Hamburger Hill


Year 1987

Dylan McDermott as  Sgt. Adam Frantz
Steven Weber as Sfc. Dennis Worcester  
Courtney B. Vance   as Spc. Abraham 'Doc' Johnson
Harry O'Reilly as Pvt. Michael Duffy
Anthony Barrile as Pvt. Vincent 'Alphabet' Languilli  
Don James as Pvt. Elliott 'Mac' McDaniel
 
Director - John Irvin
Screenwriter - James Carabatsos

Perhaps better than all of the other Vietnam movies that have come out, Hamburger Hill captures the realism of squad combat. The only other movies, regardless of war, that come close are The Big Red One (The Reconstruction) and Pork Chop Hill. But for Vietnam? This is it.

Why do I dismiss Buffoon, A Crock of S*** Now, and Full Metal Retard despite the praise lavished upon them? Because they are too slick, they are too contrived, and they do not attempt any pathos with those who underwent the torture of living day to day in such an oppressive situation.

Fortunately for me, I never had to serve in Vietnam. Yet, I always feel a sense of guilt about not doing my part. Many people I knew served. Many returning servicemen became close acquaintences. I've even gotten relatively close to some South Vietnamese veterans. They're all about my age and they're all broken. I'm damaged because of my peripheral association, but these men have been shattered and repaired with Elmer's Glue.

This movie, Hamburger Hill, gives me an insight to what happened to these souls. It helps explain why you cannot be friends with them. It explains why those that I knew needed to tell their stories to me. I respect and admire these men and this movie treats a group of them with respect and admiration.

A civilian cannot really become friends with anyone who has seen combat. You can only get so close before the differences become insurmountable. And those who served in Vietnam fought more than just an enemy with guns. Still, most of these men, even the least mainstream of them, are worth knowing and, more importantly, worth listening to.

The movie is primarily about an assualt on Hill 937 in A Shau Valley in early May, 1969. There's the introduction of the characters early on, a couple of set-up scenes, and then the battle for the hill over an eleven day span. It's right up there for bloody battles. I'm sure there have been others, but this is the one that attempts to depict them all in microcosm.

Make no mistake about the scale of this movie. It's a Hollywood film but does not have a huge budget. Also, it's about the soldiers. There's some mention of politics, but these are young men who are basically apolitical. They are doing what they are told to do because that's the kind of men that they are. That they are being judged by the American people just for doing their job is a revelation that they cannot understand.

Vietnam was notable for having the highest percentage of black soldiers integrated into combat units in any action prior to that time. This is addressed, perhaps too often, in the movie. But it was real and led to an us-versus-them mindset. The movie does show that in combat skin color disappears. Your squadmates are your squadmates and the shared ordeal trumps anything as trivial as racism.

The characters in the movie may not be stand-out, but they are unique and they are real. They're just average guys forced to perform above average tasks. They're people and they're real and I know guys just like them. Every bad comment I've read about this movie mentions the lack of being able to distinguish among the men. These commenters are looking for a series of bigger than life charicatures. It's not that kind of movie!

The Lieutenant in charge, Lt. Eden (Tegan West), is green but trying his best. Other movies might give him a frag mentality and make him a jerk that the troops just want to kill. (In Vietnam, bad leaders were occassionally killed or fragged by their men. Credit for avoiding this diversion goes to the writer.) The command center, only heard via radio, is portrayed as being moderately efficient and dispassionate but not tyrannical or uncaring. This adds to the squad's sense of isolation.

There are no stray bullets that off soldiers without explanations just for the sake of effect. The writer and director focus the viewer on the major plot and keep the effort clean and tight.

I saw one commenter say that he wanted to see things from the point of view of the enemy. What? This isn't that kind of movie. This is a movie about the heroism of the United States Army and the moral toll the Vietnam Conflict took on the soldiers who fought there.

There are two main characters in this movie, Frantz (McDermott) and Johnson (Vance). Frantz is the leader, the one who takes the men up the hill time and time again. He is a rock and is unchanging. Johnson is the Medic, the one who feels and who is slowly going crazy as a result. He's the more interesting of the two characters. He's not always likable, but he is the most memorable.

Don Cheadle demonstrates his ability to add nothing. Fortunately, he has few lines. This is a good movie that happened to mediocre actors. Kind of like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.

The progression up the hill is well done. At the base, there is thick foliage. Near the top, where napalm has been dropped, it is scorched earth.

The music by Philip Glass is used sparingly but to good effect.

Although it's historically accurate, it's not 100% accurate. The scene of Hueys killing American soldiers is not correct. At the time, mistakes like this were called "friendly fire". Now they're called fratricide. There were instances of fratricide during the storming of Hill 937, but they were from Cobras. The depressing effect is undiminished regardless of the source of the carnage.

If you want to get a picture of combat in the Vietnam Conflict, check out Hamburger Hill.

There is profanity, blasphemy, and nudity. It's not gratuitous and seems to match the events and mood of the soldiers. Watch it once. It has practically zero chick flick potential and is best watched either alone or in the company of other males.


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