Saturday, January 29, 2011

I'm Sure I Saw Private Ryan Over Here

Hollywood has a tendency to release films in twos – no, not a film and its sequel back-to-back (although that does happen sometimes) – more, two films dealing with the same subject in roughly the same manner. Think the two big Robin Hood films that came out pretty much together in the early 90’s, or Armageddon and Deep Impact. Sure, the practice seems to have dropped off – as far as two cinematic releases go (witness the rise of the Mockbuster straight-to-DVD film). The last time I can remember it happening was in the late 90’s, when two films focused on major WW2 battles were released, one was a big-budget Spielberg directed blockbuster that shot several actors to fame; the other went under the radar, but is no less awesome, and was directed by Terrence Malick.

Terrence Malick is an anomaly within the world of filmmakers. In an area where even the most “meticulous” of directors can be counted on to put out a film every two-to-three years, he has directed only six films in a career that started in the late 60’s, skipping the entirety of the 80’s altogether. I’ll freely admit that my knowledge of his career extends only as far as I have read on IMDB or Wikipedia, but even I can see the man has a lot of films to his name that are generally classified as “classics”. And, while his upcoming film The Tree Of Life is one of my most anticipated films of 2011, today I’ll be reviewing the only film of his that I have seen – The Thin Red Line.

Marking Malick’s return to the industry following a 20 year break, The Thin Red Line is a fictional retelling of one armed forces company’s experiences in The Battle Of Guadalcanal –one of the pivotal battles of World War 2. Along the way, the film charts not just how the men of C Company work on the field, but also how the battle takes toll on them as people.

Opening with a brief meditation on the power of nature, good and evil, we soon find ourselves introduced to the voice behind it, Private Witt (who takes the role of overall narrator of the philosophy behind the tale), who is AWOL and living among the locals. He is soon forcibly returned to his position, against all his wishes, and made to join C Company at Guadalcanal. From there, the story shifts focus across many soldiers of varying positions, showing how they see the world around them and how the world they are forced into works on them and their collective and individual psyches.

We see how the battle is one officer’s, Lt. Cnl. Tall, last chance at glory, having been seen as cog and been passed over numerous times. From there, we jump down to see the soldiers in their last preparations before landing, moving through a dozen or so men, showing the range of emotion felt – from fear to anger to acceptance to (in the case of Private Bell) talking about life back home. Most powerful to me are the little moments, the soldiers not central to the shots, seeing how many of them just accept that they may not be coming home, and are doing things special to them for maybe the last time.

Pushed to make Guadalcanal his big victory, Tall finds himself at loggerheads with troops (particularly Staros, who sees firsthand his men being mowed down) on the field as he sends them to be slaughtered in unfamiliar territory by an enemy who has dug themselves in deeper than they. On the field, we jump between a mix of familiar and new faces as they witness firsthand both the horror and powerlessness of what they are up against and the beauty and even innocence of where this battle is being fought. Private Witt rejoins the company and sees the aftermath of the first encounter, taking a meatier role in further conflict.  Eventually, C Company find that they are slowly taking the ground, finally clearing the Japanese turret nests. But what they find are men just as scared and psychologically devastated as themselves.

Following this, we see the aftermath of the battle on C Company; Staros is relieved of his duty, Bell receives divorce papers from his wife and Witt plans to go AWOL once more, returning after he realises that what he has seen on the battlefield has destroyed any concept of piece that he has held. Soon enough, C Company (or what is has become following the original battle) are sent on another mission and end up surrounded. Witt gives his life acting as a decoy to allow his compatriots an easier escape, and his body is buried on the island. The story ends with the company, under new command being sent on another mission, showing the endlessness of the war they all found themselves in.

Now, say what you want about the man’s slow pace, not just between projects, but of the films themselves – but Terrance Malick knows his way around the craft. Not only does every shot of this film look gorgeous, but (as I mentioned about Christopher Nolan in my Inception review) he is one of those directors who is able to get the best out of his actors – granted, the cast in The Thin Red Line is pretty high quality to begin with, however there are a few names that I didn’t expect to be as good as they were. This was the film that made me appreciate people like Woody Harrelson and George Clooney as actual actors and introduced me to Jim Caveizel (the role, he said, was a huge turning point in his career), Dash Mihok and Adrian Brody (well, I knew of them before, but this made me actually pay notice to them). In addition, the usual brilliant performances from actors like Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte and more round out a truly brilliant cast.

Going back to the shooting style, as I said, pretty much every frame of this film is amazing. Sure, it helps that the film was shot in some of the most beautiful places in the world, but I can tell you – no matter how amazing something looks to the human eye, unless you have skill, you cannot transfer it to film with the same beauty. Even in scenes taking place in the chaotic heat of battle, the film is shot so you can appreciate what is going on – no quick jumpcuts to be found here, which helps you focus on the story and the characters.

This is a film that is as underappreciated as it is amazing.

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