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'The War' (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 04, 1994

Kevin Costner dips into Mama Gump's chocolate box in "The War," a Mississippi-set drama sticky with heartfelt homilies and thin on grit. Costner, as a Vietnam veteran emotionally and physically scarred by the war, comes home to find an indifferent nation, his house destroyed by termites and his wife (Mare Winningham) redeeming Coca-Cola bottles. But he'll be dang diddly dang diddly dang ding dong if he lets it get him down.

He may live on the wrong side of the tracks, he may not even be able to keep a job as a janitor, but goll darnit, he's got a saying to silver ever' cloud. And if he's got nothing else to hand on to his son, Stu (Elijah Wood), he's got insights acquired in the foxhole and later the mental hospital, where he failed to recover from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

In recalling the horrors of war one night on the porch swing, he confides his beliefs to the boy: "I think the only thing that truly keeps people safe and happy is love. And in the absence of love, there's nothing in this world worth fightin' fer." Stu and his twin sister, Lidia (Lexi Randall), however, are involved in an ongoing ruckus with the Lipnickis, a brood of inbred bullies who live in a nearby junkyard.

Lidia, Stu and their cronies have pilfered some of the best junk and built an elaborate fort in the cradling arms of an 800-year-old live oak tree. The battle between the two groups escalates to such a preposterous degree that it is meant to serve as a metaphor for the Vietnam War, to which their father flashes back in his dreams. Lidia, the story's narrator, underlines the lesson: "My daddy said, 'Instead of fighting, we were meant for better things, you and I. No matter how much people understand war, war don't understand people.'"

In addition to war, Kathy McWorter's first screenplay delves with equal zealousness and insipidity into the subjects of racism, poverty, guardian angels, patriotism, heroism, grief, denial . . . whatever. "The War" has enough plot for six movies and more good intentions than Dixie's got cups. There's just no tying them all up, as director Jon Avnet finds.

"The War" is not altogether without its Southern comfort, especially when it comes to the genuine-seeming scenes between Costner and Wood, who is growing from child star to actor with impressive ease. And Yankee though he may be, Avnet has a native's feel for the mossy pace of Southern living. But the poor thing just can't seem to see the forest for the Gump.

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