Infernally contemplative and self-absorbed, it's only briefly a war movie in any conventional sense. It is far more a philosophical inquiry into the nature of . . . well, everything. And the nature of everything turns out to be opaque and poetic, rich in questions and impoverished in answers. Where does this evil come from, a man wonders. Why is love so perishable, another asks the sky. Would a giant find you if you hid, asks still a third (a joke, but just barely).
The movie loves birds and flowers and beauty and lean young men who look too much alike and too much like Montgomery Clift. Most of these young men are either taken up in the business of killing or the business of posing dramatically against an empurpled sunset while muttering precious little insights that come closer to Jack Handey's "Deep Thoughts" than to Rimbaud. Malick, a famous maverick in film culture who with this movie ends a self-imposed 20-year exile ("Days of Heaven," 1978, was his last, following on his only other film, "Badlands," 1973), never met a story he could tell, an idea he could resist or a sunset he could ignore.
The result is a big, fat, gorgeous, mesmerizing mess, in a variety of tones and colors with a variety of obscure goals and moments of high kitsch. It plays like a brain-damaged combination of Eugene O'Neill's wacky "Desire Under the Elms" and Phil Karlson's gritty Okinawa war story "Hell to Eternity." Then there's a weird strain that could only be called "The Longest Day: Part 2."
Derived (just barely) from James Jones's great but crude portrait of an infantry company in combat on Guadalcanal, the film isn't quite brave enough to depart from the platoon-as-microcosm structure that undergirds so many war pictures, while at the same time its penetration of deeper issues seems jejune. A lot of it is just artsy photography; it's like looking at postcards with an eyeful of Murine.
As I say, frequently the overall inspiration of the film seems not at all to be Jones but rather O'Neill's unproducible "Desire Under the Elms," where the action stopped onstage while the characters delivered long monologues describing their inner thoughts. This happens in "The Thin Red Line" all the time, but not nearly as intelligently.
It's extremely difficult to tell the monologuists apart because they all speak the same generic, prettified ersatz poetry in the same generic, prettified ersatz Southern accent. Did it not occur to the great auteur Malick to give them different voices and different perspectives, and by that way to track the changes in (fewer) characters over the ordeal of the campaign? But worse, the film simply dies during these moody, passive passages, turning into nothing more than guns and poses and bad poetry.
There's a small, good movie lost in the middle of all this; it runs about an hour and it's certainly worth seeing. This involves C-for-Charlie's adventures taking a grassy knoll called Hill 210 at the top of which is not a lone gunman, but hundreds of them, in the khaki of the Japanese army. Cleverly Malick does not show us the enemy for the longest time: instead, they are represented merely by their effects streaks of tracer spurting off the ridge line, the random squall of mortar rounds incoming, the relentless body-piercings of the machine guns.
The episode offers "The Thin Red Line" what little narrative spine it has, and it allows a few members of a too-huge cast to define themselves through action, not passive soliloquy. Most important, it constructs a story to illustrate the essential dilemma of warfare in any age, which is the calculus by which commanders figure the worth of an objective vs. the lives of their men.
The battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel named Tall (played with apoplectic intensity by Nick Nolte, spewing spit with each utterance), wants to move inland, but between him and his goal there lurks the lovely Hill 210. Alas, because of flanking cliffs and impenetrable jungle, it can only be assaulted frontally. It falls to Capt. Staros's Charlie Company to make that attack. Staros (Elias Koteas) has bonded so tightly with his men that he cannot bear to send them into machine gun fire. To make it more interesting, Tall is a martinet, a blowhard and, damn his soul, right; Staros is a sweetheart, a truly wonderful human being and, bless his heart, wrong. The men, feeling this disunity in goal, perform poorly and are chopped up in the high grass.
The next day, Tall sends his protege, Capt. Goff (John Cusack), to lead a smaller, less wasteful attack. Using stealth, more automatic weapons and sheer grit, they get up close and get the job done in a withering blast of firepower and grenades. The key question was it worth it? goes unanswered, as it always must. Then Tall replaces Staros, who seems relieved, and we're left to wonder if he did so out of compassion or ruthlessness. It's a brilliant chunk of narrative filmmaking in the middle of an ocean of self-indulgence. It's also a salute to Jones, who among all American novelists of his generation, seemed to understand the dynamics of the Army best of all.
But at that point, the movie is over. Unfortunately nobody told the director: It runs another hour and a half.
Stealing a technique from the highest kitsch item of World War II, Darryl Zanuck's stupefying "The Longest Day," this film inserts celebs in ridiculous cameos. One hopes there's a longer director's cut somewhere that would justify the famous faces, but in this iteration, some of the appearances just seem pointless. John Travolta, in a Smilin' Jack moustache and a hat that's too small, seems preposterous as a general in his one scene. Cusack barely registers. Why is John C. Reilly in this movie if he has only one line of dialogue? Adrien Brody, ballyhooed in national magazines, has even less. They ain't doughboys, they're duh-boys. Then Woody Harrelson and George Clooney appear in meaninglessly brief vignettes, one as a sergeant who literally pulls the grenade and throws the pin (ouch!), the other who drops by to give a Zig Ziglar motivational talk at the end. Travolta, at least, has the good sense to disappear early.
The main character is really the company itself, but two or three actors manage to connect. Jim Caviezel plays a GI named Witt, a stubborn, mule-proud Kentuckian who will make many recall the character Prewitt in Jones's earlier novel "From Here to Eternity"; Malick himself seems to get this, for Caviezel greatly resembles Montgomery Clift, who played Prewitt in the movie. Ben Chaplin does a nice turn on the love-struck GI whose "Dear John" letter is just waiting to happen. Sean Penn plays the company's first sergeant it's a continuation of Burt Lancaster's first sergeant in "From Here to Eternity" but it's curiously muted and undynamic. But far too many of the actors simply merge into a geek chorus, buried under tin pots and two-day beards.
It's pointless to compare or contrast "The Thin Red Line" with Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," because their intentions are so vastly different. With "Ryan," a kind of generational tribute, Spielberg's ambition was to commemorate the men who won the war. Malick's seems to be to photograph as many parrots as possible. Polly want a movie?
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