A platoon of Airborne soldiers fight to take Hill 937 from the North Vietnamese Army.
Directed by John Irvin
Starring Dylan McDermott, Courtney B. Vance, and Steven Weber
Review by Jon Kissel
As far as director John Irvin, however, none of that latitude can be given. It’s one thing to attempt to convey the chaos of a battlefield. It’s another to leave the viewer completely unsure if bad edits and confusing shots and choppy cinematic language are purposeful or a sign of incompetence. Something feels off about Hamburger Hill, and that something exceeds my vocabulary. Maybe it’s the blocking or the assemblage of shots, but little of the film makes geographic or strategic sense. Irvin doesn’t relay objectives outside of ‘climb the hill,’ and he doesn’t break up any intermediate steps. This is an entire film of the same artless sequence over and over again. A handful of characters, representing the 1800 soldiers who fought for the US, charge up, some are killed or wounded, there’s a brief all-is-lost moment, someone rallies the remaining troops, they charge up again, cut to them resting on some nondescript patch of jungle. Did the rally succeed? Are they resting back at the base of the hill? It’s all unclear. A charitable read would make this the specific point of the movie, where the US is pushing a boulder up a hill for no discernible purpose, but there’s little in Hamburger Hill to suggest anything deeper than what’s being stated and what’s being shown.
What’s being shown is often gore for gore’s sake. The film opens with the elegant Vietnam Memorial, packed with the names of the dead, and then Irvin cuts to some of those names dying, with one in particular having his guts blown open and landing right in front of the camera. Something about the removed nature of the Memorial being insufficient to seeing blood splatter on the lens, like Irvin is already holding a grudge against the viewer. Ostentatious effects continue to crop up, with a comically-bad head explosion being the most memorable. If you want to make a weighty war movie, don’t pack a fake head with visible fiberglass.
The actors tasked with making all this gel are generally not up to it. Dylan McDermott and Steven Weber as sergeants both get big monologues that they do reasonably well with, but both are types that other actors have done better with. Courtney B. Vance is chewing up the scenery in a tone of voice more appropriate for a play. He was initially compelling but became a joke by the end. None of the other soldiers make an impression or are able to distinguish themselves. Thirty-one soldiers died on Hamburger Hill, but the film makes it look like five times that number based on all but three in this one platoon dying or being perhaps mortally wounded. By killing almost everyone, Irvin doesn’t allow any of the deaths to resonate.
What I find most distasteful and gross about Hamburger Hill aren’t the intestines or the disembodied limbs, but the furtherance of the idea of the spit-upon veteran. Hamburger Hill distills the world down to just the soldiers in this platoon, and everyone else, be it journalists or those back home or their officers, is against them. I can get onboard the officers treating them like bodies to be spent. The real Hamburger Hill was abandoned shortly after taking it, and the battle was fought with the base strategic purpose of it being as good a place as any to kill Vietnamese soldiers. It’s uselessness also generated a change in strategy, not that any of that’s in the film. What I can’t get behind and find repulsive is the comical elevation of journalists and college protestors into crazed and cowardly villains, despite the fact that if the college kids are successful in their protests, these soldiers don’t have to waste their lives on this useless war anymore. A lot of research has been done on the presumption that Vietnam vets were treated so terribly by the populace at large, and it doesn’t turn up much. In Hamburger Hill’s telling, reluctant girlfriends are being talked into dumping their fighting boyfriends, war journalists are actively confrontational with foot soldiers, and prank callers taunt Gold Star families about it being a good thing their son was killed. This is poisonous, and makes villains out of those who would prefer not to be made tools of their government instead of the government itself. The sad thing is that boomers lived through this betrayal of their own memories and then reenacted the same thing during the post-9/11 era. Hamburger Hill’s desire to deify the troops at the expense of everyone else is a form of militarism that indulges in sunk-cost fallacies which only prolong wars and cause more death. Can’t let them have died for nothing, so we’ll just keep fighting. I feel like giving Hamburger Hill a good grade requires the maximal amount of charity, and I don’t have any to give. D