Review: 'The Thin Red Line'

January 20, 1999|By JASON MYERS

The mind of the soldier always fascinates. Literature can delineate thoughts. Cinema can observe thoughts within the flux of action.

"The Thin Red Line" integrates the two: it is Terrence Malick's film based - loosely - upon James Jones' World War II novel set in Guadalcanal.

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Malick invades the minds of an Army rifle company called C-for-Charlie. In their minds he finds apprehension, regret, sorrow, rage - and musings that might be had by a man at the end of his years as he walks through a war museum but were not likely the words in the minds of 20-year-old soldiers fighting, killing and dying.

"What's keeping us from reaching out, grabbing the glory?" ponders Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) in one of many voice-overs. I don't know, maybe the fact that he spends more time asking L.L. Bean questions than he does shooting Japanese soldiers.


Malick is certainly not a mechanistic film director, and this is not a conventional war film. "The Thin Red Line" begins in an idyll, its opening preparing you for battle as well as Buddhist boot camp would.

After a crocodile peers through the avocado puree of an island swamp - Malick is obsessed with nature surrounding man - we meet Witt, who has gone AWOL. His encounters with the natives of Guadalcanal are pacific - they swim in the ocean; they sing in a harmony almost as heartbreaking as the brutal events that follow.

Witt's company catches up with him. Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) chastises him for abandoning his post yet again - apparently Witt is a habitual pacifist. "In this world, man's nothing. And there ain't no world but this one," Welsh informs him.

The world they are about to enter is one of severed limbs, exploding dirt and bullets too quick for deep thoughts. As the company climbs Hill 210, under the command of Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas), "The Thin Red Line" hits something ... what is it? ... yes, dramatic momentum. An hour of delicate imagery and Southern-accented Socratic musings had me forgetting movie terminology.

Unfortunately, dramatic momentum in a war movie means mass death. Capt. Staros refuses the order of Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte) to persist in attack, worried that he will annihilate his already-depleted troops. Nolte's facial veins and muscles deserve a medal of honor for their brave conduct in acting.

Finally, a character with flesh, both in the literary and physical sense. Tall has a monomaniacal desire for "grabbing the glory." He quotes Homer - in Greek - and his voice-overs consist mostly of complaints against all the times he's been passed over for promotion.

Few of the other actors get to promote themselves, as they are rarely on screen for more than a minute or two at a time.

Jim Caviezel strikes the mind of the viewer. He has a classical thespian face - long and slender, with strong jaw and cheek-bones and a nose strong and stark. His eyes, somewhere between gray and blue and hazel, separate him. There is a haunting tenderness in them, and his one tear - as he watches Japanese prisoners enduring the agony of capture - is more effective than a flood of them.

Malick is a minimalist, sketching action rather than supersizing it. "The Thin Red Line" is like a Matisse painting with captions written by a teenager just discovering Nietzsche.

Cinematographer John Toll can claim the visual victory. His camera inhabits the world with the intimacy of a quiet mind. He sets the camera in grass taller than the men fighting in it. Malick's references to nature would have been too precious had Toll not made them with such a clear eye and keen use of color.

Toll even makes the romantic recollections of Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin) work against their cloying nature. We see sections: her (Miranda Otto, whose character is not blessed with a name) swinging, them beginning to make love, her staring out the window after they have made love. Toll captures these scenes at acute - rather than cute - angles. He prevents them from slipping into saccharine oblivion.

Tim O'Brien, in the short-story "The Things They Carried," about a platoon in Vietnam, wrote, "They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing - these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight."

"The Thin Red Line" is Terrence Malick's attempt - a valiant but not completely victorious one - to measure that weight.

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