Tuesday, May 10, 2011
An Outstanding War Movie Like No Other
Terrence Malick's 20-year break from filmmaking was vindicated by the adaptation of the James Jones novel in 1998’s Academy nominated war film - The Thin Red Line. Featuring a gifted assembly of fine fresh faces (then) and a handful of starring cameos, this critically acclaimed, cinematic version of the Guadalcanal invasion during World War II embodies the belief of remarkable human experience, among a vacillating military cadre. Malick's painstaking production allows Jones' complex vision of concurrent personal sagas to come to life while a brutal war rages somewhere in the gorgeous Pacific background.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead) A fight of morals emerges between cynic-in-training, Sgt. Welch (Sean Penn), and the routinely AWOL Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), which draws a thin red line of wartime accountability down the middle of Charlie Company. Private Witt and Captain ‘Bugger’ Staros (Elias Koteas) imagine a world of order and alternatives that do not exist in battle. However, commanding officers, Lt. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte), Sgt. Keck (Woody Harrelson) and Sgt. Welch have adopted a different code for survival on the pacific island. Tall is able to quantify the loss of life as it relates to the value of his mission, while Staros refuses to condemn his men to a bleak fate. A past between Welch and Witt is hinted at, but never fully revealed, while Chaplin's character must fight his own insecurities after receiving a ‘Dear John’ letter from his wife.
The personal joys and sorrows of each character are defined as a set of independent variables associated only by their shared time and place. Early casualties in Keck and others diminish an eager gung-ho attitude that Tall had hoped to cultivate in his troops. Staros is, eventually, relieved of duty by Tall, yet recommended for numerous decorations. Malick paints a picture of understanding that filters down past the surface of war and soaks to the root of what drives man to conflict. An abstruse finale suggests a personal victory for Private Witt, whose death at the hands of a Japanese platoon appears to gesture their proximity to his own company. As fresh American troops replace the survivors of the initial offense, Watt's actions equate to the valor he could never achieve through desertion.
Stunning action photography captures the grim consequences of warfare up close, while fiery explosions barely three feet from the camera fling hapless victims into full-screen airborne contortions. However, the superbly executed war scenes are used sparingly, complimenting the spotlight Malick has placed on the larger thematic goal. Characters are filmed in close up or framed to ensure visual attention during the limited number of dialogue sequences, a style that (combined with the award winning background score by Hans Zimmer & John Powell) beautifully emphasizes the utter loneliness of their existence.
Malick also incorporates an undercurrent of natural imagery to contrast the presence of these military ‘outsiders’. Snakes strike at soldiers as they plod across the battlefield, native islanders continue to sing and a newly hatched bird struggles to take its first steps, only to be welcomed by the crackle of gunfire on the adjacent hillside. Unlike other war movies, Malick employs a surplus of emphatic allegories to focus on the futility of war, and he succeeds. A great film.
Watch out for John Cusack, Nick Stahl, Jared Leto, Adrien Brody, George Clooney, Ben Chaplin, John Travolta and many others in this star studded ensemble and check out the earlier 1964 version as well.