"We Were Soldiers" is one of several war movies that have been released in the past few years. Although the film did go through comparisons to other films released around the same time, the film is an impressive, large-scale effort that I often found deeply moving and powerful. Directed by writer Randall Wallace ("Pearl Harbor"'s writer), the film has an opening half-hour that occasionally suffers from attempts at emotion that are held too long (a little girl asks her father "Daddy, what's war?" with a long, dramatic pause afterwards that makes the scene feel a bit cliche) and the feeling that the film's attempts at early character development are not entirely successful. However, once the film finally gets going and battle starts, the movie becomes something altogether different and occasionally remarkable. The film puts the audience into the middle of the battle with horrifing and often brutal intensity, while managing to keep geography clear and offer enough character moments to define many of the individuals present.
The film stars Mel Gibson as Lt. Col. Hal Moore (the film is based on the book by the real Hal Moore), a master of tactics who firmly states that he will leave no man behind on the battleground. Early in the film, Moore finds his men and himself having to have to prepare to journey to the battle in Vietnam, where they will find themselves involved in one of the first major battles of the war. Mere moments after the troops step off the planes and into the fields, they find themselves not only surrounded, but severely outnumbered. What follows is a lengthy, terrifying and well-filmed series of battle scenes.
The performances in "We Were Soldiers" are all very good, and the film even includes fine performances from those I wouldn't have expected one from. Gibson is excellent, as usual - he does superb work playing a tough character who constantly wants to inspire the men under him, but the fear of the horrors that he faces occasionally shows through. Also excellent is Greg Kinnear, an actor who's previously made some poor choices in his comedic roles. While his role as a pilot isn't a major one, there are a few scenes where Kinnear really commands the screen, including one effective and emotional moment where he defends his actions that saved lives. Even within a few minutes of screentime, Kinnear proves that he is capable of far better than he often shows. Madeline Stowe, as Gibson's wife, is also excellent, especially in the film's second half, when her character must break the news of battle losses to other wives on the base. Also excellent are Sam Elliot, Barry Pepper and Keri Russell. Even Chris Klein, an actor I've strongly disliked in other films, isn't half bad.
"We Were Soldiers" does manage to recover from a shaky opening, but had that opening been tightened a bit, the film would have been improved. I found the remainder of the picture a very haunting experience, added to by the fact that many of the lead and supporting cast deliver very fine performances. Technical credits are also marvelous, as Dean Semler's cinematography is alternately gritty and crisp. Production design and sound design are also noteworthy.
I've seen "We Were Soldiers" twice now and it played as well, if not better the second time. It's a very moving, intense and well-crafted film about bravery, courage and honor.
VIDEO: "We Were Soldiers" is presented by Paramount in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Award-winning and often-busy (he's worked on 3 other pictures released in 2002) cinematographer Dean Semler's imagery is portrayed very well here. There are scenes that appear mildly grainy and slightly soft, while there are others that offer exceptional clarity and fine detail. This is how I remember the film appearing in theaters and the cinematographer's comments on the documentary included also state that this was the film's intended appearance.
Some minor faults do appear, although I didn't find them very distracting. Minor edge enhancement is visible during a few scenes, as well as a very slight trace or two of pixelation. However, the print used was in fine condition, with no noticable specks or marks. As previously noted, the grain was apparently intentional.
The film's color palette was largely subdued, although deeper greens were occasionally noticed in the battle sequences. Overall, a very nice transfer.
SOUND: Paramount presents "We Were Soldiers" in Dolby Digital 5.1-EX. Although there are some more dialogue-driven sequences throughout the film, the main battle sequences provide a very aggressive, very intense soundtrack that puts the surrounds to constant use to offer sound effects and occasionally, subtle ambience.
Audio quality was excellent, as the score, sound effects and dialogue were reproduced with excellent clarity. Strong bass was also often present during many scenes.
MENUS: In several instances, Paramount has created animated menus that are not simply images from the film zipping around, but effective montages of images from the film, accompanied with music or other sound effects. The menus for "We Were Soldiers" is another of those instances, as the menus are an excellent introduction to the DVD.
Commentary: This is a commentary from writer/director Randall Wallace. Wallace provides an excellent screen-specific narration for the picture, presenting his thoughts about the film in an organized and interesting manner. Throughout the film, Wallace smoothly moves from topic-to-topic, discussing the contributions of his fellow crew members, talking about the film's performances, offering technical details and stating how we wanted to portray the story. Wallace doesn't fall into the trap of narrating the on-screen feature and even when he goes into praise for the actors and crew he worked with, he adds thoughtful analysis of their work instead of just basic praise. I found this to be an intelligent and enjoyable commentary that's one of the better ones that I've listened to lately.
Getting It Right: This is a 25-minute documentary that features interviews from the real Hal Moore, director Randall Wallace, actor Mel Gibson and other members of the cast and crew. The documentary is a mix of discussion about story as well as technical details and the importance of accuracy. Kinnear does provide one light moment discussing what happened in the boot camp that the actors went to.
Deleted Scenes: 10 deleted scenes with optional commentary from director Wallace are provided.
Final Thoughts: "We Were Soldiers" is a powerful, tense and often horrifying film that offers several extremely good performances. Paramount's DVD edition offers very good audio/video quality, along with three quality, substancial supplements. Recommended.
The Film *** 1/2