REVIEW – ‘Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan’ is let down by tired clichés and generic war movie tropes

Despite the fact Australian troops have played a role in every major conflict of the 20th century, war movies are hardly synonymous with our local film industry. You could almost count every Australian war film with just two hands. While American cinema has exhaustively covered their disastrous Vietnam War, the tales of the 60,000 Australian troops who served in the combat have barely been touched.

In the annals of Australia’s military history, 1966’s Battle of Long Tan is a moment that’s given little coverage, spurned by the shameful fact it took the Australian government 45 years to even acknowledge the chaotic skirmish actually occurred. As such, a film like Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan offers a wonderful opportunity to capture the plight of 108 Australian troops who came under attack of a North Vietnamese battalion numbered in the hundreds.

In the leadup to the fateful titular battle, we begin the film at Nui Dat, the base camp operation of the 1st Australian Task Force, overseen by Brigadier David Jackson (an underused Richard Roxburgh). Growing exhausted by the immature actions of his troop of inexperienced men (most barely out of their teens), Major Harry Smith (Travis Fimmel) begs Jackson for a transfer anywhere else in Vietnam.

But after being bombed by an unseen Vietcong force, Jackson rejects his request and promptly sends Smith and his platoon to hunt through the Phước Tuy Province rubber plantation for those responsible. After stumbling upon the deserted village of Long Tan, the company attempt to flush out the enemy by separating separate into two roving groups; one commanded by Smith, the other by Sergeant Buick (Luke Bracey).

Without warning, Buick’s platoon soon finds themselves under heavy attack from a relentless wave of Vietcong soldiers. With a broken radio and ammunition running out, Buick and his troops are sitting ducks, with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. Despite his desperate pleas to Jackson to send in reinforcements, it’s left to Smith to somehow coordinate an attack to save his beleaguered men before they’re all slaughtered.

While the film’s brutal and unflinching battle scenes are superbly crafted with an intensity that’s truly unsettling, the thinly-drawn characters leave little impact in a piece of cinema let down by its overreliance on tired clichés and generic war movie tropes we’ve seen dozens of times before. Impressive production values and meticulous war zone recreations just aren’t enough to craft a full rounded end result.

That being said, those production values are on par with anything American war cinema has offered up, which is even more admirable, given the film has a modest budget of $35 million. With Queensland standing in for the battlefield of Vietnam, the level of authenticity and accuracy of Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan is wildly impressive. Without too heavy a reliance on digital effects wizardry, the production is a masterful display of physical effects, particularly its earth-shattering mortar drops which genuinely rattle the entire cinema.

Taking his audience right into the heart of the terrifying horrors of war, director Kriv Stenders crafts the sequences with an intimacy that creates an almost voyeuristic quality to the action. Complemented by the evocative cinematography of Ben Nott and the frantic and chaotic editing of Veronika Jenet, the film barely allows its audience to catch its breath before unleashing another wave of intense terrors that perfectly capture the turmoil these soldiers endured.

But it’s difficult to empathise with their plight when there’s barely any consideration given to flesh out these men into actual characters you care about. The screenplay from Stuart Beattie is far too concerned with the history of the event than those who found themselves stuck in the middle of it all. There’s little introspection into what made these soldiers tick, particularly Smith who is nothing more than a shallow soldier archetype seen in every war movie since the beginning of cinema. It doesn’t help Fimmel just doesn’t have the acting chops to elevate the character further than the page.

The only character to be blessed with a semblance of depth is young private Paul Large (an impressive Daniel Webber), who begins the film as an overly-confident soldier without an inkling of what combat is truly like. Large is one of the few soldiers to be given a backstory, offering Webber the chance to portray a dimensional character to elicit plenty of empathy from an audience. If only such care was given to his fellow cast members, the film may have landed more emotional impact.

For all its patriotic pomp and circumstance, Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan fails to acknowledge the inescapably obvious fact the Australian troops were ultimately the aggressors in the Vietnam War, blindly following the lead of American troops into doomed combat. Unlike other films centred around the disastrous and shameful conflict, there’s no concern shown to the unnecessary reasoning behind Australians and Vietnamese soldiers attempting to slaughter each other.

Perhaps some may find it refreshing to find a war film ignore the politics and just focus on the battle. But with this war in particular, it’s irresponsibly tone-deaf to refuse to even mildly acknowledge the dirty backstory as to why these men are even here. That’s not to take anything away from the immense bravery of these trapped soldiers and the senselessness of the 18 Australians who lost their lives in this battle. But, in its misguided final frames, the film almost wants its audience to be proud 245 Vietnamese men were killed by a troop of only 108 Australians.

But Stenders clearly wants his film to exist as a purely Australian perspective of the historically-forgotten conflict, no matter how one-sided that may make the final product. If nothing else, Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan stands as a tribute to the men who survived a seemingly unsurvivable battle. History has barely acknowledged the events of 18 August 1966. At least cinema can bring some light to it.

Distributor: Transmission
Cast: Travis Fimmel, Luke Bracey, Richard Roxburgh, Anthony Hayes, Alexander England, Daniel Webber, Aaron Glenane, Nicholas Hamilton, Myles Pollard, Matt Doran, Stephen Peacocke, Uli Latukefu, Aaron L. McGrath, Mojean Aria, Emmy Dougall
Director: Kriv Stenders
Producers: Martin Walsh, John Schwarz, Michael Schwarz
Screenplay: Stuart Beattie
Cinematography: Ben Nott
Music: Caitlin Yeo
Production Design: Sam Hobbs
Editing: Veronika Jenet
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: 8th August 2019 (Australia)