We Were Soldiers, a true story, deals with the first contact between the North Vietnamese Army and U. S. soldiers. The U. S. quickly discover they have underestimated the Vietnamese forces and find themselves vastly outnumbered. Men are cut off from one another, and under the leadership of Mel Gibson's character they must withstand the modern equivalent of Custer's Last Stand.
Part of the grand tradition of Vietnam war movies is edgy, paranoid atmosphere. When watching Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, you get the edgy, I'm-going-to-snap-soon feeling. Another almost necessary feature of Vietnam movies is questioning the war itself. One of the most poignant and powerful moments in Full Metal Jacket is the very last scene where the soldiers are marching in the dusk singing the theme song to the Mickey Mouse Club. You can really get into the psyche of that generation and the rage and protest it felt against the war.
We Were Soldiers, on the other hand. does not examine the war or capture that generation's rage against it. Instead, We Were Soldiers sadly plays like more of a conventional war film.
The movie starts with Gibson training his boys and being a family man. There is one moment where the men are standing in the woods during training, listening to a radio transmission filled with gunfire. Gibson comments on the importance of training and that on the battlefield there are no second chances. The men look appropriately somber. Then the film moves to Vietnam itself.
The strong points of the film are the battle scenes. While not wholly accurate (the Vietnamese did not pile up their dead bodies), the battles are realistic, sometimes terribly realistic. One young soldier gets burnt and his flesh melts. The rest of the film alternates between the battle and the wives at home getting letters saying their husbands have been killed and how the wives unite together to support those lost. A reporter comes to the battle and later tells the soldiers' story.
Overall, the film is rather a disappointment. While I was fairly certain it wouldn't come anywhere near Apocalypse Now, against which all other Vietnam films should be gauged, I was hoping it would capture the uncertainty and constant questioning of why we were in Nam in the first place.
While it is a true story, the writers could have better captured that generation's attitude toward the war while keeping true to the facts. Since it details the first encounter, they could have dealt with the soldiers realizing that maybe Vietnam isn't where they're supposed to be at, or get a more accurate shot of trying to figure out just why they're here.
In the end, We Were Soldiers becomes this rather dazzling paradox. While it remains true to the facts of the story itself, it does not stay true to the political climate of the 1960s, creating this rather bizarre hybrid of accurate journalism as far as the microcosmic level is concerned (the details of the battle itself), but is just flat-out wrong on the macrocosmic level goes (the counterculture's reaction against Vietnam)
In the end, the more patriotism-oriented themes of We Were Soldiers is far better suited to a film dealing with WW II, not Vietnam.
-Written as Newspaper review in 2002 (released on Amazon.co.uk in 2007) and for whatever reason I never released this on the main Amazon site