We Were Soldiers

Starring:
  • Obvious Symbolism
  • Slow-Motion Deaths
  • Self-Reflexive Self-Congratulation

 

Directed by the Genius Behind that Fantastic Pearl Harbor Screenplay
"I gotta admit Klein, Rollerball really sucked. But you know, we all do crappy sci-fi flicks when we're just starting out. Now this might have been before you were born, but once I was in this movie with Tina Turner..."

Randall Wallace Rallies to Defend the Grotesqueness of His Films By Bastardizing the True Events of One of America's Lowest Hours

My favorite episode of "The Simpsons" is the one in which Mel Gibson remakes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The test screening is in Springfield, and, of course, Homer is the only one who doesn't like it because there's too much talking and not enough killing. Mel agrees with Homer and decides to reshoot the ending. Instead of intoning Jimmy Stewart's famous speech, Mel turns the ending of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington into the dining hall scene in The Odyssey: Mr. Smith throws an American flag through Senator Paine's chest, he falls over, and the flag stands upright, waving patriotically. All sorts of other gruesome things happen, obviously an ironic comment on Braveheart, and it ends with kids running up and hugging bloody Mel. Moe, Marge, and the rest of Springfield hate it, which means that the studio execs hate it, so they chase Mel and Homer, who escape on the back of the big buggy from Mad Max. Mel wants to surrender to the studios and cut back the violence, but Homer stands his ground: "Mel, did Braveheart run away? Did Payback run away?"

In the end, Mel decides that there's too much violence in the movies. Which means that Randall Wallace and the rest of the Braveheart crew offered him a lot of money for We Were Soldiers, Black Hawk Down with a Pearl Harbor sensibility. According to Randall Wallace's official website, the story is as follows: "On November 14, 1965, in the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam, in a small clearing called Landing Zone X-Ray, Lt. Col. Hal Moore and 400 young fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons—all troopers from the U.S. 7th “Air” Cavalry—were surrounded by 2,000 enemy soldiers. The ensuing battle was one of the most savage in U.S. history. We Were Soldiers is a tribute to the nobility of those men under fire, their common acts of uncommon valor, and their loyalty to and love for one another." Fair enough. Ostensibly, Mel plays Hal Moore, the colonel in charge of this ragtag bunch; really, though, Mel is playing Mel Gibson, the same stern-faced, grief-in-his-eyes war hero he has spent a career perfecting. His sidekick is Sam Elliot, who responds to questions like "How's the weather?" with "What are you? The fucking weatherman?" It's the most fun I've seen him have since The Big Lebowski; he's the Comic Relief Heavy, which somewhat compromises the early tone of the film. We meet the men with Sam and Mel, but they act like they're conducting AAU basketball tryouts. Wallace skitters close to Bruckheimer buffoonery: "We will ride into battle, and this...will be our horse!" is as embarrassing in the film as it is in the commercials.

The soldiers themselves are a parade of one-note cherubs common to the Bruckheimer films with which Wallace is now intimate. Wallace goes after some religious ideas with the introduction of Chris Klein, the white angel who's spent the last few years with his wife building orphanages. After she gives birth, Klein heads to church to pray. Mel shows up, and a potentially interesting dialogue about war, religion, and duty turns into an obvious joke about asking God to help us "blow the enemy to Hell." This is Wallace's forté: running away from potentially meaningful ideas out of either 1) Fear of drawing his characters into moral conflict, or 2) Fear that his weakness as a writer will be further exposed. My guess is #2.

Wallace does it again when we meet the rest of the boys. He takes special care to point out that the men are a huddled mass of America's melting pot. Mel even tells us this in the big speech: We've got an Indian, a Texan, an Asian, a Hispanic, and an African-American. As with his absurd portrayal of Dorie Miller, Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s character in Pearl Harbor, Wallace wants desperately to be seen as embracing noble sensibilities of race. But rather than explore the conflict of minorities fighting a war for a country that hates them, he just throws the idea out there to look like he's making a statement—when he's really just purging his own White Man's Guilt. For example, the black guy is important enough to the story to have his spouse in the Wives' Club, and there's a joke in the Wives' Club meeting about the laundromat's sign reading, "Whites Only." The Black Wife is asked why her man fights for a country that discriminates against them, and she replies, "I know why he does, and that's good enough for me." Even Mel gives it a shot later, but he just ends up sounding like Momma Gump explaining to Forest that he's normal.

Next, there's the bittersweet send-off party in which soldiers do what they've done best since Top Gun: Sing off-key sixties love songs. Mel's wife is played by Madeleine Stowe, who looks as if Angelina Jolie's lips have been planted on Cher's body. Mel leaves the party for a bit to discuss strategy with Sam. The battle will be unwinnable, and Mel wonders what Custer must have felt like. Mel's platoon is even given Custer's old cavalry number. Uh oh. This can't be good.

It's also not a good sign when Greg Kinnear figures to be the pivotal man in your battalion, but he's the chopper pilot that shuttles in and out of the warzone. Anyway, let's just get to the battle. Wallace's battle scenes don't navigate the logistical difficulties the men face, and they're so filled with clichés that it's difficult to take seriously. Single sneak-attack bullets are countered by angry waves of bullets. The movie gains a least a half and hour from slow-mo alone. Mel and Sam yell at the boys to keep their heads down, yet they walk around firing single-shot pistols at Vietnamese machine gunners from point-blank range. Mel vows to be the "first one on the field of battle" (we get a slow-mo shot showing his foot touching first) and "the last one off." This is contrasted with the enemy's commander, who spends the entire battle holed up in a cave drawing arrows on a topographic map. The idea is that hands-on cowboy bravado trumps stuffy academics. Be not mistaken, one of the first scenes is Mel hauling heavy books into his new home, but he's no "academic pussy." Mel has enough respect for the protocol of battle that he takes prisoners and piles the enemy's dead after a machine gun slaughter, whereas the barbaric Vietnamese slaughter everyone they capture and leave them to rot. Again, Wallace is being didactic and ignores the obvious moral issues. How can we ask the audience to love Mel if he's not an outright hero? Randall Wallace is not Terrence Malick. This movie is not about morality; it's about the beads of sweat on Mel's face, which Wallace focuses in on every ten minutes or so. It's about being a soldier, but Wallace is too busy sentimentalizing the wives and the tragic deaths to accomplish the Roman poetry of Ridley Scott, who took a similar story in Black Hawk Down and created an unflinching, unsentimental portrait of soldiering.

Which is not to say that Wallace doesn't create some interesting visuals. Perhaps his best is a Vietnamese-American soldier caught in a blaze of friendly fire. The friendly fire burns precisely half his face, and he is carried away on the chopper looking like William Wallace, except the white and blue warpaint is replaced by a human face charred by napalm. Because of scenes like this, I was willing to cut this movie a break—until Barry Pepper's Joe Galloway showed up. In real life, Galloway is a UP reporter who engaged in the battle and helped Moore author the book twenty-five years later. Joe jumps on a crowded chopper to head to the front lines. He ends up dropping his camera and picking up a gun (you know, just like when Cuba emerges from the mess hall to pound out some rounds on the machine gun). Later, he takes intimate pictures of all the tragedy, and, of all people, Mel tells him, "It's important that you tell the story of what went on here." When the rest of the reporters show up (I'm a bit surprised Al Gore was not among them), they are drawn as vultures, and Wallace places them behind a tattered American flag. In the book, Hal Moore uses the battle to discuss principles of leadership, with Galloway to lend authenticity, another account of the happenings. In the film, however, the subtext is that Galloway character is a stand-in for the film itself; its documentation of the events of war is IMPORTANT. It's an attempt to justify the grotesque violence Wallace employs in all his films, a justification of his method. Essentially, he's saying, "I'm not just titillating the audience; I'm TELLING THE STORY!" Films that shy away from the level of violence Wallace employs are equated with the vulturistic media, while the heroic journalist who engages in the battle is equated with Braveheart and We Were Soldiers. It's a self-reflexive, self-important gesture that undermines not only the integrity of the film, but Randall Wallace's integrity as a storyteller.

The difference between We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down is that the former is hero worship; it doesn't show us the sacrifices of men for each other without undermining its integrity by coating it with sentimentalism. The battle narrative is mostly a series of bullets through the head and spurts of blood, the audience comforted by the fact that Sam and Mel are virtually bulletproof, able to supernaturally navigate the struggle out of sheer will. We Were Soldiers makes sense of how blood splatters when a bullet enters the cranium, but it doesn't make sense of the code of soldiering that both leads to and saves men from that moment. Black Hawk Down takes a similar story integrates the idea of "Leave No Man Behind" into the narrative structure of the battle itself. Ridley Scott and Ken Nolan arrange the narrative to show men rescuing each other in reflex gestures, as when the glass of a windshield blinds a humvee driver, who keeps his foot on the gas while his partner steers. Randall Wallace tells us about it by having Mel jog out and find the last two bodies after titillating us with one last heroic slaughter. This is not to say that Black Hawk Down isn't violent—it's perhaps the most violent film of 2001—but Ridley Scott expresses the dirty realism of war, creating a clear narrative from a messy situation, and like the ancient war verses, takes us through the rituals of war: preparation, accident, struggle, loss, sacrifice, redemption, and all the rest. We Were Soldiers shows us how disgusting it is to be shot in the neck, where Black Hawk Down labors to show us how a battle plan can unravel into chaos, with men relying on the covenant of soldiering to rescue them from Hell. We Were Soldiers begs for tears by showing a lot of slow-motion deaths, so contrived that every death is poignantly underscored. Black Hawk Down is about the dirt kicked up by rocket launchers and real-time discoveries of death. We Were Soldiers is Black Hawk Down turned into self-congratulation—it's the storytelling equivalent of Mel Gibson's Mr. Smith shooting an American flag through Claude Rains' chest.

The Pitch:
 
1 Braveheart
Plus
 
1 Pearl Harbor
Equals
   
2 We Were Soldiers
See It For:

"I GOTTA FIND BUBBA!!!!!!"