Stars: Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Sam Elliott, Greg Kinnear, Chris Klein, Josh Dougherty
Director: Randall Wallace
Writer: Randall Wallace – Based on the book “We Were Soldiers Once, and Young” by Joe Galloway and Gen. Hal Moore
We Were Soldiers successfully and sympathetically details the horrors and absurdity of war while never letting us forget the other side to the story, the families back home. It even goes a step further; it puts a face on the enemy, even if it affords us only a brief look. It is forcefully directed by Randall Wallace, who previously did Braveheart, and the casting couldn’t have been better.
The film is based upon the book We Were Soldiers Once Š And Young, and it’s told from the perspective of two men, Harold Moore, a U.S. commander, and Joseph Galloway, a reporter, who were on the scene during the first battle between U.S. and Viet Cong troops in November 1965. The place: South Vietnam’s la Drang Valley, known as the Valley of Death, where 400 American soldiers, flown in via helicopter, faced down 2,000 Vietnamese troops poised for ambush.
Mel Gibson ably plays Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore who led the American force into that battle. And even though there’s a tad of Gibson’s renowned humor sneaking in at times, it never overpowers and Gibson comes across as a powerful and real leader who truly cares for his men. He is well supported by Sam Elliott as the grumpy Sgt. Major Basil Plumley, another Korean War veteran like Moore, who gets some of the best lines in the film.
The three day long battle is exhausting and harrowing. And the sequences are played out like the chess match it truly is. Moore positions his men on hill, under brush, at the river bed, wherever he can as we see the Viet Cong commander Ahn (Don Duang) planning his best strategies from inside an underground bunker. We get good glimpses of the men entrusted to Moore, even without really needing to know their histories. One stands out in particular, the young Lt. Jack Geoghegan (nicely played by Chris Klein) who takes his task of serving his fellow soldier, quite seriously. At home, he’s got wife Barbara (Keri Russell) and their newborn child. Greg Kinnear plays Major Bruce Crandall, a chopper pilot who works tirelessly transporting soldiers, wounded and ‘ supplies. Fortunately the serious intent of the film is carried through to each of the players. There are very few smart cracks from anyone and Kinnear’s role could have been all jokes which would have been a mistake.
Back home at Fort Benning, Georgia, the wives wait. Even though they all lived on the army base, the bad news was delivered to them not by way of personal visits from army officers, but by telegrams delivered by a yellow cab driver. That’s how ill-prepared the army was to handle this task. Recognizing the heartlessness of the situation and the predicament of the cab driver, Moore’s wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe) takes it upon herself to be the harbinger of death. And watching the wives react truly rips the soul.
Stowe’s a good match for Gibson’s character. Because in times of war, a wive’s experience is just as important as her man’s. Julie knows how to keep it all together for the sake of her five children, the other wives and of course for herself.
Lotta says: We Were Soldiers is far better than I thought it would be. It’s a serious movie done seriously with only a bit of grandstanding on the part of Moore who occasionally does things like standing upright in the line of fire to show his exasperation. The effects are good, the music haunting and the cinematography works well to add suspense when the soldiers are in too-close quarters with their foe.