War movies generally come in two varieties: propaganda films that show how much ass one side can kick, and historical melodramas that reflect on the horrors of war. We Were Soldiers is the latter type, a nostalgic look at young soldiers sacrificing themselves in the service of their country. Mel Gibson is fighting for freedom on the silver screen once again, this time as an American during the Vietnam War. As hands-on leader Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, he stands alongside his men in one of the conflict's bloodiest battles.
The strength of We Were Soldiers is definitely not in its characters. Aside from Barry Pepper's journalist who tags along and documents the carnage through photographs, most of the players are generic archetypes: Chris Klein embodies every kid who shows his buddies a picture of his sweetheart back home before getting killed; Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Marc Blucas is the under-experienced, over-eager soldier whose desire to prove himself leads to a lot of trouble; Sam Elliott is the tough as nails, borderline psycho who yells at the troops (his marine mentality and grumpy old man routine initially provide comic relief, but the theatrics become inappropriate once the fighting starts and he's still acting like a caricature); and Mel Gibson is the inspirational military leader who treats his large family like a pack of little soldiers.
Like many films of the genre, We Were Soldiers depicts graphic violence to hammer away the "war is hell" theme. The unleashing of napalm is particularly brutal, as is a scene in which a soldier has to cut into the face of a wounded colleague with his field knife. Suspense is added to the violence when the Americans are pinned down by Vietnamese forces.
One of the more uncommon things this movie does is take a chance at impartiality by including an "enemy" perspective. The Vietnamese commander is one of the more intriguing figures, and is depicted as a leader defending his homeland rather than an evil, maniacal villain. By taking a few moments to show the other side of the battle, We Were Soldiers is more effective at conveying the universal loss in war.
But not all the atypical elements work, like the story of the soldiers' wives back home. This opportunity to view the war from a unique perspective is squandered on girl power posturing and soapbox style theatrics. I don't know what's worse: the token outraged white woman who complains that a black man is fighting for a country that allows racism, or the token black woman proudly declaring, "I know what my husband's fighting for, and that's why I can smile. My husband will never ask for respect, and he'll give respect to no man who hasn't earned it." She all but snaps her fingers with a sassy, "Mmm-hmm!" Hey, we're already dealing with the behemoth of 1960s war--let's not arrogantly assume the complex issue of period race relations can be tackled with some cheesy dialogue thrown in as an afterthought.
We Were Soldiers is almost always competent, but never brilliant. Its achievements are minor victories, and its decidedly textbook approach to moviemaking--from its violent opening to its printed captions before the closing credits--is so common in Hollywood war films that it can't be called new or enlightening. What's the message here? That brave soldiers should be remembered? That the Vietnam conflict was a dark chapter in American history? That war is bad? I think the last 78,522 similar films already demonstrated those points. I guess there's only so many ways you can tell a war story.
Rating: 6 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)