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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

We Were Soldiers (2002)



Reviews and Comments

It is inevitable that We Were Soldiers will be compared with Black Hawk Down. Not only were they released within months of each other, but they are similar in style, purpose, and theme. Like Black Hawk Down, this is a story of a specific battle in U.S. history, this one being the first major American engagement in the Vietnam War. It is frenetic, unflinchingly violent, and abides by the same principles: Leave no man behind. Fight for the men next to you. Because of this unity, the two movies make a good double feature.

Black Hawk Down is probably the better of the two films, but We Were Soldiers packs a harder emotional punch. It has a slightly broader perspective, too, touching upon plot threads in the opposing camp of the Vietnamese and back at home, where wives band together in the absence of their husbands and dread the coming of a telegram from the government.

Mel Gibson plays Lt. Col. Hal Moore, who leads his men into battle and then out of an ambush. His character is complex and utterly convincing. Gibson is perfect in this role, anchoring the film with his character. At one point he wrestles with forgiving himself -- men under him have died, and he has not. Earlier, we saw a man get shot because he ran back to save another. We had seen soldiers burned to death from friendly fire, due to a miscommunication over the radio. How often, in the heat of battle, do things happen that could cause us to beg forgiveness for ourselves? Col. Moore understands this, certainly: to his man on the radio, after the friendly fire, he says, "You're keeping us alive," and then orders, "You forget that one." I imagine that's the only way to keep functioning. You do your best, and you forget your mistakes, lest guilt defeat you as surely as the enemy might.

After the battle, a swarm of reporters ask questions of some of the survivors. The questions sound stupid and insensitive. Really, they're just doing their job, but the men they question are wise enough not to answer. It's not an indictment of the media but a recognition that the experience of battle simply cannot be communicated in pull quotes. It is a war photographer, a man who has been on the front lines throughout, who is asked, urgently, to write the story of the American troops in battle that day. "How can I?" he asks. The answer is, simply, that he must.