Directed By: John Irvin
Written By: James Carabatsos
Produced By: James Carabatsos, Marcia Nasatir
Cast: Dylan McDermott, Michael Dolan, Don Cheadle, Courtney B. Vance
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 110 minutes
Review Date: October 1, 2010
It’s not just bullets whizzing through the trees that drive soldiers together in battle. Sometimes their comrades-in-arms are all they have: Wives cheat, family members become estranged and, during the Vietnam War, civilians back home were waiting to hurl dog crap and insults. For the men ascending Hamburger Hill, these were the empty rewards waiting at the top. In their path lay mud, blood and certain death.
Needless to say, Hamburger Hill is a bleak film, one that attempts to recreate the sheer horror of the war along with the desperate, quiet moments in between fighting. It’s a much less ostentatious depiction than Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now, both of which, while widely celebrated, couch the war in more operatic stories. This take sacrifices an over-arching narrative for a character-driven ensemble piece. Watching it is like studying a portrait gallery, allowing you to linger over the heartbreak in a soldier’s face, illuminating the kind of drama they never showed on the nightly news.
At times, this leaves the viewer feeling curiously detached. We don’t get much time with each character before the camera has moved on to tell another one’s story, and you hardly learn the names of a few of them before their violent, brutal deaths. But the immense talent of the cast imbues these short scenes with devastating power. The actors bring human warmth that’s much needed in contrast to the endless, hopeless death that fills so much of the picture.
The film follows 14 soldiers on their way to the Battle of Hamburger Hill, regarded in hindsight as one of the greatest blunders of the war. For 10 days in 1969, nearly 1,800 troops and several hundred air sorties were committed to the fight - all for a mountain of little strategic value that was quietly relinquished a few months after taking it. The backstory heightens the sense of futility these men experience as they schlep up over muddy terrain honeycombed by Viet Cong tunnels and stake pits.
The film goes to great length to portray the horror of the war. But some of the most emotionally taut scenes take place when the guns are silent. Some of the men harbor private doubts about their mission, while others are trying to get through the day without going at each other’s throats over race or class. Sitting together in the jungle, you get a sense of how lonely battle can be, and how desperately these men rely on one another. When one soldier receives a devastating message from his girlfriend - she decides to stop writing because her college friends say it’s “immoral” - another silently hugs him. In another scene, Doc, a high-strung, black soldier with frayed nerves, starts ranting about the loss of inexperienced newbies. Another soldier walks over to bump his fist.
“It don’t mean nothing, man,” Doc is told. “Not a thing.” It becomes a mantra, something they repeat back and forth to one another until they’re laughing again, having buried their pain for one more fight.
Doc is played by Courtney B. Vance, whose nervy explosions of anger do more to light up the screen than any of the scenes featuring napalm. Dylan McDermott also stars as a naturally carefree sergeant who finds himself joking less as his doubts about the war mount. Their scenes, and those of the bit players that round out the cast, affect the audience far more than the shocking gore that punctuates the battle. Hamburger Hill is rife with close-ups, where a smirk, a grimace or the lifeless stare of the walking dead says more about this chapter in history than any textbook can
Andrew Good is a film critic and writer living in San Diego.