It takes courage to fight in a war; it takes no courage to memorialize it. Yet Mel Gibson and writer Randall Wallace, the team behind the colossally self-important Oscar-winner Braveheart, return to the well again with We Were Soldiers, a hawkish tribute that considers Vietnam in the same light as late-13th-century Scotland. Breaking from a long tradition of American films—Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Casualties Of War—that pondered the war's moral and existential consequences, Gibson and Wallace (who also directs) lead a unit of impossibly noble and saintly fighters through the ticker-tape parade they never had. Much like Black Hawk Down, the story of another unpopular conflict, We Were Soldiers exists in a political vacuum, focusing strictly on the brave men who scrapped and clawed their way through a lopsided battle on unfamiliar territory. On its own narrow terms, the film presents the first significant engagement of the war, the Battle Of Ia Drang, with undeniable clarity and force, plunging headlong into the carnage with exploding viscera and bullets zipping by in Dolby Digital. But at the end of this horrible bloodbath, what has been gained, other than some hard-hitting action and a war buff's fortune in tactical maneuvers? Leading a 34-day fight that pitted 450 American soldiers against 2,000 surrounding Viet Cong in the Ia Drang valley, Gibson plays the unflappable commander of a young, inexperienced battalion. Seeming at times like an unironic version of Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, he and grizzled veteran Sam Elliott lead their troops with a ripe sense of history, recalling the mistakes of General Custer and the French Army that preceded them in the area. Among Gibson's charges are Chris Klein, a natural leader and family man with a wife and newborn back home, and Barry Pepper, a photojournalist who lays down his camera and takes up arms. (As opposed to the yellow-bellied yokels in Hawaiian shirts who fly in later to ask callous questions.) Meanwhile, at the base in Fort Benning, Gibson's wife Madeleine Stowe cares for their five children while shouldering the grave burden of delivering "Regret To Inform" telegrams to widows. We Were Soldiers spends a little time with clumsy domestic scenes ("Daddy, what's a war?") and pays lip service to segregation (one woman confuses a "Whites Only" sign at a laundromat for washer policy), but its mind is clearly on the battlefield. Like a cut-rate John Milius, Wallace fetishizes the men and machines without giving a thought to the world outside his field of vision or inside his characters' heads. We Were Soldiers leaves all the real risks to the young warriors at Ia Drang and collects easy dividends on their bravery. In the end, it honors them by paying tribute to itself.
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