I finally saw Mel Gibson’s We Were Soldiers (2002). My sister got me the DVD, and I watched it on the laptop. Small screen indeed. I thought it was a solid effort. Gibson is a competent but not brilliant film-maker, who knows his limits and operates within them. He reminds me of something George Thorogood (I think) once said — I only know three chords, but I know ’em cold. Gibson, similarly, knows how to do war and violence and mourning and survivor?s guilt, stoicism and family life all in a very plain and unironic style. Gibson also uses stock characters — the tough commander with a heart of gold, the hard-ass top sergeant, the handsome and idealistic officer doomed to die, etc. This all works decently well in Gibson’s hands, though it is a set of artistic blunt instruments he is wielding. Gibson tells a linear story — a war is underway, troops assemble, a leader (Lt. Col. Hal Moore, played by Gibson) appears, Moore trains them, he leads them into battle, many die, there is mourning over the dead. The parallel plot about the wives at home receiving death notices allows a counterpoint to the din of gunfire, explosions and screaming, wounded men. Moore’s wife is played in a convincing and dignified way by Madeleine Stowe. She is a good actress, with striking looks, who seems to have spent almost her entire career being squandered in sub-par movies. A third somewhat muted parallel plot has unidentified men in Saigon trying to figure out how to “sell” the story of what is happening back home. This allows the suffering and courageous soldiers to be contrasted with a cynical leadership which cares nothing for their lives and which has, in effect, betrayed them before it even committed them to battle. This seems true to historical fact, alas. It is also a theme which has deep roots in American war cinema, including the similar scenes in Pork Chop Hill (discussed here). Some scenes shown from the point of view of the NVA commander and his men are done well, and the NVA soldiers are depicted without rancor or ideology.
The battle scenes are graphic in the contemporary post-Private Ryan style. However, it seemed to me that both the Air Cav troopers and the NVA regulars all fought too bunched up. There were repeated charges, by both sides, with men standing only a few feet away from each other, against an opponent with automatic weapons. That struck me as wrong. This led to a video-game-like destruction of many NVA troops by the Americans. I suspect they did not die quite so easy. Also, an American counter-attack at the end led to a very “Hollywood” moment which did not strike me as plausible. But, I haven’t read here).
The fact that the critics hated this movie on ideological grounds was strong and accurate reassurance that I would like it. One film reviewer I read (can’t find a link; it was a long time ago) went on about how it was mawkish, corny and unbelievable to see Lt. Col. Moore, saying prayers with his children at bedtime. Since I and millions of other parents do the exact same thing, this scene in the movie struck me as perfectly normal. Apparently this particular film reviewer has never met anyone in person who prays with his children. A classic contrast between red state and blue state America right there.