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WE WERE SOLDIERS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Mel Gibson, Madeline Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott, Chris Klein, Keri Russell, Barry Pepper
Director: Randall Wallace
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 138 Minutes
Release Date: August 20, 2002

“We are going into battle…against a TOUGH and DETERMINED enemy.”

Film ****

I was completely caught by surprise by how We Were Soldiers, released not that long after Ridley Scott’s war triumph, Black Hawk Down, engrossed me and emotionally moved me just as much as Scott’s film did. Both films accomplish a remarkable task, which is putting that of the viewer literally in the middle of a horrific war battle for a two hour plus running time. Both films are based on true events; Black Hawk Down recaptured the horrors of Somalia, while We Were Soldiers accurately details a three day ordeal that was endured during the opening stages of what was to become the Vietnam war.

Mel Gibson stars, in what is unquestionably one of his most powerful performances to date, as Lt. Col. Hal Moore, who has just been given command of the 1st Battalion of the 7th Calvary, the same regiment as General Custer. After receiving word that he is to lead the first wave of American troops into Vietnam, Moore wastes no time in preparing his men for battle through some extreme training. He also spends time going over and observing previous military tactics in the same area, which is the Ia Drang Valley, also known as The Valley of Death. All previous military engagements went horribly wrong, and Moore vows not to let the same mistakes happen, in addition to not leaving any fellow soldier behind.

The troops soon then depart for Vietnam, and upon arrival, they quickly discover they are very much outnumbered by their enemy. The war action in We Were Soldiers is uncompromisingly authentic, and is without a doubt some of the most heart wrenching and stomach churning footage of any war movie I’ve seen. It comes close to even putting Black Hawk Down to shame in this department. There is actually one scene in the movie involving a critically wounded soldier, which made me turn away from the screen for a slight second, which is something I thought no movie could ever make me do. It is that strong and graphic.

Some complained that Black Hawk Down lacked a little character depth. For that film, I’m not sure it was so necessary, but We Were Soldiers does dig deep into the lives of the central characters in Moore’s platoon. First off we have Moore, who’s a devoted husband and father of five children. Moore builds a bond with Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein), who’s expecting his first child back home. Also included in the bunch is daredevil helicopter “Snakeshit” Crandall (Greg Kinnear), and photojournalist Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper), who captures photos of the war footage, but is also forced to trade in his camera for a gun. All of these characters are brought to life by the amazing performances of the actors. Barry Pepper, who also portrayed Tom Hanks’ sharp shooting sniper in Saving Private Ryan, is especially outstanding.

Another remarkable aspect of We Were Soldiers is the intensity that is displayed in the group of wives back home praying for their husbands to come back alive. Moore’s wife, Julie (a strong Madeline Stowe) and Geoghegan’s wife, Barbara (Keri Russell) become close friends and take it upon themselves the painful charge of delivering telegrams to wives across the base. The movie also wisely shows us scenes of the North Vietnamese in their war barracks, illustrating that they are just as afraid to go into battle as Americans are.

We Were Soldiers is directed with raw power by Randall Wallace, who also scripted Braveheart and Pearl Harbor. His script is an adaptation of the book “We Were Soldiers Once…And Young”, which was written by the real life Hal Moore and Joe Galloway. The book talks about how Hollywood has gotten Vietnam wrong every time, and Hal Moore himself has said that this film is the first one that is as close to the real thing as any depiction. I agree with him completely.

We Were Soldiers is one of this year’s best movies.

Video ****

In a word, remarkable! Paramount delivers one of their most triumphant video presentations ever with this knockout look of a disc. Just as Black Hawk Down was given a distinctive look, We Were Soldiers has been given one as well, which involves a bit of saturation in the image during some of the war sequences, which is realized perfectly in this image transfer. Colors are extremely well rendered and natural. Night scenes transfer immensely well in addition. No sign of image flaws (grain, softness, compression, etc.) whatsoever. Certainly one of the best looking discs of this year.

Audio ****

Words can’t even begin to describe the brilliance Paramount has applied to this audio job. It is AS OF NOW the single best audio transfer of this year, and I predict it will be very hard to outdo. The 5.1 channel appears to have a bonus in that it is called Dolby Digital EX, and if there is a slight difference between this and the normal 5.1, I can believe it. Everything, from gunfire to a helicopter roar to numerous explosions, to the emotional music score, including a powerful hymn that is appropriately played numerous times in the film. There are also montage scenes and sequences of slow motion that allow for a huge sound impact, which provides a tremendous effect on the senses. Truly, one of the most brilliantly done audio tracks out there now!

Features ***

There are precisely three areas of bonus material, and they all deliver the goods. First off, there is a running commentary track from director Randall Wallace. Also included is a deleted scenes compilation with optional director commentary, and finally, a well made documentary called “Getting it Right: The Making of We Were Soldiers”, which features interviews with cast members as well as the real life war heroes of which the film is based on.

Summary:

We Were Soldiers is a triumphant masterpiece, and another profound entry in the list of great war films as Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, and it does a most remarkable job of stirring emotions on and off the battlefield.