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We Were Soldiers
Another day, another war movie. Another Vietnam War movie. This one stars Mel Gibson (insert drunken racist comment here), and a bunch of other big names. It's long, it's loud, it's full of moments that are meant to tug at your heartstrings and raise your patriotic fervor. But it's still just another war movie.
Mel Gibson plays Lt. Col. Hal Moore, the man selected to lead the first group of troops into Vietnam. The troops (including Nip/Tuck's Dylan Walsh, American Pie's Chris Klein, and Greg Kinnear) are mostly green and inexperienced. They all have pretty young wives (Madeline Stowe and Keri Russell among them), and generally have a lot to live for. So, of course, as soon as they arrive in Vietnam, they're sent to a mountain clearing that eventually becomes known as "The Valley of Death," and immediately get massacred. Whoops.
I don't mean to sound sarcastic, but it's so hard to care for the characters in We Were Soldiers. Even with all the big names adorning the marquee, most of the characters are entirely faceless and interchangeable. Now, I understand that this is actually based on a true story, and the film would be 10 hours and insufferably boring if we had to learn the back story of every single person on screen, but with the mass amount of carnage that occurs over the course of the picture, I just couldn't muster enough empathy to give a damn.
That doesn't mean the movie is awful. The battle sequences are immaculately staged and often quite exciting. The actors all give themselves fully to the film, with particularly strong performances from Greg Kinnear and Madeline Stowe. Anytime anyone discusses strategy, the film usually gets interesting. But for every strong moment, there's a corresponding hackneyed instance. Slow-motion shots of blood being washed off of helicopters or a truly awful scene where a photographer runs around on a soundstage while a montage of the horrific photos he's capturing plays over it, to cite just two particularly egregious examples.
Easily the most interesting aspect of the film is that it takes place at the beginning of the Vietnam War, and from the perspective of a man who managed to be near the top and the bottom at the same time. Most Vietnam films drop you right in to the middle of the fight, when the disillusionment has set in. The scenes before we get to Vietnam are the best parts of the movie, where we see what it was like for the people who had literally no idea what they were in for. We see Moore debating strategy, training his troops, and recruiting the people he needs. This is the side of Vietnam we've never seen on film.
Once we step onto the fields of Vietnam, the interest wanes quickly. The one thing director/writer Randall Wallace does succeed at is showing us just how silly and futile it was for us to be there in the first place, but without initially being preachy about it. Within the first ten minutes of the soldiers landing in Vietnam, they're already being routed. That speaks far louder than all the slow-mo sequences Wallace crams in later. And that, in the end, is probably the real problem with the movie. The Valley of Death was such a hellish place that just seeing a few minutes of the battle was enough to hit home the message this movie tried to convey. By stretching the battle to over an hour, it becomes overkill and you stop caring. You can only get hit over the head so many times before you pass out.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Paramount presents We Were Soldiers in a 1080p MPEG-2 2.35:1 transfer that looks damn good. The film stock used has a high percentage of grain, but that doesn't stop this transfer from having excellent detail and strong color reproduction. The scenes at home are the most vivid, with the bright colors of the wives' dresses popping off the screen. Once in Vietnam, the lush greenery of the foliage is immediately noticeable, as is the mix of smoke and fire from the various air bombings. Shadows have a lot of detail, especially during the nighttime sequences. I saw some slight artifacting during a few of the more frantic air sequences, but nothing that distracted from the overall high quality of this transfer.
If there's one thing this movie does right, it's in giving you the feeling of being dropped right into the middle of the battle field. The sound goes a long way in reinforcing that impression, and it does so admirably. There are two audio tracks available to choose from: Dolby Digital EX 5.1 and DTS 6.1. I found only slight differences between the two, but the DTS won over in the end.
No matter which option you choose, you're in for a real treat. The sound mixers must have spent months working on these mixes, because they are alive with sound. Bullets firing and ricocheting, people screaming and running, grass crunching underfoot, it's all there and more. If you closed your eyes and just listened to the movie instead of watching, you'd find it to be a far more satisfying experience. The disc is almost worth a rental alone to hear how good it sounds. This track is up there with the best lossless soundtracks, even using lossy codecs. Fantastic work. Also available are French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks.
To get the ball rolling, we have a commentary by writer/director Randall Wallace. Wallace is very reverent of the material, and also very self-important. To him, every decision he makes is simply the most important decision that could ever be made. Maybe I'm just reading too much into it, but when he's talking about making a deep soul connection to the movie, I felt like he was just going too far.
There's a behind-the-scenes documentary entitled "Getting It Right," which runs almost 30 minutes. The featurette compares behind the scenes footage with actual historical footage from around the time of the battle. Of course, we get several interviews with Wallace and Gibson, but also Hal Moore. The featurette covers many different aspects of production, with special focus on the minute attention to historical detail. This documentary gives you the sense of what the crew was trying to accomplish with this picture. It makes it all the worse that they didn't achieve it.
There's a collection of deleted scenes, most of which offer additional character development. In that respect, they're all worth watching, as they give you a deeper understanding of who these men were. If we had more of this and less of the battle, the movie would have been better for it. All the scenes have optional commentary from Randall Wallace.
The theatrical trailer is provided in high definition (all of the previously mentioned extras are in standard definition). Also in high def is a promo spot for Paramounts HD discs which plays when you start the disc, but you can access it from the extras menu as well.
The Conclusion: We Were Soldiers is an earnest, serious film. However, it's also a deeply flawed film that relies heavily on trite sentiment and tired filmmaking conventions to gets its message across. Even worse, the elements that do work are so good that you can see how great the film could have been with a little tweaking a little finesse. However, the disc is pure HD eye candy with one of the best soundtracks available on any home video format. For that alone, I'm going to suggest you Rent It.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.