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Review by Jay Rittenberg

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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 than distracting.

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 intensity.

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.

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