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War film offers glimpse into the real horrors of Long Tan

DANGER CLOSE: THE BATTLE OF LONG TAN  ★★★★

(MA) 118 minutes

War is hell, especially for filmmakers. The possibilities for drama are endless, but so are the problems, starting with the fact that most directors have never heard a shot fired.

That was not true for most of the 20th century, when many great directors had combat experience. Almost none do now. Even if a modern director has sufficient imagination and reading to guess what it might look and feel like, there are too many conventions tugging at the bootstraps, too little money to make it convincing, too many issues to wade through, including the idea that showing what war really looks like would have people throwing up in the aisles, rather than riveted in their seats.

Accurate research and a commitment to clarity lend authenticity to Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan.

Accurate research and a commitment to clarity lend authenticity to Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan.

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So movies tend to lie about war as they turn it into entertainment. They pull their punches, soften the horrors, resort to mawkish patriotism (if American) or mushy mateship with colourful lingo (if Australian).

Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan is prone to some of these problems, but it does one thing extraordinarily well: it puts you there, in that rubber plantation in Phuoc Tuy province in August 1966, with the rain pissing down and 1000 North Vietnamese regulars trying to overrun a force of 105 Australian soldiers (and three New Zealanders) from Delta Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. It does this with what appears to be accurate research and a commitment to clarity that is in itself unusual.

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Most war films can't cope with strategy and tactics. This one, with five writers credited, finds drama in them.

We have Richard Roxburgh, as Brigadier Oliver Jackson, worried about sending his armoured personnel carriers to rescue Delta Company because he fears it's a trap.  His Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat is lightly protected and Jackson had seen secret intelligence reports that large numbers of North Vietnamese were amassing nearby to attack the base – something the movie curiously omits.

We have Major Harry Smith (Travis Fimmel), commanding Delta Company, calling in artillery strikes on his own men, trying to save what's left of 11 platoon as the enemy bear down on them.

We have Sergeant Bob Buick (Luke Bracey) going out alone to silence a mobile machine gun as enemy charge in on three sides.

We have Australian and New Zealand gunners five kilometres back, trying desperately to pour enough shells into the plantation to stop Delta Company being overrun.

And we have two Australian chopper pilots, virtually disobeying orders, flying through a monsoon storm to resupply the Delta men as they get down to their last rounds.

These things happened. They are well documented, but telling these stories so that we can follow the details is rare. Director Kriv Stenders deserves strong praise for that. He has made the reality of the day accessible and gripping for a non-military audience.

Telling these stories so that we can follow the details is rare. Director Kriv Stenders has made the reality of the day accessible and gripping for a non-military audience.

Where the movie is less sturdy is in characterisation, particularly in the key relationship between Harry Smith – a task-master and former commando – and hot-headed farm boy Private Paul Large (Daniel Webber). In one scene, Large physically attacks Smith, wanting to fight. Smith then goes out of his way to make him his new best friend, in scenes that may well be true but do not convince.

Intense fighting in Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan.

Intense fighting in Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan.

In the first 10 minutes, when establishing characters is so important, the movie gives us the barest bones, so that we struggle later to remember who's who. Of the Vietnamese, we get nothing like characterisation: they are just numerous beyond belief, dying by the hundreds as the Delta boys fight grimly on, encircled and expecting to die. I thought perhaps these frontal attacks might be overstated so I checked accounts of the battle: they are accurate.

Stenders does not question why these men were there in the first place. Maybe he doesn't have to, although it would have been a service to younger viewers to provide some context on what the Vietnamese still call the American War. If it's not the most character-driven of Australian war movies, it's certainly one of the most intense. Those four hours in August 1966 were searing for all involved. Now finally, the rest of us are offered a glimpse of what happened at Long Tan that day, and the hideous human cost.

Paul Byrnes is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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