THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


War movies occupy a genre all their own. The best of them help us to understand what certain wars were like, or what the politics were behind them. For years, though, movies about the Vietnam war were shunned by Hollywood and the ticketbuying public. Then Oliver Stone's Platoon broke the topic wide open. Other Vietnam films - like Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Fourth of July - followed, and although they dealt with the same historical subject matter, those pictures also brought something new to the table. In other words, it became clear we hadn't learned everything there was to know about Vietnam.

The latest film to use Vietnam as its subject is We Were Soldiers. It is based on a best-selling non-fiction book written by Lt. Col. Hal Moore, who led troops into the first major battle between U.S. forces and the North Vietnamese. Despite the seemingly sure-fire interest of its topic, We Were Soldiers is an utterly mediocre war movie that tells us nothing about the war that we didn't already know.

Mel Gibson plays a real-life Vietnam vet in We Were Soldiers
Mel Gibson plays Moore, a tough-as-nails leader who promises to be the first person to step off the helicopter in 'Nam and the last one to get back on to go home. The early scenes establish him as a family man, devoted to his wife (Madeleine Stowe) and their five children. When it is announced that he will lead some 200 troops into combat, Moore reacts with a mixture of excitement and regret. In one of the film's best moments, he avoids saying goodbye to his family by sneaking out in the middle of the night and marching military-style down the street. Once overseas, Moore finds his men surrounded by thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers in the Ia Drang Valley, also known as the "Valley of Death." The resulting massacre leaves them trapped and in need of rescue by other U.S. forces.

The combat scenes in the movie are technically flawless, but emotionally void. Back in 1986, Oliver Stone depicted the confusing, disorienting feel of fighting in Vietnam. The enemy appeared to pop out of nowhere, and oftentimes it was impossible to tell from which direction deadly gunfire was originating. We Were Soldiers shows this same kind of experience, but by now it feels familiar. While the horrific experience of our vets deserves to be remembered honorably, I couldn't help feeling impatient with this film. Simply put, it was telling me something I already knew. If the movie had used our knowledge combat to show us a different angle of Vietnam, the approach might have worked. There's no larger purpose, though. The screenplay (by Pearl Harbor's Randall Wallace, who also directed) only wants to document what happened rather than adding to our comprehension of it.

For a movie that is based on a true story, We Were Soldiers has a lot of war movie cliches. Like the young officer played by Chris Klein. We meet him early on and discover that he has a pregnant wife (Keri Russell). Anyone who has ever seen a war movie knows that the young officer with the pregnant wife will be dead by the last reel. Then there's the character known as "Snakeshit" (Greg Kinnear). He's a helicopter pilot who conveniently swoops in out of nowhere just in time to save Gibson's life. I never read Moore's book, so I can't say how many liberties were taken with the story. What I do know is that - real or not - the film feels like a generic war flick.

I also didn't know what to make of the ending, which briefly tries to make us think Gibson's character is dead. Since many of us know this is a true story (based on a book written by Hal Moore no less), it's hard not to view the scene as the emotional manipulation it is. In other words, you're supposed to get all choked up to learn that Moore has made it home to his family after all.

The best parts of We Were Soldiers are those involving Madeleine Stowe. Her character, appalled at the callous way the Army is notifying wives of their husbands' deaths, takes it upon herself to deliver the bad news to women on the base. Her character is sympathetic and compelling, and it is here that the film gains a sense of power. I would rather have seen Wallace scrap the combat stuff and give us the story of the women back home.

As I said earlier, the movie achieves a technical quality that can't be denied, especially in a large theater with top-notch sound. We Were Soldiers is not bad per se; it just left me cold. The body is there, but the heart and soul are missing. In its effort to be a big, showy war movie, it fails to connect on the human level, except for in those too-brief scenes with Moore's wife. In the end, I wasn't even sure why they brought this particular story to the screen. There's no sense of the mission these troops were trying to complete, no obvious passion in the telling of this tale. We Were Soldiers pales in comparison to its cinematic Vietnam predecessors, but also to recent war films like Black Hawk Down and Hart's War.

( 1/2 out of four)

We Were Soldiers is rated R for sustained sequences of graphic war violence and language. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.

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