Upon seeing the trailer for this film I thought "Oh goodness, Mel Gibson is doing a Vietnam version of BRAVEHEART like he did an American Revolution version with THE PATRIOT." However, I was surprised by the solid reviews and comparisons to BLACK HAWK DOWN. And after seeing the movie, I can say that I enjoyed this film better than BLACK HAWK DOWN.
The story follows the events of the first land battle in Vietnam where 400 U.S. soldiers were helicoptered into the battlefield and found themselves surrounded by 2,000 Viet Cong. The film begins in the U.S., introducing us to the various characters. Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Gibson) is a Korea veteran and a Harvard graduate who studied international relations. He's worried that he's leading his Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry, which was Custer's regiment, into an ambush. He's a strong man and a wise leader with a strong religious faith.
His wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe, BAD GIRLS) seems to support him, but certain comments show how the trying nature of being a soldier's wife can make one bitter and apathetic toward pomp and rhetoric. Once the fighting begins, she becomes the leader of the military wives and takes it upon herself to deliver the telegrams to the women whose husbands have died.
Sgt-Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott, TOMBSTONE) is a tough-as-nails lifetime military man who serves as Moore's right hand man. Major Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear, AUTO FOCUS) is a hotshot helicopter pilot, who must fly in the soldiers and fly out the wounded and dead. His maverick persona quickly fades as the battle becomes bloodier and bloodier. Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein, ELECTION) is a young caring solider, who was a former missionary. He quickly bonds with Moore. His wife Barbara (Keri Russell, TV's FELICITY) has just given birth and ends up helping Julie hand out the death notices. Sgt. Ernie Savage (Ryan Hurst, REMEMBER THE TITANS) is a tough young leader, whose nerve is challenged during battle when his division is stranded on a hill surrounded by the enemy.
Once on the battlefield, we meet Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), a reporter who hitches a ride into the fight and finds out exactly how brutal war can be. In addition, the Viet Cong leader Ahn (Don Duong, GREEN DRAGON) is seen planning the battle in a cave headquarters.
What makes this film stand out from other war films is its view of both sides being at battle with one another and neither one being really the "evil" enemy. The film is definitely from a U.S. perspective, but we can see that the Viet Cong are no different than the U.S. soldiers: they just want to win the battle. Like BLACK HAWK DOWN, the battle becomes less about fighting for a cause and more about fighting for the man next to you.
It also says something about the Vietnam War in the conclusion with Ahn. The battle may have been viewed as a U.S. victory, but the Viet Cong returned to the land and will continue to return and this will continue forever. War is bloody and crazed and this is made crystal clear in this film.