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‘A Midnight Clear’

By Hal Hinson
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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"A Midnight Clear" is a dogface saga of the sort that the great Sam Fuller might have directed -- a spare, personal, straight-from-the- trenches account of men at war. But the serene, nearly ecclesiastical tone that writer-director Keith Gordon has given the film would have been out of character for the gritty postwar auteur. And it's precisely this poised, sensitive approach that makes this World War II story uniquely enthralling. "A Midnight Clear" is a war film completely unlike any other, a compelling accomplishment that's more soul than blood and bullets.

Adapted by Gordon from William Wharton's novel, "A Midnight Clear" focuses on the family atmosphere within a depleted squadron assigned to acquire intelligence information about an expected Nazi offensive in the snowy French countryside. The six young soldiers, all of whom, we're told, have IQs higher than 150, are led by Will Knott (Ethan Hawke), a recently promoted sergeant known as "Won't Knott" who also serves as the film's narrator. But the command of the unit in the remote chateau where it's been posted is unusually democratic; consensus, not rank, rules. And so when they begin to receive some rather bizarre communications from a nearby unit of German soldiers, who instead of shooting bullets pelt their foes with snowballs and regale them with Christmas carols, they decide to talk first and shoot later.

The Germans, they discover, don't want to fight at all; fresh from the Russian front, they've had enough of war and want to surrender. With Shutzer (Arye Gross), the squad's one Jewish member, acting as interpreter, a mock skirmish is planned that will allow the Americans to capture their rivals while also making it appear that the Germans put up a fight so that their relatives back home won't be punished. It's an insane, and potentially dangerous, arrangement, but a deal is struck and the fake attack set up. If nothing goes wrong, they could look like heroes, and perhaps get their shellshocked colleague "Mother" (Gary Sinise) sent home with a medal.

Unfortunately, the plan blows up in everyone's faces, setting in motion a series of tragic repercussions as surprising to us as they are to the members of the squad. From beginning to end, Gordon creates a fragile sense of tension. This is the young actor-turned-director's third film (he also directed "Static" and "The Chocolate War"), but his work has never before shown this degree of assurance and skill. Nearly every encounter in the film is like a slender thread stretched to the breaking point, and, in every instance, he finds the emotional heart of a scene.

Aside from his confidence with the camera and his impeccable sense of pace, his real strength is his work with the actors. Though the cast -- which includes Frank Whaley, Peter Berg and Kevin Dillon -- is young, there is no sign of Brat Pack-style self-indulgence. Instead, the ensemble functions just as a group of combat-tested soldiers would; as if, in fact, their lives depend on an almost telepathic sense of unity. The personalities of the actors are distinct, but it's as an ensemble that they most distinguish themselves. And, as their leader, Gordon shows the kind of filmmaking talent that creates genuine excitement.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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