It is indisputably ironic that while Hollywood films as a whole have greatly declined in quality over the course of the last decade, the combat-film genre has been curiously counter-cyclical.
Attempts to capitalize on post-9/11 patriotic furor may very well lead to a downturn in quality, but in the last few years Hollywood filmmakers have found new and fascinating ways to tell war stories - the recent progression of Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, and the mini-series Band of Brothers is certainly the strongest since the spate of excellent Vietnam pictures in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Into this fray enters Mel Gibson's latest war tale, We Were Soldiers. Based on the true story of the Vietnam War's first major battle, it does a lot of things right from a storytelling and character-development standpoint, yet manages to fall short in, of all places, the combat department, robbing it of the chance to join the Private Ryan pantheon.
Gibson, who in previous acting/producing jaunts brought us the battlefield heroics of Braveheart and The Patriot, stars in We Were Soldiers while turning the director duties over to sidekick Randall Wallace (who scripted Braveheart; Gibson's company produced the film and it's pretty clear he's the auteur here). He plays Lt. Gen. Herman Moore, the unit's commander, and it's no surprise that the outspokenly right-of-center star was drawn to the character; Moore's a devout Catholic (like Mel) who has five kids (Gibson has six).
The film's first (and best) third introduces the different soldiers on their way into Vietnam, and their wives as well - the movie does as good a job as any recent war film in establishing its characters (both the soldiers and wives) and making the audience not only care about each one, but also ensure that viewers can tell them apart.
Unfortunately, Wallace and Gibson abandon this approach almost entirely once the soldiers arrive in Vietnam and the battle sequences start.
Unlike in Black Hawk Dawn, which clearly established an axis of action in which large amounts of soldiers were relatively easy to keep track of, We Were Soldiers loses coherence in the first five minutes of the battle and never gets it back. Not only that, but nothing particularly notable happens in the battle sequences - there are no memorable, so-harrowing-you-never-forget them moments like in 'Private Ryan' or Black Hawk Down.
The lone major bright spot of the war scenes is Barry Pepper (from Private Ryan and the telefilm "61*"), a strikingly skilled young actor in the now-archetypal role of non-soldier-heroically-going-into-battle who gets to deliver a great monologue about the legacy of soldiers in his family.
There's certainly nothing special about Gibson's performance; he's playing his "Patriot" character except with a different accent in a different war. Sam Elliott has some great lines as a grizzled old general ("Custer was a pussy"), and while Greg Kinnear is impressive as a gung-ho pilot, he disappears without explanation after only two or three scenes. And Chris Klein (from Election) shows again that he shouldn't be working outside of comedy.
We Were Soldiers has caught some flak because, unlike most other Vietnam films, it is relatively apolitical and doesn't make any grand statements for or against the war, or for that matter war itself. But that's more than understandable; set in the infancy of the war (1965), We Were Soldiers exists in a time when the counterculture didn't yet exist and America was still squarely in beat-the-Commies mode; to suggest that characters like these would be sitting around questioning the nature of war is nothing short of foolish. The film's heart is in the right place but unfortunately, in the war scenes at least, its camera is not.