In portraying America's most mismanaged war, Hollywood has rarely found even ground in Vietnam, falling for the blinding flag-flying patriotism embodied by "The Green Berets", or the prevailing guilt and shame powerfully crafted in the likes of "Born on the Fourth of July".
In "We Were Soldiers", director Randall Wallace offers a non-political take with the true story of the war's first ground battle, in 1965. Barely registering ambiguous politics or social betrayals, the film favours basic guts and heroism over a complicated tale. Lt Col Hal Moore (Gibson), the paternal leader of the 7th Cavalry, enters The Valley of Death with his troops, only to be outnumbered ten-to-one in the resulting three-day battle.
Brimming with nobility, can "We Were Soldiers" ease a nation's pain? Not likely. However, Wallace has crafted a reverent tribute to loyal soldiers not yet jaded by cynicism and home-bound indifference. As a result, he discards Vietnam's more dramatic and resonant elements to leave the horrific battle sequences - every death mournfully framed in slow-mo, and the military's familial nature played out in many tearily optimistic moments.
This approach is mostly effective - particularly the even-handed portrayal of the Vietnamese, similarly patriotic and efficient soldiers. Meanwhile, the war at home is handled by Moore's wife (Stowe), who takes on the sombre duty of delivering Death Notices to platoon wives.
Gibson is a perfect vessel for the script's dewey-eyed patriotism, and the odd "Braveheart" moment is dutifully recycled in a strong performance. Sam Elliott is superb as the gruff Sarge, with other able supporting turns from Kinnear, Pepper, and Klein. But all are eclipsed by the thumping cry of tragedy.
It's unlikley you'll learn anything new about the war, but Wallace's emotional message and refreshingly non-demonised enemy make an effective tribute.