Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Elias Koteas
I am not going to do injustice to Terrence Malick's first film in nearly
twenty years by trying to compare it to "Saving Private Ryan." It just
wouldn't be fair! The movie (although far from flawless) is able to stand
on its own merits as a memorable war picture.
Although I tried to steer clear of the "Ryan" comparisons, I did find
myself noting similarities to previous "war" films such as "Hamburger
Hill," "Apocalypse Now," and "Platoon." Definitely good company! Thanks
to some spectacularly shot action sequences, Malick is able to achieve
his biggest objective: convincing the moviegoer that war is hell. He accomplishes
this by centering more on the ravaging psychological effects than the
horrifically graphic scenes that we've become accustomed to in other pictures.
The film is based on James Jones's novel and is basically composed of
three recurring elements: flashbacks, narration, and potent action sequences.
The movie follows the rifle company "C" [Charlie] Company, whose mission
is to secure the all-important terrain of Guadalcanal from the Japanese,
a key to victory during the war.
The film starts as the company lands on the island virtually unopposed,
but that's about the only quiet time these men will know. The essence
of the their adventure is told through narration which is used as effectively
here as it was by Martin Sheen in "Apocalypse," and by his son Charlie
in "Platoon." Although I would have preferred Malick use this tool for
just one of the leads instead of several, I still found it powerful rather
The director makes it clear from the start that there will be no stars
in this group regardless of the egos and weekly paychecks involved. This
is exactly the reason they jumped on board accepting scale instead of
their inflated salaries. By agreeing to be part of a team, they actually
resembled a real-life combat unit. Don't be misled by the big names above
the marquee -- recognizable faces such as George Clooney, Woody Harrelson,
John Cusack, and John Travolta come and go as quickly as artillery fire.
They're all part of well-oiled machine, but some parts work better than
others no matter how expert the craftsmanship. Jim Caviezel as the AWOL
private and Ben Chaplin as the soldier who just wants to go home are both
solid, but it is the work of Sean Penn as the noble sergeant, Elias Koteas
as the captain with the heart of a gold, and Nick Nolte as the overbearing
lieutenant colonel overseeing the operation that make the film tick with
We've seen Penn's character played out a million times before on film.
You know the kind -- the good soldier and quiet leader. He does his job
well only because he realizes he has to. All he knows is war -- here is
no other reality and he fully accepts it even though he may not like it.
Nolte picked up an Oscar nomination for his work in "Affliction" last
year, and he proves that he can still get the job done. In fact, at times
I thought his veins were going to pop out of his forehead. His character
(Lt. Col. Tall) has waited a lifetime to taste a piece of the action --
to show that he belongs. He realizes that it will take the loss of many
men to win the war and he fully accepts that "sacrifices will need to
be made." It's his destiny to win the war and if he doesn't live up to
his expectations- of himself it will be his undoing!
The colonel knows very well that taking Guadalcanal will cost nearly
every young life under his command, but he never hesitates and places
the order. It is at this point that the film really shows its heart. His
second in command, Captain Staros (Koteas), who cares deeply for his men
and refuses to see them become martyrs, dismisses the order. The film
gains strength from Koteas, who started off as a lost soul but shows (at
just the right time) that he is in fact the right man for the job, not
only orchestrating a terrific cat & mouse game with his superior but saving
the lives of his men. Staros might be a failure to his colonel, but he's
a hero to the men whose lives he saved.
Malick returns from a prolonged hiatus with a powerful and memorable
film, but it would have been even more unforgettable if the director did
a few things differently. First of all, the time spent in the movie theater
felt as long as Malick's sabbatical. The battle scenes were exquisite,
but after a while you prayed that they would take that hill already! Three
hours could have easily been trimmed to two. Besides capturing some wonderful
action sequences on film, he also had some breathtaking shots of nature,
but after a while I felt that I was at the zoo instead of my local cinema.
Although some may prefer a more fast-break approach than the film's
half-court appeal, it is for this reason the film works. He uses a calculating
style that shows that war can kill-slowly and convincingly. Even if war
has miraculously left your body without a scratch, it has eaten away at
your psyche as well as spitting out your soul.
The film's cinematography, choreographed battle scenes, acting, and
overall message make it worthy of a place among last year's best. The
director beautifully captures the backdrop of war in all its anguish with
some superb location shoots. The battle scenes' precision can match those
found in any other film. They're less graphic, but since the focus is
psychological and not physical, the impact is just as strong. Malick dove
head first into interpreting what these soldiers were feeling and stresses
the pain that they endured in the face of horror and the infinite courage
that kept them alive. His message, although convoluted at times, was that
these soldiers were no longer fighting for their country, they were fighting
to stay alive.
"The Thin Red Line" is far from perfect and the journey may seem endless,
but it is still a powerful journey in which the only way the heroic victors
at Guadalcanal can get to heaven is to survive a brief stint in hell.