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Review: 'Soldiers' a moving, winning war movie

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- "We Were Soldiers" follows the leads of "Saving Private Ryan" and "Black Hawk Down," in that it's an exceedingly graphic and horrifying look at the realities of war.

But "We Were Soldiers," which stars Mel Gibson, has an interesting difference: It takes place during the highly controversial -- and ultimately unpopular -- Vietnam conflict.

This may generate mixed emotions for some. But at its most basic level, this is a story about brave men -- in many cases, brave boys -- and not about political issues or military hubris. The story is set in the very early days of the war, before the soldiers, and the country, became disillusioned and cynical about our involvement in that Southeast Asian country.

The film is based on the highly acclaimed book "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young," by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway. Moore commanded the United States Army's First Battalion of the Seventh Calvary during the ill-fated 1965 battle at Ia (pronounced "eye") Drang Valley in Vietnam. Galloway was a noncombatant civilian journalist who was forced to drop his camera and pick up a rifle in order to stay alive.

The ensuing battle between approximately 400 Americans and roughly 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers was one of the most savage in U.S. warfare. Ia Drang became known as a "valley of death." The Pentagon's perception of this battle would strongly influence the United States' involvement in the overall conflict that eventually cost 58,000 American lives.

On the military and home fronts

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The film is directed and adapted for the screen by Randall Wallace, who scripted the Oscar-winning "Braveheart" of 1995. (Wallace also wrote "Pearl Harbor," but nobody's perfect.) His work on "We Were Soldiers" is a fitting tribute to the men who fought and died in that bloody, historic battle.

With the possible exceptions of Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" and John Irvin's "Hamburger Hill" -- both released in 1987 -- few films about Vietnam have avoided total cynicism about Vietnam while capturing the chaos, horror and bravery of the soldiers.

Gibson is exceptional here in the leading role of Moore, who was a colonel at the time of the battle. Gibson hasn't always chosen the best material to showcase his enormous talents, but whatever he does is always worth checking out. He and the real-life Moore have much in common: Gibson reportedly spent a lot of time with the former soldier and he delivers a strong, honest performance -- one his best in recent years.

Another thing that sets "We Were Soldiers" apart from run-of-the-mill war movies is the inclusion of the wives and families left behind to cope alone with the frightening fact that their husbands were fighting and dying in a war that was little-known and vastly misunderstood by their countrymen. Before the men are sent away, we meet their families. Then, during the bloody action, we're taken back to the helplessness faced by these brave young wives and mothers.

Two standout performances here are those of Madeleine Stowe as Julie Moore, Col. Moore's wife and mother to his five children, and Keri Russell ("Felicity") as Barbara Geoghegan, who was left behind with a newborn daughter. Chris Klein gives an excellent performance as 2nd Lt. Jack Geoghegan, an idealistic young man who questions whether it's possible to be a good soldier and a good father at the same time.

Making its points

Other noteworthy performances are provided by veteran character actor Sam Elliott, who plays Moore's right hand, gritty and gruff Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley; and Greg Kinnear, who portrays Maj. Bruce Crandall, a man who flew his Huey helicopter into harm's way again and again in order to provide the men with ammunition and carry out the gravely wounded.

Last, but far from least, is an outstanding performance from Barry Pepper as journalist Joe Galloway. He doesn't actually enter the action until late in the film but he makes an indelible mark once he does. Through his eyes we're given a civilian's viewpoint of this utterly inhumane slaughter.

In numerous interviews, both Moore and Galloway have made it clear they see Vietnam as a mistake. But their point is that these men were called and they went. And in the end they weren't fighting for God and country, they were fighting for the man on the left and the man on the right.

Overall, "We Were Soldiers" is a bit simplistic in its blatantly patriotic enthusiasm. But it makes the statement -- albeit again and again -- that these men (and their families) who were drawn into this battle at the dawn of the Vietnam conflict, deserve our thanks, respect and prayers.

"We Were Soldiers" opens nationwide Friday and is rated R.




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