Before the Boondoggle

We Were Soldiers is a bloody, harrowing look at the early days of the Vietnam War.

Based on an account of the United States’ first major battle with the People’s Army of Vietnam in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, the grave, brutal We Were Soldiers (Paramount) is not your father’s Vietnam movie: In the stature of its warriors, it’s your grandfather’s; in the visceral immediacy of its combat scenes, it’s your son’s. The action unfolds at the beginning of the conflict, when the war was being fought not by boys who’d come of age after the assassination of John F. Kennedy but the first baby boomers, the clean-cut Eisenhower kids who never expected the sky to fall—or to go all psychedelic. (The book’s full title is We Were Soldiers Once … and Young.) It’s a Vietnam movie without rock ’n’ roll or drugs, without nihilism, with a strong military patriarch at its center. As adapted and directed by Randall Wallace (who wrote Braveheart), it’s square, stiff, and in places cheesy; it’s also authentically harrowing—and blood-showered, blood-drowned.

The film’s admirable father figure, Harold G. Moore (played on-screen by Mel Gibson), co-wrote the 1992 book with the journalist Joseph L. Galloway, who added his own first-person stories. (Galloway, played in the film by Barry Pepper, choppered into the battle and at its most ferocious had to wield a rifle.) Moore and Galloway’s agenda is straightforward, akin to many recent World War II narratives: to celebrate the Americans who fought and died on foreign soil. But this was Vietnam, not Normandy or Omaha, and so their purpose is also to exonerate. In a prologue, they write:

Many of our countrymen came to hate the war we fought. Those who hated it the most—the professionally sensitive—were not, in the end, sensitive enough to differentiate between the war and the soldiers who had been ordered to fight it. They hated us as well, and we went to the ground in the crossfire, as we had learned in the jungles. In time our battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and our suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.

On behalf of the insensitive professionally sensitive, this isn’t entirely fair. Veteran Bob Kerrey, for one, went far in “polite American society,” and the revelation of his alleged wartime actions demonstrates the importance of plumbing the darker side of Vietnam—not out of disrespect for brave soldiers but to understand what happens to even good men when they’re fighting for their lives in the absence of both moral authority and a coherent military strategy. That’s a different kind of memorial to the fallen—and one that might keep others from falling alongside them.

But the battle in We Were Soldiers came before the great disillusionment, and neither the book nor the movie has a hawkish, Green-Berets-like World War II template to impose. If anything, the way it lays out the bungled, shortsighted U.S. entrance into Southeast Asia confirms anti-war activists’ most paranoid fears. Wallace begins with a mid-’50s prologue, in which an entire squadron of French solders is overwhelmed and massacred. (Giving the order to kill the prisoners, the weary, hardened Vietnamese commander adds that the more French soldiers die, the fewer will come to replace them.) The People’s Army of Vietnam are not the faceless, barely glimpsed anthill denizens of Platoon and Casualties of War; inside their mountain tunnels they have their own tacticians, their own frightened but determined soldiers. The audience—at least, the American audience—doesn’t empathize with them for a second, but the images of their dead come hauntingly back when the furious battles scenes have subsided; and it’s the NVA commander who has the last, wisest word. The foreign enemies certainly have more depth than the sluglike American “advisers” glimpsed sweating under ceiling fans in Saigon and wondering how long they can keep the scale of the disaster from the American public.

We Were Soldiers isn’t about the larger war: Its true focus, as in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, is the courage of the soldier in the field and the soldier watching his back. And Wallace is bent on monumentalizing these men, giving them heroic dimension—the opposite of the Robert Altman M*A*S*H approach, which set the tone for the black-comic deflation of war that persisted through the ‘70s and ‘80s.

At its worst, especially in the long first sequence in Fort Benning, Ga., Wallace’s square solemnity is laughable—a lot of indiscriminate, low-angle close-ups, one after another. A prayer scene with Moore and the ingenuous Chris Klein as a second lieutenant fresh from the Peace Corps is visually dead, and the scenes with the soldiers’ wives are even worse, hopelessly stiff and posed. (It doesn’t help that as Moore’s wife, Madeleine Stowe—to my taste one of the most beautiful women on earth—has gone and had her face ironed out and her lips pumped up; she’s practically leaking collagen.) Wallace gets by with Moore’s hammy declaration that he will be “the first to step onto the field and the last to step off” because Gibson has real gravitas. But when he pulls that godlike low-angle stuff on Greg Kinnear—as a rough-tough-renegade chopper pilot called “Snakeshit”—I nearly coughed out my popcorn through my nose. (Kinnear is just such a natural Frank Burns.)

When the battalion arrives in Vietnam, Wallace’s in-your-face approach pays off. No fancy editing, no hallucinogenic light shows, no sense of dissociation—just hundreds of enemy soldiers suddenly right there, close enough that the cinematographer doesn’t need to refocus. Saving Private Ryan raised the bar on visceral horror in combat pictures, and WeWere Soldiers hurdles it. Here again is silence followed by the whine of a bullet and a Dolbyized thock! as someone’s head or neck or chest erupts in geysers of gore—in close-up. The bombardment is so graphic and intense that it summons up your primal, fight-or-flight instincts—anything more intense might kill you. The good thing about all this is that it’s not an “Oh, cool!” spectacle: It’s sickening. You cry out, hide your eyes, go into shock at the violation of these young men’s bodies. We Were Soldiers is a fighting epic that makes fighting seem profoundly, hideously unnatural.

Ia Drang is in the Central Highlands, way above the Mekong Delta and its jungles and tributaries, where most Vietnam movies are set. I’ve never been there, so I have to take the filmmakers’ word for it that it looks like central California (where the movie was actually filmed). But apart from the strangely un-strange landscape, the battle scenes feel definitive. When they begin—and almost instantly Moore’s battalion is on the verge of being overrun—Wallace shows how quickly the training kicks in, how these boys put their bodies and brains on automatic pilot to become “fighting machines” (up to the point when the bullets tear through them and they are suddenly so human). And Gibson is brilliant when Moore simultaneously bellows orders, fires his rifle, and calculates and recalculates his and his enemy’s position—a combination of discipline and crazed improvisation. After their indelibly absurdist depiction in Apocalypse Now, the U.S. aerial bombardments suddenly make tactical sense again: They rain fire on the hundreds of NVA soldiers in the mountainside, and they keep Moore’s men alive.

The first soldier to expire in close-up says, “I’m glad I could die for my country.” That’s straight from the book, and it’s emblematic of the movie’s strengths and limitations. The man who allegedly said that was trying to rise above himself, to conform to an ideal of heroism; and We Were Soldiers shows how those ideals held through the first horrific battle of the war. But it doesn’t show us the other, more frightening part of the story—what happened when those ideals didn’t hold.

So, it’s not the great Vietnam movie; and Randall Wallace has maybe a tenth of Ridley Scott’s talent for composition and fluid camera movement and color. But he has a moral sense, so he’s worth twice as much. One of his worst moves, I initially thought, was casting tender, guileless Chris Klein as a squadron leader. Then I looked at the book’s photograph of the real Jack Geoghegan, who has a soft, young face and that same radiant gentleness. He looks like the sort of man who might have said what the character says here: “I know God has a plan for me; I just hope it’s to protect orphans, not make any.” We Were Soldiers makes you cry for the hundreds of thousands of men and women who died so pointlessly with Geoghegan. And their orphans.