If a comparison was to be made, 2019’s Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan feels very much like the antipodean version of We Were Soldiers. It’s another story of a handful of soldiers pinned down, separated from their fellows and facing a much larger enemy force. A tale of bravery in the face of certain death. Does it stand up alongside its US counterparts? Let’s take a look.
It’s 1966, the Vietnam war has been going on in various forms for almost eleven years and by this point soldiers from Australia and New Zealand have been deployed to reinforce and support the US ground war. The Australians have a small base in Nui Dat that comes under mortar fire. They respond with artillery and send out troops to confirm that the enemy has been neutralised. The next day Delta company goes out to relieve those soldiers. Delta is mostly made up of citizen soldiers, most of them barely 21 years old, with no real combat experience, headed by Major Harry Smith (Tarvis Fimmel – Warcraft, Vikings), a man who feels his talents are being wasted babysitting “children” as he puts it.
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The soldiers of 11 Platoon encounter a small group of Vietnamese troops and begin to track them down, pushing further away from their comrades, only to walk into a massive enemy force that pins them down in place. In danger of being overrun they call down artillery on their position, hence the title of Danger Close. The rest of Delta company find themselves engaged by the opposing troops and what had initially been a skirmish turns into an all out battle for survival, with the regimental artillery the only barrier they have against what seems to be an endless wave of enemies.
First things first. If you are looking for a dissection of the ethics of the Vietnam war and whether or not these people should have even been there – this is not the movie for you. There are plenty of other films to go and watch if you want a debate on the morality of that particular war. This is a film entirely focused on this battle and the people involved in it. Well… mostly on the people involved in it. Other than Major Harry, the Brigadier and the Colonel back at base, nobody gets a whole lot of characterisation. But does that really matter? Most of the other characters are pretty much there just to be killed.
What this movie does well is tension. Tension and atmosphere, helped along by a really rather stonking soundtrack from Caitlin Yeo (The Butterfly Tree, Getting Frank Gehry) that runs the gamut from eerie to bombastic and back again. Opening track ‘The Battle of Long Tan’ is also the first soundtrack I’ve heard in a while to use a pipe organ. I think the last one I can remember where an organ was featured prominently was back in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
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Director Kriv Stenders (Red Dog, Australia Day) does a masterful job of pulling you into the moment, the action scenes well shot and directed, with it always clear where everyone is and what’s going on, even as the rain and the shells pour down. It does seem, though, as if someone on this production had a real thing for artillery. While yes, it is in the title, there are more than a few loving, lingering slow-mo shots of shells flying through the air and smoke exploding from barrels. Sigmund Freud would have a field day with all those MIGHTY WEAPONS and their long, thick, powerful shafts. Ahem. Moving on.
Danger Close is an interesting look at the other nations involved in the Vietnam war, a reminder that it wasn’t solely a US conflict, though after seeing so many WW2 films involving Australians, there’s a certain mental whiplash when they leave their sandbag-laden camp to jump into helicopters while surf rock plays. While the characterisation is far from its strongest point, there’s obvious heart, soul and effort been put in here, a determination to showcase a chapter of military history that’s been overlooked and make sure the boys who died there aren’t forgotten. And in that, it succeeds.