June 3, 2003
"We Were Soldiers," "Windtalkers," & "Hitler: Rise of Evil"
I haven't written a movie review in a while, but I've certainly seen a lot of movies. Not at the theater, mind you, but on cable and DVD. Hollywood finally broke me of the habit of going to the movies, which was formerly my favorite pastime. Unlike actual film critics who write reviews because they have to, that's their job, I always write them when I'm sufficiently moved by a film, either positively or negatively, to feel compelled to write about it. Well, I finally saw a film bad enough to get me to write a review again -- We Were Soldiers.
We Were Soldiers happens to fall in my favorite film genre, the real-life action story. In this case it's the story of the 7th Cavalry Airborne in the early days of the Vietnam War. These are the same guys in helicopters we see in Apocalypse Now led by Robert Duvall, who is arguably the best thing in that film. Sadly, however, instead of Duvall we now get Mel Gibson playing the commander of the 7th Cav. Mel is kinda-sorta playing a Texan, but only half-hearted at best, and giving his idea of a "performance," which is just an embarrassment. In the overly-long, 45-minute act one writer-director Randall Wallace (writer of the piece of crap screenplay for Braveheart) only has time to briefly set up two other soldiers, one improbably played by Greg Kinnear, who is given one brief scene where we're told he's "the best," and the painfully clichéd Gunnery Sergeant played by Sam Elliot looking uncomfortable without his mustache. We never get to know any of the others guys, which is a fatal mistake in a story like this because we're going to spend the remainder of the movie watching them die. We also perfunctorily meet Mel's wife, played by Madeline Stowe, a formerly beautiful woman who now looks just awful, with ridiculously
grotesque Cologen-filled lips, and a Vampira hairdo.
Anyway, we then spend the next grueling hour and a half watching little else but automatic weapons spraying at North Vietnamese soldiers, accompanied by shprtizing blood squibs, while we are supposedly being patriotically moved every time one after another of our nameless, faceless American soldiers get killed. I began to chant to myself as I watched the film, "Get the fuck on with it!" At one point we are expected to believe that they are absolutely stuck with no way out, then suddenly Greg Kinnear lands in a helicopter, picks up some wounded and leaves, then they immediately return to being absolutely stuck with no way out. One can't help but ask, if a helicopter can come in and land and medivac out the wounded, why don't they all just leave?
Meanwhile, Mel's final close-up in the last scene with his wife is a truly shameless bit of bad acting. As Dorothy Parker once said, Gibson "runs the gamut of emotion from A to B," and doing it as though he were a dog with peanut butter in his mouth.
So, I was discussing this film with my friend Paul, who is generally kinder to most modern movies than I am, and I said that We Were Soldiers had exactly the same problem as Black Hawk Down -- I don't know anybody so when they get killed I don't care. Paul replied, "Well, what are you supposed to do? The old, one-guy's-a-Jew, and one-guy's-from-Brooklyn, and one-guy's-a- southern-hick? It's so clichéd that I can't stand it. I'd rather have nothing at all," which is of course what these new films give you -- nothing at all. As opposed to doing a better job, they don't do anything. Well, if that's any kind of improvement then I'm resigning from the human race.
I'd personally take the old clichés over nothing, but I'd much more happily take some decent characterization over the old clichés, but that's not even a considered possibility. Contemporarily, if you don't fall back on the hoary old cliché, then obviously you must automatically give up. Expending effort is naturally a waste of time (as Homer Simpson tells Bart, "You tried, you failed, give up").
Another film that's nearly as bad, and also a true-life war tale, is Windtalkers. This is the true story of the Navajo code-talkers in WWII (who were never called windtalkers), which is legitimately an interesting story (of course, so is the story of the 7th Cavalry Airborne). The Germans had managed to break every code the Americans came up with, so some truly brilliant person decided to use Navajo Indians to speak in their native tongue, which is indecipherable to everyone else on the planet and isn't even connected to any other Native-American languages (information not found in the film), plus they're still using their own code, by saying "tortoise" when they mean "tank," and the Germans never figured it out. Well, that little one-sentence explanation I just gave you is more information than you get in the entire film. Also, as with all these chickenshit Hollywood films, they could never make an Indian the lead character (just like the utterly chicken-hearted Geronimo: An American Legend, where Wes Studi playing Geronimo is fourth-billed behind three white men), so we're stuck with the severely dull, shell-shocked white guy played by Nicholas Cage in a painful, one-note performance that couldn't have been more boring if that was his object. The lead Navajo code-talker (Adam Beach), who seems like he might well be an interesting character, isn't given ten lines of dialog in the first hour. It's as though giving either of the two lead Navajos any characterization would have cost them extra money which they couldn't afford to take away from the effects department.
In both We Were Soldiers and Windtalkers, every time there is a battle it's a complete, utter, total shit-storm, with the enemy coming at them non-stop from every direction spraying with automatic weapons, although constantly missing our lead characters, but our guys never fail to hit them. In both cases there are literally thousands of shots fired and hundreds of blood squibs. In both films the battle scenes achieve new levels of stultifying boredom (it's actually a bit worse in Windtalkers because it makes so little sense that so many people have automatic weapons since it happens to be WWII. Also, just as a little note, the hand-held automatic weapons of WWII -- the Thompson submachine-gun and the BAR -- both fired much more slowly than the film depicts). Meanwhile, if the enemy is always running at you full-speed and is always about twenty feet away and right on top of you, there is certainly no time for the forced, phony bits of slo-mo sadness and regret -- if a guy is about to shove a weapon down your throat you're not going to stop and weep for your buddies. My question big is, whatever happened to suspense? There isn't a lick of it in either film, and as far as I'm concerned, it's mandatory in a war film.
This kind of shit is the ultimate outcome of letting actors and agents develop their own projects -- they haven't got the slightest clue what they're doing. They both began with interesting subjects, then everything that was done to them thereafter completely ruined them.
Although John Woo, who directed Windtalkers, is a much better director than Randall Wallace, and he even occasionally sets up an interesting shot, both of them do a lousy job directing these films, and both commit the same paranoid, contemporary mistake of having way too much coverage. If the angle from which the director has chosen to shoot the scene isn't really the best angle, then having two hundred other angles won't help. Constantly cutting between half-second long shots is ultimately the most boring way to cover a scene. Steven Spielberg admitted on "Inside the Actor's Studio," that he once upon a time used to choose what he felt was the best possible angle (and he was generally right), but now he likes to shoot five master shots, and all the close-ups that go with all five of them. This is called rampant insecurity on the part of the director, combined with too much money and too much time, and always makes for a visually dull scene. Too much cutting, just like too many bullets fired, is like listening to an endless drum solo at a rock concert -- you end up pounded into bored submission.
Hitler: Rise of Evil, the two-part TV movie that was recently on, is as interesting of a subject as is possible in the 20th century. How did this man become the leader of sixty million Germans, then lead them into the bloodiest war of all time? Sadly, though, no answers are given or even attempted in this depiction. Adolf Hitler (played by Robert Carlyle, from Trainspotting), is a creepy asshole from the word go and only becomes creepier as you go along. You never once understand why anyone is even listening to him, let alone following him. He yells his speeches, spittle flies from his mouth, and he makes weird hand gestures. That's it. It's a one-dimensional characterization that explains nothing. Even his good buddy Ernst Hanfstaengl, with whom he was friends long before he took power, is made to appear afraid of him all the time. I don't know about you, but I'm reasonably certain none of my good friends fear me or they wouldn't be my friends. I don't believe that long-standing friendships can be based on fear. Hanfstaengl, whom Hitler called "Putzi," which means "little," because Hanfstaengl was so tall ( a fact you don't learn in the film), is played by the none-too-tall Liev Schreiber in a state of perpetual alarmed wariness. If I didn't already know that Putzi was his good friend I would never have gotten that from the film. Oddly excluded from the story for no good reason is Heinrich Himmler, one of Hitler's closer friends and comrades. That Adolf Hitler could actually have had friends is obviously an anathema to the filmmakers (Hermann Goering was his friend, too, but you'd never know it from the film). That women could be attracted to him, as they indeed were, could not be shown (Hanfstaengl's wife, Helene, strangely portrayed by Julianna Margulies, seems far more drawn to the party than the man). That Hitler might have had a sense of humor could never be shown, nor that there was a magnetism to this man that attracted an entire nation to do his bidding. Also, the economic state of Germany after the first world war, which is crucial to Hitler's story, is not made clear in the slightest, so we never really understand how a man like Hitler could ever possibly have come to power. If they were going to skip all of that, they might just as well have skipped making the film, too.
Peter O'Toole as von Hindenburg is interesting casting, but why is he costumed in uniforms that are four times too big for him? It's as though someone suddenly got overly concerned about the fact that von Hindenburg was heavy-set man and O'Toole was too thin for the part. Well, honestly, who gives a damn? Putting Peter O'Toole in such a ridiculously large uniform made him look like he was Mr. Creosote, the vomiting fat man, in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.
Just like the abhorrent Schindler's List, if you depict Nazis as crazy spitting dead-eyed monsters, you're nothing but a coward that's utterly copping-out and not trying to explain anything. Nazis were human beings, just like you and I, and that's the scary part. Regular old human beings just like us were somehow convinced by this little man with a Charlie Chaplin mustache that exterminating entire races and religions was a reasonable idea. That's the true horror, and that's what these chickenshit filmmakers will not touch with a ten-foot pole.
Although I admire the subject matter of all of these films, they were all made by inept, frightened little babies who were too scared to actually say anything. So three more interesting stories get dumped into the enormous shit-heap of bad Hollywood films.