War movies have been around since the days of silent cinema. There is something about this brutally intense human experience that, despite its horrific nature, always produces intriguing stories that can be massively impactful when told in an effective fashion. Some of the greatest films to speak of along this line of thinking include Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War story, Apocalypse Now (1979) and Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan (1998). Still, just as there have been countless wars throughout human history, so, too, have there been a bottomless well of stories from which to draw influence in this genre. From director Kriv Stenders and screenwriter Stuart Beattie, the new Australian film, Danger Close, sets out to depict the remarkable, yet relatively unknown, true story of 1966’s Battle of Long Tan. A small company of 108 Australian soldiers in Vietnam, half of whom are conscripts, are faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, as they are forced to stand up against a charging battalion of 2,500 Viet Cong soldiers. What results is an astounding testament to the power of sacrifice, brotherhood, and dedicated cooperation.
Led by Major Harry Smith (Travis Fimmel), the young group of Australian soldiers known as Delta Company are divided into three platoons as the Viet Cong attack their location. Traversing their way across the harsh terrain of a rubber plantation, the three groups encounter ambush attacks around every corner and unreliable means of communication on the battlefield. Essentially outnumbered 25-1, Delta Company has nothing to support them but grit and wits. This film provides an especially compelling glimpse into the inner logistical workings and various intricacies required for an operation of this nature. There are so many volatile elements to consider at any given time in the heat of a battle, and the precarious situation of Delta Company multiplies these uncertainties exponentially. The stressful indecisiveness the characters feel is palpable, and the ever-growing tension is ticked up a notch with each passing moment.
The relationships among the brothers in arms are a fascinating lens through which to inspect the psychological toll of war. Throughout Delta Company, there are a wide variety of personalities and identifiable human characteristics, which often lead to conflict within their own ranks. At the core of their humanity, they all have the same objective and envision the same ultimate goal, yet, the road along this route is wrought with pitfalls and potential disaster. Each individual responds to crisis in a very unique way and Danger Close illustrates this reality. The performances from cast members Travis Fimmel, Luke Bracey, Daniel Webber, Alexander England, Aaron Glenane, Nicholas Hamilton, Myles Pollard, and Matt Doran, among others, paint this portrait with layered and nuanced brush strokes. They blend into their roles with convincing efforts, demonstrating the expansive range of emotion and expression one would assume to witness with characters in these predicaments. From fear and anxiety, to pain and suffering, to relief and alleviation, each actor zealously taps into his role.
However, the argument can be made that Danger Close struggles to walk the fine line between style and substance. The first 20 minutes come across as slightly slow moving and unclear in narrative direction, before erupting into a breakneck pace for the remainder of the runtime as the battle commences. There is little to no breathing room in either of the final two acts of the film. Of course, this is intentional to a certain extent; there is definitely no room to relax during an actual conflict of this magnitude. The brief moments of oxygen that are provided are still extremely intense in regard to their emotional weight, yet, it feels as if the screenplay and editing cannot quite get a solid grip on the balance of explosive action set pieces, and quieter, subtler character moments. It is not for lack of trying. The audience gains a personal perspective into each focused character’s psyche on one level or another, but the inconsistent pacing and rather sudden narrative shifts here are noticeable. Although, ultimately, this is a fairly forgivable offense when taking a step back and considering the astounding technical mastery presented by the comprehensive theatrical project.
The production value of the entire feature is utterly spectacular. Looking first to the cinematography, DP Ben Nott churns out an authoritative effort that presents itself with splendid brilliance in every frame, stitched together by the guiding hand of editor Veronika Jenet. The smooth tracking shots are engaging, the wide-angle landscape views are awe-inspiring, the camera movements, angle shifts, and first-person POV shots in the heart of the fierce combat are all riveting. The dramatic slow-motion is used to great effect, without straying into the realm of artificial melodrama. The lighting balance and color grading of the Vietnam jungle are exceptional, with a dark green and beige palette that feels true to the setting. The visual effects (Scott Zero), a crisp combination of practical and digital components, are exquisitely handled in the frenetic battle sequences, with innumerable explosions and the characterization of their grisly aftermath. As far as the production design (Sam Hobbs) and costume design (Lizzy Gardiner), it is difficult to imagine a more detailed and accurate recreation of this historical period and circumstance. With some help from the Australian Army, the filmmakers were able to obtain armored personnel carriers (APCs) and machine guns from the actual Battle of Long Tan, to be used in production. Additionally, there are marvelous reconstitutions of military base camps that look to be straight out of 1966 Vietnam. But, what definitively seals the deal on this film’s immaculate mechanics are the sound design (Liam Egan) and musical score (Caitlin Yeo). The terrifying sound of bullets whistling through the trees and dirt, the bombastic eruptions of mortar fire, the still silence in brief moments of rest, each aspect of the film’s audible language is breathtaking. Yeo’s score, which possesses some similarities to Hans Zimmer’s suspense-filled, ticking-clock compositions in Christopher Nolan’s World War II film, Dunkirk (2017), adds yet another facet to this tour de force of acoustics. If there is one thing to be taken away from this film based on its technical excellence alone, it is that Kriv Stenders put his heart and soul into his directorial efforts.
Even with a few imbalances in the overarching narrative, Danger Close is still a very well-crafted war film that deserves to be watched. It is a passionate tribute to a small band of courageous soldiers who laid everything down on the line, even as they were backed into a seemingly inescapable corner. The sacrifices of these brave men should be honored and respected with great reverence. At its core, this feature does just that.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital November 8th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.