Picks and Pans Review: Hamburger Hill

UPDATED 09/14/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/14/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT

To see this movie is to understand how the men who fought the real battle of Hamburger Hill in Vietnam must have felt: The experience is a struggle from start to finish, alternately tedious and painful, and at the end you have nothing left to show for it. (Fought over a 10-day period in May 1969, the actual battle ended with the U.S. 101st Airborne Division taking Hill 937 in the A Shau Valley; 630 North Vietnamese soldiers and 56 Americans died in the fighting. The 101st abandoned the tactically unimportant hill a week later.) In one effective sequence mounted by director John (Raw Deal) Irvin, the Americans slog their way up the hill in torrential rain and come to a halt in a quagmire that will, to some people, seem a fitting metaphor for the war in general. But for a film that depends on its sense of reality, this movie breaks down too often. In another scene, a helicopter door gunner is supposed to fire accidentally on American troops. But the scene is shot from the gunner's perspective, and it's clear that the soldiers—all out in the open and obviously in U.S. uniforms—are Americans. Then there's the Gl shown listening to a tape from home on a portable cassette player: realistic enough, except that the sound quality is so perfect that his girlfriend's voice seems to be coming from behind a nearby tree, not from a small, tinny speaker. Producer-screenwriter Jim (Heartbreak Ridge) Carabatsos's dialogue has neither the dignity of spontaneous language nor the heightened reality of poetry. In one confrontation, a soldier tells a TV reporter (whose boorishness itself is artificial), "We're going to take this f——— hill, newsman." Newsman? These disconcerting details might be less noticeable if the young actors were not so erratic. Tim Quill, who brings to the screen some of the haunted look of Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, ages quickly and convincingly amid the confusion and blood. Most members of the squad on which the film focuses seem ill at ease, however. Dylan McDermott, as the squad leader, and Steven Weber, as his platoon sergeant, seem physically fresh and oddly lacking in substance even though they are cast as the most war-weary, potent men in the unit. Their lack of authority makes the film sag, just at the point where it needs an emotional force to hold it together, and prevents it from achieving the impact of tragedy. (R)

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