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Movie Review: The Thin Red Line

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Terrence Malick

Written by Terrence Malick, based on the novel by James Jones

With Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John Travolta, George Clooney

There's a mixture of regret and annoyance which comes with the realization that the movie I'm watching could be easily made into a great film if only I had an hour with it in the editing room (it's not whether I could really improve it, but the impression that counts). A recent example:The Thin Red Line.

The story of the battle for Guadalcanal (WWII, Pacific front, C-for-Charlie company), written and directed by reclusive director Terrence Malick (whose last film, Days of Heaven, came out in 1978), was awaited like a new novel by J.D. Salinger. The result is a languorously paced, visually stunning, aurally enchanting, viscerally affecting piece of cinematic muck, replete with scenes that don't go anywhere, pointless philosophizing, and a plethora of pseudo-profound rhetorical questions.

The story follows a dozen monosyllabically-named soldiers (like Welsh and Tall and Bell and Fife and Keck), who have one military task ahead of them: a suicidal attack on a hill which is an enemy stronghold. Capt. James Staros (Elias Koteas) clashes with Lt. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte) over the orders; Sgt. Edward Welsh (topliner Sean Penn, in a smallish part) clashes with pacifist Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel); and Pvt. Jack Bell (Ben Chaplin) misses his wife. All of them are thrown together in the huge grinder of war, set against the serenely beautiful landscape of swaying grass, light-filtering trees, and endless sea.

The middle hour of the film the attack on the hill is just about excellent, with staggering visceral impact that places the viewer right in the middle of battle. This sequence, for my money, is a touch more effective than the Omaha beach landing in Saving Private Ryan; while Spielberg depicts (to great effect) the external realities and confusion of combat, Malick's focus is the internal world the psychological reaction of soldiers to the gunfire and explosions around them.

This hour is rarely short of amazing, with a single glance or action failing to represent the turmoil inside. It works twice as well through its expert staging: Gunshells fly right in front of characters, who are dying left and right regardless of their relative importance or billing (image Tom Hanks's character in Ryan being killed during the first half-hour).

Another very risky bet, which handsomely pays off, is casting many actors who look and sound very much like each other. In accordance with Malick's philosophy, which views all humanity as one congregate, it makes perfect sense that the soldiers look similar at first, that is. The more time we spend with them, the more the individual features both facial and character develop. While this makes it nearly impossible to follow the character development (though there's not that much to follow), it's clear that the film is not really concerned with it. Again, it's a very risky choice that pays off.

Another risky choice that doesn't quite pay off as well is the film's structure. To put it simply, The Thin Red Line is not a narrative-based story, with much more attention paid to atmosphere and action and mood than to plot. The middle hour is exciting enough so this doesn't matter in the least. Where film stumbles, and greatly so, is in the framing sections: the opening and the closing, around 45 minutes each. These sections are largely devoted to exposition, character establishment (largely pointless, as I said before), and, most annoyingly, to express the film's philosophy, using a variety of overlapped monologues.

To be frank, these monologues drove me to the high point of annoyance. Malick is a good enough director to create a complex triple counterpoint between the wonders of nature, horrors of war, and the existential problem of man, stuck halfway in-between (the mist-shrouded prologue to the action climax works on all these levels). But, perhaps to drive his point home, we have long, rambling, pointless speachifying, delivered by six or seven people. Since they all sound the same, it's hard to tell who is speaking, but that doesn't really matter anyway, since they all say the things used by underachieving philosophy majors to pad their essays. It's hard to take it seriously when someone drones off-screen that "war doesn't ennoble men it turns them into dogs, poisons the soul." Oh please. This point is much better delivered by the superb visuals.

Other aspects are aces: the cinematography (John Toll, who also worked on Braveheart and Legends of the Fall) is nothing short of breathtaking; the special battle effects are seamless; and the musical score (Hans Zimmer) is just amazing.

Here's my recipe for making a great film from the two-hour, forty-two-minute long version currently in movie theaters:Condense first 40 minutes into ten. Condense last 40 minutes into ten. Remove the voiceover. The result will be a great film. The way it is now, well, it's only mostly good.