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Killing Fields

It’s back. Not that it is ever absent for long, but the present instance is particularly irritating. Here again is the oxymoron—the picture that combines strong execution and a poor screenplay. In this case the screenplay is not merely poor, it is dreadful, but it is more ostentatiously so because the other components are so fine.

Harrison’s Flowers (Universal Focus) is a French-financed venture with a French director and with American and British actors in the principal roles. Its subject is the Serbian butchery of Croatians in Vukovar in 1991, and if there can be any doubt left about the Serbs’ scorched-earth policy—a scorched- household policy, really—this film does its literal damnedest to sweep them away. (Was the film’s release timed with the opening of the Milosevic trial?) To put it otherwise, the slaughter scenes—they cannot accurately be called battle scenes—made me feel as if I were constantly being slapped across the face with cold steel.

War correspondents have recognized the verity of the slaughter in Harrison’s Flowers but are miffed that, like past films about correspondents, it bumbles the details of their profession. Correspondents need not feel so proprietary: physicians, lawyers, architects, business executives, and many others have all been miffed at films that get everything right except their jobs. Harrison’s Flowers is so powerful in its strengths that we simply wait for its (plentiful) weak moments to finish and get out of the way.

Elie Chouraqui directed and co-wrote the screenplay, so he is inescapably responsible for what stuns and what flounders. Chouraqui entered films in 1978 at the age of twenty-four; he has worked on numerous films but has made relatively few of his own. In this picture, every element of its environment rings with metallic truth; it has force and impetus and a use of close-ups that, for a change, is needed and enlightening. But everything in the story itself is so pulpy that an old question nags. How could the same man be responsible for both the picture’s ruthlessness and its slop? The question is doubtlessly nave, but it persists.

Harrison is a Newsweek photographer. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Sarah, and their children, and the hothouse that gives the film its symbolic title. He has done a lot of war reportage, and he insists on another tour of duty in Bosnia. Word soon comes back that he has been killed, but Sarah refuses to believe that he is dead. Why does she disbelieve it? Because, you doubters out there, a wife knows. She puts her children in a relative’s care and goes over to find her husband, somewhere in Bosnia. All kinds of questions are not answered, but the story is too ludicrous to mock. Well, a little mockery: everything turns out OK because a wife knows.

Still, not only is the war stuff authentic, but some of the performances are amazingly good. It is amazing that Andie MacDowell found the means in herself to make Sarah more than a mobile magazine illustration. The same amazement arises with David Strathairn as Harrison and Brendan Gleeson as a seasoned colleague. An exception is Adrien Brody, as a younger colleague, who brings Method clichés to the battlefield. Besides the Bosnian horror, some of the scenes at home are well handled. When her husband is overseas, Sarah goes to see his boss. This sequence, from the moment that she steps out of the elevator, is acute. People avoid her eyes and do not return her greetings, so that by the time she reaches the boss’s office, she knows that there is bad news about her husband. Such directing belongs in a better picture. As does the cinematography of Nicola Pecorini, which is composed of the almost tangible textures of everything in a shot, and the editing of sound by Guillaume Sciama, which puts our ears in Bosnia.

Something spooky haunts We Were Soldiers (Paramount). The planning for this Vietnam picture must have begun at least two years ago; yet, spookily, it fits perfectly the spirit of the moment—in a country that is at war but, because of the odd nature of that war, needs reminders of the fact. Of course there are almost always war films in the works, some of them about Vietnam; but most Vietnam films have been skeptical—Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Go Tell the Spartans, Hamburger Hill, and others. We Were Soldiers, though not a gung- ho jamboree of grown-up Boy Scouts who suffer a few Band-Aid scratches, is certainly not skeptical. It is about the camaraderie of troops bound for Vietnam who, as their leader warns, have one another and nothing but one another when they fall into hell.

Mel Gibson plays Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, the real-life co-author of the book on which the screenplay is based. The director, Randall Wallace, made his own adaptation. In 1965, Moore takes his men through their training; before they embark, he promises them that he will be the first man to step out of a helicopter and the last man to leave. He keeps this promise, though we do not know how he could have been sure of the second part. He then leads his men into action at Ia Drang, a fierce engagement that lasts three days. The bombs, the shells, the automatic fire, the bayoneting, are all justly frightening. Whatever one’s view of the Vietnam War, it would be brutal and stupid to discount the suffering of those who were there. (My own view is that fifty- eight thousand Americans and numberless others were ground pointlessly out of existence.)

We Were Soldiers appreciates those who fought. But it interlards the battle sequences with Movieland cream filling of the wives back home. Though some of the wives get the worst possible news, these homefront sequences are tritely written and cast. Hollywood interrupts the battle.

Another sort of interruption is helpful, if ironic. Some scenes are set in the enemy’s underground headquarters, but they do not feature drooling Asian villains. We see a calm, intelligent commander who leads committed, patriotic troops. This very equity works against the picture finally because it makes us wonder yet again why the Americans were there. We never learn what this Ia Drang foray was supposed to accomplish; it is just plunged into, like an exercise with real bullets and napalm and piles of bodies.

Wallace directed with a shrewdness that keeps the various shafts of action reasonably clear, and his colleagues, with cameras and technical effects, contrived wide-screen immersions. As the commander, Gibson is not quite reassuring in the John Wayne style. (This commander could have been killed: Wayne never.) But the real point of the picture is pronounced: it assures us that military service, though it may cost our lives, can fulfill our lives in ways otherwise unavailable. This reminder comes, with uncanny aptness, at a time when we are sliding out of one age into another, out of an era in which war and peace seemed to alternate and into an era in which armed struggle is seen as a virtual constant.

This article originally ran in the March 25, 2002 issue of the magazine.