Exactly what it sounds like, the Pick of the Week column is written up by the Cinapse team on rotation, focusing on films that are past the marketing cycle of either their theatrical release or their home video release. So maybe the pick of the week will be only a couple of years old. Or maybe it’ll be a silent film, cult classic, or forgotten gem. Cinapse is all about thoughtfully advocating film, new and old, and celebrating what we love no matter how marketable that may be. So join us as we share about what we’re discovering, and hopefully you’ll find some new films for your watch list, or some new validation that others out there love what you love too! Engage with us in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook! And now, our Cinapse Pick Of The Week…

Even in the distinguished and crowded Vietnam subgenre of films that includes venerated entries like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon, Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers manages to set itself apart and bring new perspectives to an old conversation.

The film is based on the true story written in the book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young by Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, who are also the film’s protagonists. Lt. Col Hal Moore leads the operation, while Galloway is a daring photojournalist who ventures into the melee to cover the battle.

Mel Gibson is incredible and relatable here as Moore, reteaming with Wallace (who wrote Braveheart) in one of his last roles before his public meltdown, and he’s complemented well by Barry Pepper as Galloway and Greg Kinnear as affable ace chopper pilot Bruce Crandall. Plus you get Sam Elliott in a totally uncharacteristic role as Moore’s Sergeant Major Plumley, mustache-free and mean as a junkyard dog. One of the incredible things about this cast of characters is that they are all real men, and were alive when the film was released (Plumley died in 2012). And like most war movies when viewed years later, there are a lot of now recognizable actors in the mix — look for Jon Hamm, Clark Gregg, Keri Russell, and Brian Tee in smaller supporting roles.

But unlike most war stories which tend to focus on climactic battles, We Were Soldiers takes place at the beginning of the US involvement of the conflict. This is the vanguard — there’s no camps, no daily rhythm, no “Welcome to the Nam” or “stick with me and learn from the guys who’ve been in the country awhile and you’ll be alright”. Instead, the Air Cavalry drops these men into a hot LZ (dangerous landing zone) against a jungle teeming with hidden foes who know the terrain.

The result is immediate chaos. The 400 men are set upon by the countless enemies, and portions of the force ambushed or separated within short order. The battle is harrowing and one-sided, and only through superior strategy will Moore’s forces survive. The film does a tremendous job of illustrating the danger, strategy, and sacrifice of the fighters. One particular sequence, in which a young soldier is napalmed, is forever etched into my memory as probably the most horrifying depiction of war violence I’ve ever seen.

But none of that is ultimately the reason that We Were Soldiers resonates with me so strongly.

As harrowing and realistic as the film’s combat is, it’s the secondary focus on the home front that sets We Were Soldiers apart from most other war films. The film’s posters bear the tagline “Fathers, Brothers, Husbands & Sons”, and that key element informs every part of this story, beginning with the pre-deployment setup. We’re introduced to these characters, their families, their adaptation to a new assignment, and a glimpse of their dreams. We watch fresh young men train for the fight to come. We observe as these soldiers’ wives band together for mutual support. We see a new father celebrate the birth of his child, only to ship off to battle soon after.

This is the other part of military life. As the soldiers battle off in some foreign hell, their families also deal with their own challenges back home. In showing the experience of the wives and families, We Were Soldiers shows a more complete picture of not only war, but its impact.

For my entire childhood, my Dad was a soldier in the US Army — from before I was born, until I graduated high school. We’re blessed that he was never deployed into combat. He served his military career in the 80s and 90s, post-Vietnam and pre-911 — with the brief exception of the Gulf War, about the longest period of relative peace a soldier could hope for.

But even for a family like mine, mercifully spared the anguish of war, I see so much in We Were Soldiers that’s authentic and recognizable in the intersection of military and family life. Like most military families, we PCSed (permanent change of station) a couple times, and I spent a few years living on an Army post overseas. I know what it’s like to have my father gone for weeks or months at a time for training and assignments — I remember the pain of separation, the enormous strength of my Mother raising two children in his absence, and tears of joy when our family was reunited.

The first time I saw the film, I did a literal double-take when Hal Moore’s frame filled the doorway to say good-night to his kids and settle them into bed. There’s something so intimately familiar with this scene that I didn’t see a character in a movie. I didn’t see Hal Moore, or even Mel Gibson. For a moment, I was transported back to my childhood, and I saw my hero.

I saw my Dad.

Get it at Amazon:
We Were Soldiers — [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]

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