We Were Soldiers (2002)

(In theaters, March 2002) It’s one thing to be able to recognize emotional manipulation. It’s another to be able to be affected by it despite professional cynicism. We Were Soldiers is doubtlessly a manipulative war film; it spares no subtlety in playing on such classic levers as honor, loss and bravery. Yet it does so in such an unapologetic way that it’s hard not to be swept in. Applying the lessons of Saving Private Ryan (gory realism, nervy direction, historical accuracy) to a Vietnam-era setting, We Were Soldiers manages to establish its own identity in the war film genre as a uniquely balanced perspective on one of Vietnam’s most significant military encounter. Mel Gibson takes command as general Hal Moore, and infuses the film with a quiet dignity that’s not belied by first-time director Randall Wallace’s efforts. In fact, We Were Soldiers stands as a film of apologies; Wallace redeems himself after Pearl Harbor‘s execrable script, and Barry Pepper almost makes us forget Battlefield Earth with his role as a journalist thrown in combat. The battle scenes are shot with eye-popping realism that really put us alongside the soldiers; one scene featuring fuel-air explosives is brutal enough to make you gasp out loud. Vietnamese enemies are represented as heroic in their own right, and the result is a film that feels real. I managed to be unexpectedly moved by that staple of all war films, the “death telegram” scene. Granted, the patriotism and the forced anti-racism segment can feel awkward at times, but the film itself is an unqualified success.

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