PATIENT: We Were Soldiers
PROFILE: Earnestly sentimental Vietnam War movie about the first battle between North Vietnamese and regular American troops that manages to minimize both sides with schmaltzy tone, perpetually swelling music and recruiting-poster dialogue. Think Why We Fight meets Platoon meets The Green Berets meets Father Knows War. SYMPTOMS: This movie is selling so hard that the whole story, though true, feels false. The Americans are presented as the most heroic, the most loved, the best fathers and the best husbands, and one is given the distinct impression they would have won the war, too, if it hadn't been for the politicians and press—stupid constitutional framers! The North Vietnamese are so filthy they can be smelled as they skulk in the night—poor sportsmanship, that—their seeming strategy being to run full speed into our rifle fire, flopping around once they've been shot 100 times (their military strategist had apparently studied Che Guevara and Twyla Tharp). Of the movie's many ridiculous moments—the officer who says that being good at killing people makes him a good father (Rommel never missed a kinder's birthday), the guy who rejoices at being able to die for his country—the most ridiculous is the North Vietnamese soldier with a clear shot at the entire American command who, instead of firing away, chooses to try and bayonet all of them. He dies exquisitely: flopping around, blood flying out of his helmet. We won this war, right? No, but We Were Soldiers will make you think we were just one stab in the back away from victory. General Leudendorff sparkles in a cameo appearance. DIAGNOSIS: Less sell, more tell.
PRESCRIPTION: First off, you have a good, true story here—not only the first engagement between the two sides but also the first use of helicopters as cavalry. How about telling that story in greater detail? Why was this so revolutionary? How was training different? What were the inherent risks in this new strategy? How about a little bit more of that and a lot less of wives looking longingly at husbands? I get enough of that at home. Second, if you want to make someone seem a hero, they must first be human. What makes heroes' actions extraordinary is that they are ordinary people. Your pandering portrayal of these brave men—men—gives them all the humanity of a dashboard saint. Give the enemy a little more credit. Present them as humans—more, soldiers. You seem to get this three-quarters of the way through when you show them in greater dimension—a commander encouraging his troops, a young soldier gazing at a picture of his wife—and that is when your movie is most involving. A hero is only as good as his foe, which is why that movie about the Harlem Globetrotters playing against the robots is snubbed annually at the Oscars.