Braveheart goes to ‘Nam
The latest war epic from Hollywood recasts the Vietnam War in a more positive light
Mel Gibson and Greg Kinnear are not particularly credible as U.S. Army types in Randall Wallace’s Vietnam War drama, We Were Soldiers. But both give likeable, steadfast performances, and in Wallace’s film hanging in there is what it’s all about.
Gibson is cast in the lead role, a brave and righteous colonel named Harold Moore, and Kinnear has the plum part of a hell-for-leather helicopter pilot under the colonel’s command. Both look more like movie stars than war veterans most of the time, even with the requisite blood and dirt on their faces. But a compelling story—the first major battle involving Americans in Vietnam—and plenty of combat action make everybody look good in this one.
Writer-director Wallace adapted the film from a book written by Moore and journalist James Galloway (played by Barry Pepper in the film), and his screenplay is a highball stew of facile pop history and gutsy war-is-hell earnestness. While the first third of the picture labors under several loads of fatuous explanatory dialogue and assorted sentimental set-ups, the whole enterprise seems to get a good deal smarter once the shooting starts.
In the opening voiceover, Gibson’s Moore tells us that the film is a tribute to the fighting men on both sides in Vietnam, and that’s the earliest sign that We Were Soldiers will have the benefit of a quasi-epic perspective on this bit of war history. Detached from the political partisanship of the war and its aftermath, Wallace and company plunge into the no-win dramas of the combatants, in which victory and defeat may be equally illusory.
As social history, Wallace’s film is lightweight, with the single and very huge exception of its even-handed portrayal of the North Vietnamese.
Apart from that, it looks like a guileless attempt to make Vietnam safe for Hollywood by transferring the democracy-in-action clichés of the World War II movies to the later war, the not-so-good one.
Sam Elliott, playing the rawhide Sergeant without his trademark mustachios, has to come on triple tough, perhaps to counteract his consequent resemblance to Leslie Nielsen. Madeleine Stowe, as Moore’s wife, seems to imagine herself as Cher if she had married an Army man instead of Sonny, but when news of the combat fatalities starts coming in, she puts over a couple of the best moments of drama in the film.
Gibson and Kinnear get some good moments themselves. And the movie’s Moore is a stand-up guy in every respect, and that, somewhat ironically, is the whole deal in this case. The film made from Moore’s book may have intended to pay tribute to all the soldiers, but it’s Gibson/Moore who comes off looking like the soldier.