Friday, November 11, 2011

Film Review - We Were Soldiers (2002)

Written and directed by Randall Wallace, starring Mel Gibson, featuring Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliot, Madeline Stowe and Barry Pepper.

Based on the book We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young by Lieutenant General (Ret.) Hal Moore and reporter Joseph L. Galloway, both of whom were at the battle.

Mel Gibson has become a punchline due to his out of control ravings while drunk. So be it, selah. That outrageous activity bears no reflection on this, possibly his single greatest effort as an actor. In fact, this film is a "plane gone down" effort: had the entire cast and crew died after its release, every man and woman involved should have its title engraved on their headstones.

As per the DVD extra Getting It Right: behind the scenes of the making of We Were Soldiers, the director stated that while reading the original source work, the line "... Hollywood has never gotten it right..." was the impetus for the creation of the film. Moore and Galloway were present during the filming and Wallace referred to them again and again to be certain of the highest degree of accuracy. The result: a gut wrenching work that induces uncontrollable sobbing, bursts of roaring laughter and flat out heart stopping moments of the purest form of drama.

The war in Vietnam has never been shown so perfectly in all of its horrific, nightmarish glory, if glory can be used to describe any arena in which two competing groups of human beings gather for no other purpose than the wholesale slaughter of one another. This is not only the best depiction of that "rancid picnic" (as Stephen King called it) but possibly the single best film about war ever made.

The training is there. The real people are shown. The combat is there, not as a flag waving idiot my country right or wrong but in its visceral ugliness. The families and the shock waves of Hell (literally) brought to their door is there. Tactics and logistics are there.

There are some films that do a little of some, to great effect. The human cost is a matter of record in so many other films that one more would seem to be pointless, but here the cost is shown on the men in the field as well as the impact on wives and families left behind. Often, though, a film that turns its eye to this and this alone tends to forget the rest. Those that look at tactics and logistics forget the family at home.

It is all here. All of it, in its horror, its honor and its agony.

The soundtrack is flawless, a few moments of pop culture infused prior to the men being shipped out, but mostly a brilliant score. The fine art of the film score is all but ignored, but this film is a great return to classic form, as well as pushing the envelope as to what is played, and when. Often, there is nothing, just the sounds of hellfire combat and broken hearts. When the music is used, it is to underscore a moment, not to overwhelm or coerce the audience into a mindset. The music meets the sadness.

Each performance is carved in bittersweet moments, and the simple life pleasures are given as they are lived, no treacle or maudlin sniffle-sniffle-oh-how-sad, just... it is what it is. That direct approach is common of every moment in the film overall.

A film with no humor, regardless of how bleak the moment, is unworthy of consideration, and during a massive firefight the commanding officer demands to know why the mortars have stopped. One of the enlisted men explains that the tubes are so hot the men cannot use them again for fear of the shells exploding in the tube from the heat. Brief pause: commander walks over to one, and as we look between his legs, we see a stream of urine from him, cooling the tube, then, after a brief pause: "Well?!?" The men then stand in a circle around each mortar tube and follow their leaders example.

A superior effort for all involved and a grand way to remember them as have served, regardless of politics, for the reminder of Armistice Day.