"Sir, Custer was a pussy. You ain't."
Movie stars are human too, a lesson Tom Cruise taught us perfectly well and now Mel Gibson has been kind enough to reiterate with his own major public meltdown. The foibles of celebrities sure are entertaining. I'm just glad it's not my life under the microscope of public scrutiny, but then again I'm not a wacko religious nutjob or a drunken anti-Semitic prick. In any case, whatever your feelings may be for Gibson as a man, let's give him enough credit to admit that he's been a hell of a movie star over the years, and acknowledge that the work of an artist should stand separate from his failings as a person.
That brings us to We Were Soldiers, the 2002 Vietnam War epic directed by Randall Wallace (screenwriter of Gibson's overrated Braveheart as well as the abominable Pearl Harbor). Gibson stars as John Wayne... well, that's not exactly true; he stars as Lt. Col. Hal Moore, commander of the first major American battle in the 'Nam conflict. However, for his performance he sure seems to be channeling Wayne, strutting through the picture like a Western cowboy hero, all gruff American bravado mixed with tender-hearted fatherly love for the boys under his command. The movie tells the true story of the bloody three-day invasion of the Ia Drang Valley, in which a few hundred American soldiers arrogantly charged in expecting to kick some lazy Gook ass and immediately found themselves overwhelmed by thousands of well-armed, well-trained, and ferociously determined NVA Regulars willing and happy to die for their cause. The battle could be read as a metaphor for the war as a whole, with the modernized and technologically advanced Westerners completely out of their depth fighting a conflict they had no business interfering in against an enemy they didn't understand. (Sound familiar?)
Wallace goes to great pains to maintain the appearance of military and historical authenticity. The real men the story is based on (those who survived, anyway) acted as consultants, and the director stages every gruesome detail of the siege with unflinching precision. After a sappy half-hour of soap opera melodrama and character set-up, the movie shifts into a solid 90 minutes of intense wall-to-wall combat. Bodies are ripped to pieces in close-quarters machine gun fire, or blown apart by grenades and mortars. Air strikes napalm hordes of soldiers, their burning corpses shown in grisly close-up. This is truly some horrific, at times powerful filmmaking. Gibson carries the picture capably, and Sam Elliott is ideally cast as the crusty Sergeant Major his second-in-command, both men remaining calm and collected in the midst of the chaos around them, keeping their terrified men organized and alert. The supporting cast is made up of a lot of unlikely faces for a war movie, including: Greg Kinnear, Chris Klein, Dylan Walsh (Sean on Nip/Tuck), Marc Blucas (Riley on Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and Barry Pepper (still trying to redeem himself for Battlefield Earth). All pull through with fine, believable performances. Back on the home front Madeleine Stowe and Keri Russell pine for their husbands as they watch in horror the stream of death notices delivered by Western Union telegram.
The movie also makes a point of giving some brief amount of time to the Vietnamese side, shown as unexpectedly keen strategists and professional soldiers, and not overly villainized. This is especially surprising in light of the rah-rah American patriotism that permeates most of the film, to the point where its heroic climax seems to inadvertently imply that the Americans could win this war.
For all his noble intentions about "getting it right", his desire to make the first Vietnam film that accurately depicts the motivations and state of mind of the American fighting solider (at least, those at the start of the conflict, long before the disillusioned burn-out we've seen in Apocalypse Now, Platoon, or most other Vietnam movies), Randall Wallace remains profoundly flawed as both a screenwriter and director. While I have no doubt that it's true many soldiers dying on the battlefield proclaim "Tell my wife I love her" as their last words, when you use it three times in a movie I'm sorry but that's just a hoary genre cliché that a decent dramatist would know enough to avoid. Dialogue throughout the film is ridiculously hokey, especially the corny domestic scenes with their preachy lessons about racial discrimination and the importance of the womenfolk staying strong for their husbands. Chris Klein's speech at the beginning about joining the army so that he can save all the orphans of the world is an absolute howler. Wallace will argue that some, perhaps even most, of these scenes are true to the real story and people, but a good screenwriter would know that sometimes real life looks and sounds like a bad cliché when you magnify it on a movie screen. The priorities of telling a true story and telling a good story sometimes conflict unless you make some effort to adapt it properly.
To be honest, what Wallace has made isn't a Vietnam movie at all. He's actually made a WWII movie with its decidedly earnest, retro values and dressed it up in Vietnam clothes. By removing any sense of cultural or political perspective, he also loses the depth and greater meaning that infuse the best war movies. And why is it that despite all of his painstaking efforts at historical accuracy, he still can't keep Vietnam from looking a lot like southern California with some weeds planted in the grass? We Were Soldiers is a well-meaning, solidly crafted, but ultimately flawed war drama that unfortunately doesn't live up to all of its ambitions.
The HD DVD:
We Were Soldiers debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The suits at the studio must have really been kicking themselves on July 28th for choosing this particular catalog title to release four days later.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The We Were Soldiers HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
The movie's cinematography deliberately emulates the film stocks and photographic styles of the 1960s, a decision that although appropriate for the story limits its potential as High Definition eye candy. The picture is usually soft, hazy, and grainy, with shallow black levels and bleached colors. Scenes back on the home front with the wives are typically the worst, looking very dull and dupey, like the film print was a few too many generations removed from the master. The movie is not quite as overtly stylized as something like Saving Private Ryan, but it's clear that the intention is to give it a rough and documentary-like feeling.
The movie nonetheless has many striking images. Texture and detail are mostly well-rendered despite the general softness, and the image has a nice sense of depth. Some of the nighttime scenes are truly beautiful, and close-ups are often quite impressive.
I'm torn in my feelings about the grain. I don't have any issues with real film grain, and I know that this movie is meant to have a lot of it, but in more scenes than not it comes across with a very noisy, electronic appearance that's unnatural and ugly. As spectacular as the High Definition video formats can be even at these early stages of their development, I believe that the area where we'll see the greatest improvement over time will be in the rendering of film grain. Some discs released now handle it very well (Million Dollar Baby is an excellent example of natural-looking film grain), but in this case I don't think the grain is digitized or compressed as well as it should have been, and it mars an otherwise faithful transfer.
The We Were Soldiers HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 or DTS-HD 5.1 formats. Note that the "DTS-HD" track is not the "DTS-HD Master Audio" lossless format that HD DVD will some day be able to deliver. Regular "DTS-HD" is just a rebranding for standard DTS audio as found on DVD (the 1509 kb/s full bit-rate variety).
On some of Paramount's other releases I'd preferred the DTS option over the DD+, but on this disc the DD+ has a decided edge in impact and fidelity. Both tracks are mastered at a low default volume to accommodate an extremely wide dynamic range and will require amplification above normal levels. Once you account for that, either soundtrack option is flat-out spectacular.
It's a war movie, so naturally the track is filled with crackling gunshots and explosions. During its combat sequences, the soundstage is immersed in the sounds of pistols, machine guns, mortars, and grenades from every direction. Helicopters circle through every speaker, fighter jets rip through the air above you, and the bass during all the explosions can be downright punishing. Even in the midst of all this, dialogue is never drowned out by the cacophony. Every single sound effect is crisp and distinct, and the music swells up with great fidelity.
This is one of the finest audio experiences I've ever had in my home theater, so much so that even without a lossless advanced format encoding I'm rating the sound a perfect 5 stars for reference quality. I can't imagine the sound quality getting any better than this. A fantastic job all around.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French DD+ 5.1 or Spanish DD+ 5.1.
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression, except the trailer which is encoded in High Definition using VC-1.
All of the supplements from the DVD have carried over.
Exclusive to the HD DVD is:
- Audio Commentary - Writer/director Randall Wallace speaks about his dedication to military and historical authenticity. He also talks about building a "personal connection" to the material, and devotes a lot of time to hero worship for the "Warrior Poet" Hal Moore.
- Getting It Right: Behind the Scenes (25 min.) – Not your usual promotional nonsense, this quite serious making-of documentary shows us vintage news footage of the real battle's aftermath and spends time comparing the true story to the Hollywood version. Hal Moore is interviewed, as are Wallace and Gibson (as you'd expect). The piece also covers all aspects of production from staging the combat scenes to photography, editing, sound design, and special effects. It's a thorough, informative, and much better than average feature.
- Deleted Scenes (21 min.) – Ten deleted scenes are provided, all with optional commentary from Wallace. Most of the footage is good, but just didn't fit in the final cut.
No interactive features have been included.
- Theatrical Trailer - Presented in its 2.35:1 original aspect ratio and High Definition.
Despite my personal feelings about Mel Gibson's real life behavior, and some reservations about the content of the movie, We Were Soldiers is a solid war picture presented on HD DVD with decent (though flawed) video and spectacular audio. It merits a recommendation.
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