We Were Soldiers

on March 01, 2002 by Michael Tunison
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   The Vietnam War gets the rousing “Saving Private Ryan” treatment in “We Were Soldiers,” an old-fashioned combat drama almost as deft at pushing emotional buttons as dodging the still-heated politics of America's least-favorite major military conflict. Those interested in a profound exploration of the war's moral complexities will have to look elsewhere; leading dogface Mel Gibson and his troops' mission here is not to ask why, but rather to pay reverent tribute to the sacrifices made both on and off the battlefield.

   Based on the memoir “We Were Soldiers Once…and Young” by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and journalist Joseph L. Galloway, the film concerns a horrific engagement that took place as the United States' long fight in Vietnam was first seriously ramping up in 1965. Then-Lt. Col. Moore (Gibson in grimacing John Wayne mode) is called to test a new type of Army troop deployment--helicopter-borne “air cavalry”--with a strike on the Ia Drang Valley, but the idea gets a harsher shakedown than anyone anticipates when 400 of Moore's mostly inexperienced soldiers are surrounded by 2,000 North Vietnamese in the first major clash of the war.

   Like the recent “Black Hawk Down,” “We Were Soldiers” spends most of its running time on an extended battle recreation calculated to blast viewers into submission one bloody skirmish at a time, though the attention writer-director Randall Wallace (who scripted Gibson's “Braveheart”) gives to establishing his characters and a heartstring-yanking substory about Moore's steel-willed wife Julie (“The General's Daughter's” Madeleine Stowe) consoling the spouses of the men under her husband's command make this a much more accessible entry in the “war is hell” genre. While some will object to the idea of a Vietnam picture with such a rah-rah, patriotic tone, “Soldiers” ultimately achieves its main strategic objective: dramatizing the human cost of the conflict that came to define a generation. Starring Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott, Chris Klein, Keri Russell and Barry Pepper. Directed and written by Randall Wallace. Produced by Bruce Davey, Stephen McEveety and Randall Wallace. A Paramount release. War drama. Rated R for sustained scenes of graphic war violence and language. Running time: 138 min

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