental to the overall quality, and Mel Gibson’s lead provided some of the best war sequences I have ever seen in film.
Grade: B
Similar Movies:

Black Hawk Down- Starring Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana
Platoon- Starring Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker
Apocalypse Now- Starring Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall

We Were Soldiers Notes:
-Box Office (according to BoxOfficeMojo)- $114.6 million Worldwide
-Critics Approval Rating (according to RottenTomatoes)- 62%
-Faith Hill had the role of Mel Gibson’s wife, but left the film and was replaced by Madeline Stowe.
-Denis Leary was offered the role of Bruce “Snake” Crandall (Greg Kinnear), but had to turn it down due to scheduling conflicts.
-Mel Gibson reportedly earned $25 million to star in this film