Judge Victor Valdivia remembers all the late '80s movies and TV shows about the '60s. He still gets acid flashbacks whenever someone brings up The California Raisins.
War at Its Worst. Men at Their Best.
Sadly, while Hamburger Hill has plenty of the former, it doesn't have enough of the latter. This is a noble and ambitious film that's technically superb but dramatically unsatisfying. Viewers' ability to truly get the most out of it will depend on how much of the film's emotional context they share going into it.
Facts of the Case
In May 1969, during the Vietnam War, the men of Bravo Company of the 101st Airborne are ordered to take Hill 937 in the A Shau Valley from the North Vietnamese Army. Bravo Company is made up of old-timers such as the literate Motown (Michael Boatman, Spin City), the cocky Duffy (Harry O'Reilly, The Black Donnellys), the gentle Gaigin (Daniel O'Shea, State of Grace), and the company's bad-tempered medic Doc (Courtney B. Vance, Law & Order: Criminal Intent), all led by the haunted Sgt. Frantz (Dylan McDermott, Wonderland), and the hotheaded Worcester (Steven Weber, Wings). Joined by a bunch of new recruits including Washburn (Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda) and "Alphabet" Languilli (Anthony Barrile, Kiss Me, Guido) the squad prepares for what should be a simple attack. What follows instead is a brutal ten-day battle when the dug-in NVA fights the men off with unrelenting savagery and Hill 937 earns its nickname of "Hamburger Hill" as it grinds men of both sides down to flesh and blood.
The 1980s saw an increase in the number of films about the Vietnam War. Though there had been some in the late '70s, the '80s saw a veritable glut of films of varying styles and genres, from brain-dead shoot-'em-ups like Rambo and Missing in Action to more ambitious and intellectual films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Hamburger Hill tries to skirt a course somewhere between all of those. It's ambitious without being pretentious, action-packed without lapsing into senselessness. Unfortunately, in trying to define what it isn't, it never really hits on an approach that works. It's a curiosity: a film that's graphic and realistic without actually being emotionally involving. Despite some brutal battle scenes, some realistic dialogue, and some impressive performances, it's hard to really get caught up in it no matter how hard you try.
It's not that the film isn't careful to get the details just right. Screenwriter/producer Jim Carabatsos (Heartbreak Ridge) is a Vietnam vet himself, and he works hard to get the dialogue and minutiae exactly as he remembers it. Soldiers fresh off the boat are referred to as FNGs, for "Fuckin' New Guys." No one gives speeches about the meaning of life and death-there isn't any time for such pontificating. Soldiers argue about music, cars, and girls, in language that is deliberately prosaic, even minimalist. Hamburger Hill also avoids the more sensationalistic aspects of films like Platoon. There are no atrocities, no pot-smoking, no murders of officers. The soldiers seen here are all just simple guys, struggling to do their jobs and survive as best as they can. Director John Irvin (The Dogs of War) shot footage of the actual war for the BBC, and his eye for detail is clear, right down to the color of the buses. The performances are all consistently strong. Though Vance and Weber stand out, as both are given crucial scenes, no one drops the ball and each actor takes time to carefully craft his character without adding unnecessary flourishes. The film even avoids clichés in its score. Though Philip Glass is credited as composer, his music only appears twice in the film, once at the beginning and once at the end. The rest of the film is scoreless with only a few pop hits in a few scenes.
Such stubborn refusal to traffic in manipulation is welcome for a war film. The problem is that in relying so firmly on accuracy, the filmmakers wind up unintentionally affecting how the audience feels about the soldiers themselves. It's not that the characters are thinly defined. Both the performances and dialogue are too well-crafted for that. It's that they don't seem to have any relation to one another. Their dialogue almost never reaches beyond the superficial. On the commentary track, Carabatsos states that the lack of depth in the soldiers' interaction was deliberate. Soldiers, as he recalled from his days in country, never got too close to one another. They were friendly, even buddies, but never friends. Friendship was too emotionally risky when the odds were that the friend you made one day would, for reasons either good or bad, not be around the next. That may have been the case, and it's another instance of the film's sterling accuracy. Unfortunately, what works as realistic authenticity makes for dramatic dryness. It's impossible for viewers to relate to or empathize with these characters when they don't even seem to relate to or empathize with one another. Characters need to have some degree of openness and vulnerability in order for audiences to care about them, but the soldiers depicted here are so emotionally distant that as the film progresses and some of them are killed in combat, it's hard to feel much sentiment. We understand that their deaths are tragedies, but we don't grieve.
The choice to make the soldiers so closed off winds up hurting the film. The first 40 minutes or so are taken up with scenes showing the FNGs being taken into the squad and bonding with the old-timers. Despite lots of chatter and squabbling (and even a couple of scenes set in a whorehouse), these scenes come off as flat and unconvincing. The soldiers aren't really connecting; they're just going through the motions. Their dialogue sounds realistic, but having so many scenes of characters who constantly keep their emotions in check doesn't work dramatically, no matter how accurate they are. That emotional distance also robs the film's battle scenes of their power. Those scenes are some of the best parts of the film, full of action and energy but never confusing or farfetched. The violence depicted here is graphic and brutal; this is definitely not a film for the squeamish. Unfortunately, as exciting as they are, the battle scenes simply never pack the punch they're clearly intended to, primarily because the characters view their comrades' deaths so clinically and impassively. If the soldiers are constantly staying detached from one another, then how is the audience supposed to get caught up in their story?
Ultimately, Hamburger Hill isn't as successful as it wants to be in trying to find a new take on Vietnam. There is a welcome middle ground between a film as cynically manipulative as Rambo and one as bloodless and sterile as Full Metal Jacket. Hamburger Hill's approach is to focus obsessively on the details, and it definitely gets those right. Unfortunately, it does so at the expense of making the characters emotionally accessible to the audience. No one expects scenes of soldiers weeping copiously and making long-winded speeches, but there should be some sense that what's happening on-screen matters to the characters on more than a superficial level. Otherwise the audience will find it hard to get invested in them. There's far too much craft and care in Hamburger Hill to dismiss it outright, but it's also hard to recommend enthusiastically. It works intellectually but not viscerally.
For this new 20th Anniversary Edition, Hamburger Hill has been newly remastered and remixed. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is surprisingly sharp for a twenty-year-old film. Irvin explains on the supplements that he deliberately processed the film to make it look grainy and desaturated, so the film is meant to look somewhat rough. It's still a good transfer, with no scratches or dirt. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix isn't as loud as one would expect. Even during the combat scenes, most of the action is still at the front speakers. It's perfectly audible, just not earsplitting.
For extras, Lionsgate has compiled a decent mix. First, there's an audio commentary with Carabatsos, Barrile, O'Reilly, and O'Shea. Carabatsos discusses the production and themes of the film while the actors reminisce about how difficult the production was and how for many of them it was their first film. It's a useful commentary in that it explains a lot of the choices made by the filmmakers, and fans who love the film should definitely give it a listen. Also included is "Hamburger Hill: The Appearance of Reality" (16:50), a making-of featurette with interviews with Irvin and most of the cast (except for Cheadle and Boatman). It's not very deep, given how short it is, but there are some interesting stories about the difficulties in making the film (which was shot in the Philippines during typhoon season and just after the Aquino revolution). "Medics in Vietnam" (6:39) examines the roles of combat medics during the war and has interviews with vets who served as medics themselves. This is a fascinating aspect of the war that has often been overlooked and this brief featurette here is just way too short to really explore it. "Vietnam War Timeline" is an interactive timeline of the history of Vietnam. When certain dates are clicked, facts about a notable event in the country's history are explained in detailed paragraphs. It's useful for viewers who may not know as much about the war and is a welcome addition.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's no question that Hamburger Hill works best in the details. Early in the film, when two FNGs get into a pointless squabble, a third tries to break them up by saying plaintively, "Hey guys, we're the Airborne. We don't start fights, we end them!" In another context, that line might seem corny, but here it's a subtle piece of characterization. Only a kid fresh off the boat, who's never actually seen a day of combat in his life, would dare say something so childishly naïve. The film is full of details like that, ones that work precisely because Irvin chooses not to linger on them. One soldier receives a message from his sweetheart back home telling him that he needs to smile more in his pictures. As the camera tracks around the aftermath of a battle scene, we briefly glimpse a little girl weeping over someone's body. One soldier is so focused on doing his duty in the middle of combat that it takes him a long while to notice that he has a massive critical injury.
The most resonant details appear early in the film, in scenes where the FNGs are lectured on the proper procedures to write home and brush their teeth. At first glance, these scenes are almost comical in their depictions of the Army's fastidiousness and insistence on routine. By the end of the film, they carry a much more darkly ironic meaning. It becomes obvious that the rigid insistence on regulations isn't just necessary to ensure that orders will be followed. It's also necessary for morale, for soldiers to find some form of order amidst the chaos of battle. In moments like that, it's possible to see what Hamburger Hill was trying for. It's unfortunate that the whole film isn't as powerful.
It's no accident that many Vietnam vets cite Hamburger Hill as one of their favorite films about the war. Carabatsos and Irvin have taken great care in reconstructing what the war was like down to the finest detail. But viewers who weren't there will not get as much out of it. The film's appeal is too insular, too narrowly constructed. The best war films take us inside the action, and make us feel as if we're experiencing combat alongside the soldiers. This film feels too distant for that. Hamburger Hill is an ambitious and well-crafted movie, but in the end, it's nothing more than that.
Hamburger Hill: 20th Anniversary Edition is found guilty of emphasizing technical accuracy at the expense of dramatic engagement. Lionsgate, on the other hand, is acquitted for assembling a well-produced DVD that will satisfy fans of the film.
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