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‘A Midnight Clear’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 01, 1992


Keith Gordon
Ethan Hawke;
Kevin Dillon;
Peter Berg;
Arye Gross;
Frank Whaley;
Gary Sinise;
John C. McGinley
Under 17 restricted

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With the cubbish sentiments of a boy's comic strip, and enough requiem music for three state funerals, "A Midnight Clear" tells a wartime yarn that's quietly, often lyrically, winning.

That's World War II, by the way, not Vietnam. One refreshing aspect of this GI movie (featuring Ethan Hawke, Arye Gross, Kevin Dillon and others) is its lack of psychological trauma. Certainly characters are emotionally conflicted. At the beginning of the movie, a trigger-happy character nicknamed "Mother" (Gary Sinise) screams, tears off his clothes and runs naked through the snow, finally jumping into a river.

But his panic attack, a combination of battle anxiety and personal grieving, is only lightly delved into. Adapted from William Wharton's postwar novel, the movie's set in the time before psychological analysis -- when going to war was a simple, inarguable duty.

Although anti-warfare is definitely on director Keith Gordon's mind, he concentrates on the mythic aspects of the story. On the Franco-German border, toward the end of World War II, a six-man U.S. intelligence and reconnaissance squad has been posted to an uninhabited house in the Ardennes forest. The soldiers (mostly in their late teens) have been ordered by maniacal major John McGinley to identify enemy activity in the snowbound area.

They find it, in eerie installments. First there's disembodied laughter and German mutterings at night. Then GIs Hawke, Gross continued on Page 50 from Page 48 and Peter Berg are cornered by German soldiers -- who promptly let them go. Gross (whose Yiddish allows him to understand German) concludes these mysterious soldiers are trying to tell them something.

In a good sense, "Midnight" feels like a sentimental baseball movie. This is "Field of Dreams" gone to war, its players headed for different dugouts. Yet it also feels contemporary, with the youthful '90s presence of Hawke, Gross et al. There's also a non-sentimental conclusion that speaks directly to the folly of war.

There are those who will dismiss the movie as mythic, boy-bonding bunk. There are times, indeed, when Gordon over-hallows that youth-lost theme. But the movie itself is boyish -- and that's part of the appeal. There are also war-movie cliches everywhere, but Gordon reprises the genre with such disarming innocence, those cliches feel pleasurable.

At one point, Dillon and Gross (stuck in that isolated house) dance with each other, remembering a song from a USO ball they went to. As they perform, Gordon makes the soundtrack take over with the real song ("The Jersey Bounce"). It's a nice, amiable touch. So is the otherwise-hackneyed flashback scene in which four of the boys, still virgins, search -- as central narrator Hawke describes it -- for a "a nice, complacent whore who could put us out of our misery."

The most delightful scene comes when two Americans, on sentry duty, start hearing more of those German voices. One GI nervously lobs a grenade over. His murderous gesture is returned with a snowball. "We're having a snowball fight!" screams a panicked Hawke into the field radio, as if reporting a massacre. This scene, like many others in the movie, leaves you with the sense that these are just kids -- stuck in the middle of a grown-up situation they should never have found themselves in.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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