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'Red Line': Above and Beyond

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 1999

  Movie Critic

The Thin Red Line
Sean Penn, center, leads his men into battle in the WWII drama "The Thin Red Line."
(Fox 2000)

Terrence Malick
Adrien Brody;
Ben Chaplin;
James Caviezel;
Nick Nolte;
John Travolta;
Sean Penn;
George Clooney;
Woody Harrelson;
Bll Pullman;
John Cusack;
John C. Reilly;
Elias Koteas
Running Time:
2 hours, 46 minutes
Contains brief nudity, some profanity, intense combat scenes and lingering shots of bloody corpses
"The Thin Red Line" is the thinking person's "Saving Private Ryan."

Writ with a little less blood and a lot more poetry (both the visual and the literary variety), Terrence Malick's symphonic adaptation of James Jones's novel about the World War II battle of Guadalcanal harrows the psyche with its rake-like teeth even as its beauty intoxicates the eye. Some may rightfully complain that its plot leaves the very issues it raises (life, death, immortality, madness) unresolved, yet the disturbing ideas it plants in the soil of the soul need time and darkness – not light – to germinate.

It is an uncommon, emotionally detached and off-center film. Although there is no main character to root for or even a consistent point of view to cling to, the tale of the fatal randomness of nature plays its themes and counterpoints in a dense and unapologetically symbolic orchestration.

It opens on the introspective character aptly named Witt (Jim Caviezel), a handsome private AWOL from the Army on the Pacific island where he swims, fishes, chats and builds houses with the natives. The only evidence of military service is the dog tag that dangles from his neck. Over shots of idyllic island life, a slithering crocodile and other Melanesian wildlife, Witt muses, "What is this war at the heart of nature?" This is by way of introduction to the running, philosophical voice-over narration that he will share with the rest of the large ensemble cast. (Much of the story, in fact, is told in this manner and not through dialogue. How Malick manages to avoid pretension is by incorporating these declamatory ruminations into the overall lyrical tone.)

Once recaptured by his tough but compassionate Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn), Witt rejoins the Charlie Company, an infantry unit headed to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands to attack the Japanese stronghold there. Under the monomaniacal leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), a fist-faced, Homer-quoting West Point grad and career warrior fixated on seizing the island at any cost, Witt and Welsh merely become two more unshaven mugs in the anonymous crowd of grunts destined for uncertain slaughter, salvation or that limbo in between that awaits most men.

Although the climactic battle scenes are potent, the initial beach landing is eerily uneventful. Unlike "Ryan," which shot its wad in the visceral first half-hour, "The Thin Red Line" saves its punch, where the late impact turns out to be less a kick in the stomach than a blow to the head.

For the longest time, the Guadalcanal assault is seen only from the vantage point of what we know as the good guys – the enemy is here seen as little more than the swiveling barrel of a Japanese machine. That changes as the siege progresses and Tall's men encounter their bunkered adversaries face-to-face. Courtesy of Witt, Malick has already introduced us to the brown-skinned natives whose real estate they are fighting over.

Included in the strong, star-studded cast are John Travolta as a slick general, John Savage as a shell-shocked officer, Woody Harrelson in a brief but dramatic cameo, John Cusack as a brave cynic and Elias Koteas as the conflict-afflicted company captain whose concern for his men puts him at odds with his commanding officer. George Clooney has a virtual walk-on in the film's last minutes. All of the other lesser-known players are equally convincing.

Ultimately, "The Thin Red Line" isn't about who won or lost Guadalcanal. Malick, who also wrote the script, is aiming for something higher than a story about ballistics and military strategy. It can be called an anti-war film, but its disdain for the very conventions of the medium make it an anti-anti-war film.

"The Thin Red Line" is a movie about creation growing out of destruction, about love where you'd least expect to find it and about angels – especially the fallen kind – who just happen to be men.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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