Mel Gibson, Dead or Alive?

After suffering through We Were Soldiers , I think I’ve seen all the war movies I care to endure for quite some time. The film documents the blood and carnage of the disastrous three-day November 1965 battle in the Ia Drang Valley that signaled the beginning of the war in Vietnam. Movies about the war nobody understands and everyone wants to forget have been shoved down our throats via Hollywood cameras so many times they look like documentaries. Gruesomely gory and graphic, this one portrays America’s most mismanaged war with the flag-waving patriotism of The Green Berets instead of the consequences of ambiguous military betrayal in Born on the Fourth of July . People who prefer guts and guns to guilt and shame will probably cheer when human eyes are shot out of their sockets in slow motion. I was more moved by the scene where Mel Gibson, ordered to desert his men in the middle of an ambush to attend a staff meeting with General Westmoreland, tells the old bastard off on a walkie-talkie. Fool that I am, I always look for some missing quality in war movies that shows the best and worst that humanity has to offer.

Mr. Gibson, who is aging faster than they can film it, plays Lt. Col. Hal Moore, who wrote the book that inspired the movie. The film begins when he, his wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe) and their five kids settle into their base home at Fort Benning, Ga., where he’s been assigned to train and lead a team of camera-ready hunks into the jungles of North Vietnam for reasons nobody bothers to explain. Making a solemn promise to bring all of his troops back home, dead or alive, he inspires instant confidence in the men, who have no idea of the horror that awaits them. Quick cut to Landing Zone X-Ray, where the name of the unit (First Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry) is the same as General Custer’s in the Battle of Little Big Horn, providing Mr. Gibson with some of the most embarrassing lines of his career.

From here, the movie is like Black Hawk Down in theme (innocent soldiers trapped behind enemy lines, outnumbered, surrounded and massacred while waiting for a botched rescue) and focus (concentrate on the survival tactics of the men, not the political issues that got them killed in the first place). The battle brutality is overwhelming–G.I.’s howling as they are burned alive, bullets ripping through throats and spleens–but we’ve been there before, and the terror and courage of inexperienced kids fighting an unknown enemy on its own terrain because they’re carrying out the orders of military imbeciles is nothing new. What’s the point of reliving an unpopular and humiliating war unless it’s to validate our presence there? The film has no plot. It’s all special-effects splatter (raspberry syrup splashing across the camera lens for added emphasis, just in case you missed the point of how dangerous it is in the line of fire), with dialogue so obliterated by mortar and artillery explosions that the soundtrack finally goes silent and the chaos and confusion of battle continues in slow motion to the pounding, soaring sound of symphonic violins. More than 1,800 North Vietnamese soldiers died in this massacre, and the movie, trying to have it every way at once, even tries to drum up sympathy for them, too. Talk about mixed metaphors and confused ideologies.

Oddly, the most wrenching scenes in We Were Soldiers are not about the soldiers, but the women back home in Fort Benning, where the war brides weep, vacuum and get those cold “We regret to inform you” death notices, which the war department callously delivers by Yellow Cab. When Julie and her best friend take over the heartbreaking task of delivering the telegrams themselves, their faces jolt you into more awareness of the devastation of war than all the blown-up extras in the trenches.

Writer-director Randall Wallace is a doppelgänger. He wrote the stirring Braveheart as well as the cornball pap in Pearl Harbor . We Were Soldiers is more like Pearl Harbor –so predictable that the minute a young soldier shows Mr. Gibson a bracelet with his newborn baby’s name on it, you know before it’s over the colonel’s going to be removing it from the wrist of a corpse. Mr. Gibson is very good at showing grief over the loss of so many of his men, and he can adapt to tough-guy roles as easily as romantic leads. But he’s been laying into the Häagen-Dazs lately, and without his mischievous trademark sparkle, he doesn’t look comfortable. There’s no roguish thrill, no anticipation of the unexpected humor his fans have come to expect. His square military face and buzz cut do not set him apart in any way; the role could have just as easily been played by Bruce Willis, Russell Crowe or Clint Eastwood.

Despite the ballsy support of grouchy, gravel-voiced Sam Elliott, Greg Kinnear (as a daredevil helicopter pilot called Snakeshit), baby-faced Chris Klein as the doomed lad with the new baby, and Barry Pepper (as photojournalist Joe Galloway, who is forced to trade his camera for a combat rifle), We Were Soldiers is all the John Wayne movies ever made, all rolled into the barrel of the same gun.

Cannes In the Can

Attending the annual circus called the Cannes Film Festival is rather like being trapped on a speeding bus on its way to nowhere with all the exit doors locked and bad movies projected on all the windows. Filmmakers have for years been irresistibly drawn to the idea of making a movie with the insanity of Cannes as an alluring backdrop. Imagine the possibilities: love scenes against the billboards of all-star epics that will never be made, gate-crashers on cell phones begging to be paged among the popping champagne corks at the Carlton Terrace, movie stars and fashion victims climbing the red carpet at the Palais du Festival to attend somebody else’s premiere, and a cameo a minute as directors, press agents, porn kings, hookers and curiosity-seekers who max out their Visa cards vie for photo ops on the Croisette.

Henry Jaglom, one of the original gurus of indie-prod, is the director who has finally realized the dream. Festival in Cannes , filmed entirely on location during the two-week festival in 2000, is the daffy, engrossing, enlightening and entertaining result. For voyeuristic novices and battle-weary veterans alike, the film presents a dizzyingly accurate portrait of what it’s really like to be at the most famous, exhausting and overrated celluloid supermarket in the world, rubbing elbows with cigar-smoking wheelers and dealers who are buying and selling scripts, ideas, computers, popsicles and each other.

There’s even something you rarely find in the movies at Cannes: a plot. An impressive cast has a plummy time as the funny, fearless and sometimes desperate denizens in this Cannes of worms. Greta Scacchi plays a successful actress in need of both a career change and someone to finance it, who comes to Cannes to pitch a gritty, uncommercial film about an unhappy American housewife that she hopes to direct. (“It’s a Gena Rowlands type–we hope to get Gena Rowlands.”) Ron Silver plays a pushy Hollywood producer looking for an all-star cast for a Tom Hanks movie in which he forgot to sign Tom Hanks. Anouk Aimée, still as ravishing and mysterious as she was in A Man and a Woman , plays an international film star who hasn’t had a decent role in years. She’s in Cannes for an hommage to her cynical ex-husband (Maximilian Schell), an arty director who scowls at big-budget Hollywood epics but would secretly sell his soul to direct one. Meanwhile, there’s newcomer Jenny Gabrielle as a hot new starlet of the hour, and Alex Craig Mann as Mr. Silver’s ambitious assistant, who seduces her and sabotages his boss’ deal.

They all fall into the hands of a fast-talking charlatan looking for his own 10 minutes of fame on the Côte d’Azur (played with zest by Jaglom regular Zack Norman), who is really just a chauffeur with delusions of grandeur. Mr. Silver and Ms. Scacchi both want Anouk. Anouk, torn between the low-budget film and the Tom Hanks blockbuster, wants the best part. Mr. Schell wants her to take the Hollywood offer so he can direct and make a commercial comeback. Most of all, they all want money. Everyone seems to be holding the trump card, but in reality what they all need is a job.

Mr. Jaglom can be a ponderous director, but this film, in its own impossible foot-dragging tempo, is funny and sexy as it exposes the pretentious hysteria and desperation of the Cannes con. Fragments of plot are interspersed with shots of everything from the traffic jams of tourists reading The International Herald Tribune and guzzling designer bottled water to the lavish beach cabanas of the Grand Hotel du Cap-Ferrat. In and out of frame trots a parade of the usual suspects interfacing during punishing press conferences and countless cocktails–Faye Dunaway, William Shatner, Peter Bogdanovich (very droll as a Hollywood director who wants to do an art film that will be taken seriously by The Hollywood Reporter ). In the end, nobody ends up with what they came there for–but there’s always next year, and another festival in Cannes.