"You’ve got to tell the American people what happened here," says Lieutenant Colonel Harold Moore (Mel Gibson) to UPI reporter Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper) at the height of the Vietnam War’s first and bloodiest engagement, the Battle of Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley. Years later, the two would collaborate and do so, not in this fulsome, trite, exploitative movie but in their Pulitzer-winning account, We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young. In the fine Hollywood tradition of A Beautiful Mind, writer/director Randall Wallace keeps the title of the book (or most of it) and the names and a few facts and fabricates the rest or transforms it into the hoariest and most transparently manipulative clichés.
Gibson’s Moore is a demigod, a devout Catholic husband and father (when he’s not speechifying or shouting orders or leading the charge, he’s praying) of five who shines his patriarchal aura onto the newly formed First Air Cavalry, the helicopter-riding troopers who would transform modern warfare. Don’t ask why (Moore’s daughter does, and even she’s unconvinced by the explanation), but they end up in Vietnam’s Central Highlands facing an enemy three times their size. With superior firepower, incredible courage, and canny tactics they survive, but little of the tension, horror, bravery, and cool-headed strategy comes through the bullshit and bravado of Wallace’s lugubrious, hamfisted direction (in one of the most astonishing cuts in recent memory, the action shifts from US troops mowing down the enemy to a close-up of Moore’s Stepford wife, played by Madeleine Stowe, vacuuming). Unlike Black Hawk Down, which gets all the details right but passes on the politics, this passes on the politics, screws the facts, and goes directly to the unreflected flagwaving fervor. It’s a latter-day The Green Berets but without honesty, innocence, or John Wayne.