Rating: R for violence, language and bloodshed
Run Time: 2 hours, 18 minutes
Scarcely missing a beat with this season’s most fashionable genre, writer/director Randall Wallace (“Braveheart”) offers up a heartfelt, yet excessively maudlin, look at the Vietnamese conflict that led the U.S. into a full-blown warfare controversy.
Central Highlands, South Vietnam, 1965. A group of eager, brave elite combat soldiers under the command of Lt. Colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) is heeding their country’s call to a small clearing in Southeast Asia (ultimately known as the “Valley of Death”) in an honorable, lose-lose conflict that will yield nothing but dead bodies and shattered morale.
At home base the mood is upbeat and spirited. Chopper pilots (Greg Kinnear), expert marksmen and paratroopers (Chris Klein), and Army photographers (Barry Pepper) prepare for the inevitable task at hand while their wives try to maintain a sense of normalcy in the makeshift base neighborhood. Under the duress of impending doom, the ladies trade tips on laundry, arrange playgroups, and pray for the safety of their men. Leading the female charge is Moore’s wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe, proud owner of a new pair of plump, collagen-injected lips), a mother of five with a lot on the line.
The boys ship out straight into hell. Horror piles upon horror on the battlefield, the battalion severely outnumbered and struggling under the strain of savage nighttime ambushes. Several hundred American fathers, husbands and sons surrounded by two thousand well-prepared Viet Cong soldiers. Moore manages his regiment as a dedicated leader should – commanding, compassionate, and at one with his men. As the body count mounts, the ghastly truth trickles back to the base in the form of innocuous looking telegrams. With a helpless, sinking sensation, Julie takes charge of the gruesome task of delivering the dreaded news to her frightened friends.
There’s a lot to like about this obscure slice of American history, thanks to Wallace’s solid adaptation of the real-life Moore’s best-selling novel “We Were Soldiers Once…and Young”. The battle sequences are uncommonly authentic and horribly distressing, considering the solid character development that engages the viewer with individuals in a constant state of peril. Life on the home front is slightly less compelling, due to the sentimental, one-dimensional enhancement of the female players. Heavy American propagandizing is manipulative and exhausting, as is the pointless nature of the conflict vs. the extreme death toll.
Kudos to Gibson, who can carry a movie like no other. Strong but sensitive, authoritative but caring, his uncommon valor and nobility under fire is nothing short of thrilling. Sam Elliott as second-in-command Sgt. Major Basil Plumley lends cantankerous but charismatic credibility. Intensely vicious and extremely bloody skirmishes are not for the faint of heart. Flawed, melodramatic, and not as compelling as “Braveheart”, but certainly worth your movie money.