Saturday, April 5, 2014

We Were Soldiers


I have absolutely splendid news. I have been released from the Benny Ford center and my physicians say that I can return to my fabulous entertainment career. I'll need to keep some aftercare appointments and am allowed only four margaritas a day, but the Special K addiction is gone. My roommate, Niki, helped me celebrate my creating an origami hat for me to wear to my release press conference out of some old MMPI forms. Mo, that rather strange truck driving person in the third bed, has offered to come over to Chateau Maine any time and give me a thorough carpet cleaning. I may have to take her up on it as the Berber does have some traffic pattern stains.

Madame Rose, my publicist, arranged a brief press conference in the lobby prior to my departure for photos and for me to give some of the harrowing details of my time in rehabilitation. There was the nicest reporter from Turkey Hunter Monthly who has promised a major feature in an upcoming issue and some members of the foreign press who kept yelling questions in what I took to be either Urdu or Swahili. I was most gracious with them but have no idea if they were asking about treatment or my upcoming projects. Finally, I just did a brief tap routine on the linoleum figuring their applause would negate my need to translate.

In order to celebrate, I headed off to the multiplex to view a film, prior to catching a plane back to Hollywood. The movie with the most convenient start time was Mel Gibson's new Vietnam War epic, We Were Soldiers, based on the book We Were Soldiers Once And Young by Colonel Hal Moore and veteran reporter Joe Galloway. Gibson chose this property for his second directorial pairing with screenwriter Randall Wallace, with whom he had previously collaborated on Braveheart.

Gibson stars as Hal Moore, the Colonel who led the US forces in the first major military engagement of the Vietnam war. This action, at Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam's central highlands, involved a force of several hundred US combatants facing a North Vietnamese army more than ten size its size in a better geographical position. The engagement was bloody and the fact that it did not become a rout and a massacre is a credit to Moore and the other field leadership.

We meet Moore first at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he must remake the 7th Cavalry into a chopper unit with the aid of a crusty old Sergeant (a scene stealing Sam Elliot) and a bunch of hot dog chopper pilots, led by Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear). Scenes of training are contrasted with his home life, dominated by large numbers of children and a wife with a spine of adamant (Madeline Stowe). Soon the orders come down from on high that the unit is to be sent into battle. Gibson vows to be the first one on the field and the last one off. He knows that his orders are based on faulty intelligence and that the hawks of DC are unaware of what the true needs of the military will be, as they're more concerned with politics than reality. Nevertheless, he's a consummate professional and he's going to do the job properly and soon the film becomes a meticulous recreation of the engagement at Landing Zone X-ray. Battle scenes are intercut with the effect of battle casualties on the wives and children left behind as Mrs. Moore takes it upon herself to be the bearer of bad tidings and rallier of the home front troops.

The war scenes are staged in Saving Private Ryan mode. This is sudden, horrible violence and bloodshed presented dispassionately without much in the way of artifice or distancing mechanisms. It's difficult to watch and not for the squeamish. Survivors of the action have called it honest and accurate and its probably as close as we will get to a filmic representation of what really happened in Vietnam. There's nothing poetic or surreal as exists in such films as Apocalypse Now or Platoon; this is real people just doing their job and getting killed for it in various nasty ways.

There are two major weaknesses to the film. The first is the adulation heaped upon Gibson's Moore. The film treats him as always noble, courageous and altogether above human fears and concerns. It would have been much more interesting if we could have seen a little more complexity to the character. This hero worship also throws the film off balance as we don't get enough of the supporting characters to make them anything other than types. Kinnear gets a couple of good scenes (which are historically inaccurate) and Sam Elliot makes the most of every screen moment but almost everyone else is reduced to walking cliché. This is the fault of Randall Wallace's somewhat naive screenplay. He trots out every war movie cliché in the book. The idealistic young soldier with the new baby who prays to god that he be a good father - you know he's toast. Another day player announces a baby born that day - of course he get's horribly maimed in the next reel. An enemy soldier keeps a diary - he gets offed almost immediately.

The film also misses a cathartic ending and truncates history. It just sort of runs out of steam. In reality, the survivors of Landing Zone X-ray were forced to walk miles to a safer location, Albany, where they could be picked up by chopper. While at Albany, the Viet Cong attacked again leading to an even more horrific engagement and greater casualties. The film never mentions Albany, upsetting some veterans groups as it seems that those who survived X-ray to fall there are being given short shrift.

Gibson and Wallace assiduously try to leave the politics and emotions of the era out of the film. This is not a story about the rightness or wrongness of what happened in Vietnam, it's simply a tale of professionals doing what they were required to do in the face of impossible odds.

Beaded bracelet. Symbolic 'camera for gun' swap. Dancing on the eve of battle. Gratuitous cute toddlers. Telegrams by taxi. Segregated Laundromat references. LBJ on television. Blood stained kepis.

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