Of the handful of war films released since Sept. 11, two stand out. Mel Gibson stars in the Vietnam epic We Were Soldiers, released this month. Black Hawk Down has been in theaters since the beginning of the year, but is continuing to garner steady business and is in consideration for several Academy Awards.
Both of these films provide an uncynical look at complicated and messy U.S. military conflicts, and in each film, politics take a back seat to the honor and valor of soldiers on the field of battle. They take strikingly different roads to reach the same conclusion, however.
Black Hawk Down (rated R for intense, realistic, graphic war violence, and for bad language) is a film adaptation of Mark Bowden's book of the same name, chronicling a 15-hour battle in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, the bloody result of a poorly conceived raid on a hotel thought to contain several Somali warlords. Army Rangers and Delta forces were sent in to perform what was thought to be a simple half-hour extraction mission; instead, a firefight in the streets resulted in the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters, and the death of 19 Americans and hundreds more Somalis.
Director Ridley Scott is not even remotely interested in the politics of the region, U.S. involvement there, or the decision to conduct this particular mission, except for some basic details to set the stage for the events that unfold onscreen. The fighting starts roughly half an hour into the film, and it doesn't let up until the closing credits. This is a film about soldiers, and Mr. Scott doesn't allow anything at all to distract the audience from his subjects.
Mr. Scott's care in keeping out extraneous detail extends even to characterization-and this is where Black Hawk Down differs from We Were Soldiers. These soldiers don't have stories. They are apparently a diverse bunch, but we know this only by the minimum of clues, and it's all but impossible to distinguish the character of the enemy.
Mr. Scott's story centers on one thing-the bond soldiers form on a field of battle. He has found a way to communicate courage and honor in a story of tactical failure and questionable politics. "It's about the men next to you. That's all it is," says one soldier in the final minutes of Black Hawk Down-something that's admirably true of both the movie and its protagonists.
We Were Soldiers (rated R for sustained sequences of graphic war violence, and for bad language) is also based on a work of nonfiction, co-authored by Lt. Col. Hal Moore and journalist Joe Galloway, both of whom participated in the Vietnam War's first bloody conflict, the battle at Ia Drang. Lt. Col. Moore, played in the film by Mr. Gibson, leads 400 cavalry soldiers into a thicket of 2,000 North Vietnamese troops in what became known as the "Valley of Death."
Cut off from each other and any escape route, and surrounded by an overwhelming force of enemy soldiers far more familiar with the terrain, Lt. Col. Moore and his men discard their tactical objectives and fight for survival.
Sound familiar? The framework of We Were Soldiers is similar to that of Black Hawk Down: what was to be a simple mission gone terribly awry, and the plight of the men who must band together to make it out alive. And director and screenwriter Randall Wallace's objectives for telling his story are also similar to Mr. Scott's. Mr. Wallace avoids most of the political questions that have tainted nearly every film about the Vietnam War, instead focusing on the valiant men who were sent to fight.
But where Mr. Scott does this by emphasizing the details of the conflict, Mr. Wallace fleshes out the human aspects of the story. His soldiers do have stories-we are asked to identify not only with Lt. Col. Moore, a devout Catholic, but also many of his men, as the audience learns about their wives and children back home, along with their personal struggles and motivations.
Perhaps even more remarkable is Mr. Wallace's attempt to do something similar for the enemy, spending time humanizing the North Vietnamese soldiers. Mr. Wallace isn't justifying the Communist regime in North Vietnam, but he makes it clear that the enemy's soldiers also had lives off the battlefield-homes, families, dreams.
Mr. Wallace's film is more ambitious than Mr. Scott's, and, as a result, often more heavy-handed. There are very few false moments in Black Hawk Down. Its characters rarely speak more than a handful of words at a time, and, when they do, it's with good reason. But the emotional payoff in We Were Soldiers is much greater.
On a technical level, and perhaps on a visceral level as well, Black Hawk Down is a better film. We Were Soldiers, however, shows unflinching respect for things not often given this much reverence in modern films: God, country, and family.