FF101 - Hamburger Hill

Intro by Adam Pranica

Hill 937: A steep, well fortified pin on a map. The People’s Army of Vietnam had it and the U.S. Army wanted it. That is all a soldier on the ground needs to know. That is all we know, as we follow our one platoon through this one operation. Along the way we get to know the sergeant and the squad leader, played by Steven Weber and Dylan McDermott respectively, but we get to know them fairly little compared to the rest of the platoon. There is Doc, the medic, played by Courtney B Vance, there is Bienstock and Beletsky and Motown, there is Languilli, too, and you better see his name right!

Daniel has less than a month left on his tour. Each person gets a scene to better understand them and their motivations. There is a feeling of dread that pervades this film, though. It is a haunted house kind of dread, the kind of dread you feel when you spend an amount of time with characters you grow to like who you are sure are going to meet a terrible end in movies like this. It is not going to go well on Hill 937. The futility of the repetition cements that. Attempt after attempt is made, there is napalm and rain, there is friendly fire, it is exhausting and terrifying. It is the 10th assault in the rain that takes Doc, the conscience of the film, off the board. Finally, the 11th and final assault is mounted, overrunning the enemy positions, and allowing Beletsky, Washburn and Frantz to reach the summit, but there is no joy in this victory, only fatigue and grief.

I suppose what makes Hamburger Hill different from many other Vietnam War films is a sense of hopelessness that pervades the thing. There is wry humor and Full Metal Jacket at least and you could say Apocalypse Now is about just one or two people’s psychological traumas. Platoon has Charlie Sheen. And as bad as things look we don’t lose all hope in those films, wouldn’t you say? But after wave after wave of assaults upon the hill, as our soldiers are resisted, repelled, and reduced, it dawns on us: This really needs to matter! This better mean something in the end!

The U.S. army abandoned the Hill soon after taking it and there it is: The film’s micro-telling of the macro-story. The heroism and futility during the siege of Hill 937 is the Vietnam War in a nutshell and maybe that is what is missing here, too: By sacrificing drama for the sake of realism we are left feeling as empty and exhausted as those at the top of the hill at the end of the film. Because that is what is at the core of the thing. You get the sense that Hamburger Hill is really trying to say something with the hopelessness. Its message could simply be a reminder, a warning and a question: ”What does it all mean?” We went up that hill 10 times and they still don’t think we are serious. On today’s Friendly Fire: Hamburger Hill.

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