U.S. Release Date: March 1, 2002
Distributor: Paramount
Director: Randall Wallace
Writer: Randall Wallace
Producer: Randall Wallace
Composer: Nick Glennie-Smith
Cast: Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott, Chris Klein, Keri Russell, Barry Pepper, Jon Hamm, Clark Gregg
Running Time: 2 hours and 18 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (sustained sequences of graphic war violence, and for language)

A Salute to Those Who Fought in Vietnam
by Sean Saulsbury

In recent months, war-related movies Behind Enemy Lines, Black Hawk Down, Hart's War and Collateral Damage have battled it out at the box office. In light of September 11th, their subject matter has gained a profound new meaning, addressing the nature of war and why we wage it. Now, We Were Soldiers steps onto the cinematic battlefield and emerges as the clear victor, well-worth the price of admission.

We Were Soldiers tells the story of Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. Moore (Mel Gibson) and the battle at LZ X-Ray in the Ia Drang valley, the first major conflict between North Vietnamese troops and American troops in the Vietnam War.

Gibson shines in the role, showing us an intelligent, thinking, brave and determined leader. He won't ask a man to do what he won't do himself: "I will be the first to step on the field and I will be the last to step off," he assures his troops. He reads books and studies the nature of his enemy carefully. He trains his men meticulously, preparing them for the ominous battle to come. "Men will die," he tells his troops, knowing that he and his men are at a disadvantage against an enemy on their own turf.

In addition to Gibson, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliot, Barry Pepper, and Keri Russell all give outstanding, A+ performances. Kinnear plays Bruce Crandall, a chopper pilot showing determination and courage while still revealing his fear of death in the course of battle. Pepper plays Joe Galloway, the journalist who rides into the heat of battle to get his story first-hand. (Just wait until you hear his reason for becoming a journalist instead of a soldier.) And in spite of my personal disdain for her character on the WB's Felicity, Russell inspires us as a strong-willed mother, in spite of the possibility of losing her husband Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein) at war.

The film does an exceptional job of transitioning from place-to-place, whether from one area of the battlefield to another, to the women and children back home, you always have a good sense of where things are happening and when they're taking place. When one platoon is cut off from the rest of the soldiers, when riverbeds are won and lost, you know exactly what effect it has on the battle. You experience first-hand the grave danger these soldiers experienced. You mourn their deaths and cheer their victories because in spite of the fact that you're sitting in a movie theater, you feel like you're there in battle with them, facing the possibility of death, witnessing the horror of it all.

Writer-director Randall Wallace (The Man in the Iron Mask) spends a fair amount of time showing us what is going on behind enemy lines from the point of view of the North Vietnamese. I first heard this was an element of the film before I saw it and was afraid they were going to portray the communist North Vietnamese in a sympathetic light. But, interestingly, these scenes added to the drama and suspense of the film. We see what each leader is thinking and planning for the next attack, which only builds more suspense in anticipation of the next scene to come.

A sense of family is well-portrayed among the soldiers, and especially among the wives at home. Madeleine Stowe plays Julie Moore, the wife of Lt. Col. Moore. She heads up the group of wives, giving moral support and preparing them as best she can for the possible death of their husbands. She and Russell show us the chilling events of how they dealt with relaying the notices of the deaths of their friends' husbands.

What is lacking in the film is mention of how the war started, or that North Vietnam was communist. Although these are well-known facts, they are too important to pass over in a film about the Vietnam War.

The filmmakers have been saying in their media appearances that this is an anti-war movie due to the graphic nature of the battle scenes. Be prepared: the battles scenes are graphic, but I did not come away thinking they were pro- or anti-war. The sheer quantity of gore can never trump the morality of why we fight a war. These scenes only dramatize the risks of fighting a war, and who and what is at stake. The political elements shown in the film (e.g., how we went into Vietnam unprepared, and failed to properly arm our men in the best way possible) only demonstrate, in my view, that if we do choose to fight a war, we must do so acknowledging the risks and then proceed with the moral certainty that our cause is right, with only one goal: to win.

We Were Soldiers is the best war movie Hollywood has released since September 11th, showing us how to fight a battle and how not to fight a war. With outstanding acting and a wide variety of emotions, it is a tribute and a salute to those who fought in Vietnam, and to any soldier who fights for America.

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