A fake picture of war's stark reality

Mel Gibson's new movie, "We Were Soldiers," takes its subject from a book by military officer Harold Moore and war reporter Joseph Galloway about the heroism and horror they witnessed during a 1965 battle in Vietnam.

The movie's publicity material quotes extensively from the book's prologue, including a critique of earlier Vietnam pictures. "Hollywood got it wrong," the authors write, "every ... time, whetting politically twisted knives on the bones of our dead brothers."

They excoriate such movies for suggesting that American soldiers didn't suffer lasting damage from their physical and emotional wounds.

No question about it, Hollywood has produced many a war movie where blood rinses off as easily as the star's makeup. But that era bit the dust when Vietnam was still just a strange-sounding name to most moviegoers.

The films about Vietnam that most Americans remember are positively soaked in physical and emotional torment - from "Platoon," with its grunt's-eye view of combat, to "Apocalypse Now," with its exploration of war's dehumanizing insanity.

Today, the pendulum has swung back again. If filmmakers with politically twisted knives once sliced away guts-and-glory clichés, their current equivalents hack away all meaningful concern with moral and political questions.

"We Were Soldiers" is shameless in this regard, filling the screen with square-jawed officers who weep at carnage and fresh-faced GIs who use their last breaths to intone things like, "I'm glad I died for my country."

We occasionally see a Vietnamese man do something similar, but mostly the Asians are portrayed as scuttering hordes planning attacks in shadow-filled caves. Is this the stark realism we were deprived of back when "Hollywood got it wrong"?

As a story, "We Were Soldiers" makes an interesting bookend with "Black Hawk Down," which is about strife in Somalia a decade ago. That film stresses the teamwork element of combat, while Gibson's picture emphasizes unflinching leadership. Their similarities are more striking than their differences, though: Both are skeptical of Washington politicians; both portray war as a force of nature rather than a result of human decisions; and both end with the assertion that a soldier's duty is to stand with the other guys, not wonder why they're here in the first place.

"We Were Soldiers" adds a final flourish modeled on "Saving Private Ryan," as Gibson overflows with anguish at realizing he was spared while those around him perished. Gibson loves to suffer in his movies - remember how nobly he endured torture in "Braveheart" and "Payback"? - but rarely have his tears seemed more fictional than in this supposedly authentic account of a historical event that's far too tragic to merit such superficial treatment.

• Rated R; contains war-movie violence.

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