The Thin Red Line
Rating -

  Drama/War (US); 1998; Rated R; 170 Minutes

Jim Caviezel: Private Witt
Sean Penn: Sgt. Edward Welsh
Ben Chaplin: Pvt. Bell
George Clooney: Capt. Charles Bosche
John Cusack: Capt. John Gaff
Woody Harrelson: Sgt. Keck

Produced by Robert Michael Geisler, Grant Hill, Sheila Davis Lawrence, John Roberdeau, George Stevens Jr., and Michael Stevens; Directed and screenwritten by Terrence Malick

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Written by DAVID KEYES

Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" represents somewhat of a dismal act to the cinema. It's an anti-war film detailing the same war as "Saving Private Ryan," yet it doesn't seem to be about war at all. It's more about the basis of our actions: how does war begin? How does it develop? When does it end? Why do we subject ourselves to it? Malick doesn't seem to be asking these questions directly, but in the way the picture develops and provokes its subject matter, those seem to be the questions on his mind. His movie tries to accomplish that fearful task of revealing the answers to those difficult questions by penetrating the themes through the minds of the characters at war. In other words, he expects us, the viewers, to answer the questions through what is shown on the screen.

Unfortunately, anti-war films can sometimes stray from reality. Questions that deal with the evil operating in nature and manhood are difficult questions to begin with, and not everyone has the same answers for them. Actually, there's no real answers to any of them. Malick seems to believe that his movie can try and reach some sort of understanding with the material, and he has good intentions, but he doesn't give his characters a chance to develop their own perspectives of his questions. Each person in a movie like this should have their own opinion about nature and the state of humanity, but they aren't represented well in "The Thin Red Line" for many different reasons. The main problem with his character development is the fact that it gets sidetracked when the movie tries to determine where it wants to go with the premise. It intends to be a human war, but as it shifts from war scenes in the tall blades of grass to character discussions and then to the jungles of the film's location, the movie makes it clear that it really has no idea of how it wants to handle the themes. How do you convince an audience that war is the cause of effects in nature? Do we give them opinionated characters, or do we give them brutal war scenes and beautiful cinematography? Terrence Malick apparently has trouble in deciding which one is more effective.

Thus, his movie shifts between both and expects to grasp absolute attention from the viewer. To an extent with the battle scenes, it succeeds, but coming around to the characters, the script does not let them develop individually. As a whole, they are obviously an important asset in battle, but in single form, what we get it a few minutes alone with them to explore their personalities, and then they are thrown to the enemy before we get a chance to appreciate them. There are several walk-ons and voice-overs within the content, but much of it is brief and underlying to the scripts grasp on reality. Only a selected few characters can be seen throughout the entire 170 minutes of the film, and even they have development problems. That is, of course, with the exception of Sean Penn's role as Sergeant Edward Welsh.

This is an Oscar-calibre performance; one that should have the Academy up from their chairs applauding Penn's acting talent. They already gave him a nomination for "Dead Man Walking" a couple of years ago, but for some reason, Nicholas Cage was their favorite choice as winner. Here, he may have a better chance, because he truly is a remarkable actor in a remarkable role. Heck, he's not even the main character, either.

That honor goes to Mr. Jim Caviezel, who plays Private Witt. Based on the novel by James Jones, the movie opens with him (he's an AWOL private by the way) and another army private enjoying a brisk journey through the Jungles of Guadalcanal. But that's sabotaged once both soldiers are captured and war breaks loose between the army and the enemy on Guadalcanal's hill.

One thing that the film gets right is the neutrality of either side of the war. The Japanese are portrayed without the use of subtitles, and are therefore mapped out as an equal cause of rivalry. Both sides of the battle have their own values and reasons for going through the turmoil that is war, and if an effective anti-war film can establish a motive for disgracing the war itself, an enemy is redundant to the situation. We operate in our own distinctions and with our own beliefs. Malick's movie has managed to finally grasp the notion that anti-war films are always and unfairly portrayed with us as the winners. Antagonism is not the immediate cause, and the movie knows that.

Malick's style and movement with the camera is more sharp and stunning than that of, say, Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," but that's basically it. While that movie concentrated on the hard-core battles to carry over the subject of 'anti-war films,' "The Thin Red Line" does two things at once, and the script just hasn't been written strong enough to handle both.

That's a shame, too. Actors like John Cusack, Nick Nolte and Sean Penn can be in outstanding movies (they have their share of obvious evidence in the past), and even if you put all of them into one film, they can still carry it out well. Think for a moment about whether or not they could have all succeeded in Malick's "The Thin Red Line." Oh, how well we would have enjoyed these characters if the script allowed us to examine them more closely.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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