The year’s most enigmatic studio release, written and directed by one of the most puzzling figures in Hollywood, The Thin Red Line projects a sense of wounded diffidence. Terrence Malick’s hugely ambitious, austerely hallucinated adaptation of James Jones’s 1962 novel— a 500-page account of combat in Guadalcanal— is a metaphysical platoon movie in which battlefield confusion is melded with an Emersonian meditation on the nature of nature.
The first and costliest American victory in World War II’s Pacific theater was a six-month assault on Japanese-held Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands east of New Guinea. Malick’s movie appears to concern a mop-up operation, late in the struggle, with a battalion of mainly green army recruits landing in relief of the marines who initiated the attack on the stronghold. I say “appears” because although The Thin Red Line gives a real— if necessarily idealized— sense of an American army in action, there is a sense in which Malick’s movie is not so much about World War II as about a particular existential condition.
Saving Private Ryan opens, in a brutal tour de force that is Steven Spielberg’s most visceral filmmaking since Jaws, with the GIs landing on Omaha beach. (As a way of conditioning audience response, it’s as though Hitchcock began Psycho with the shower sequence.) Malick is considerably more contemplative. The Thin Red Line starts with a leisurely immersion in a South Pacific paradise as filtered through the consciousness of the pensive Private Witt (Jim Caviezel). It’s not too far from Malick’s Days of Heaven, although the expulsion from this tropical Eden is an hour-plus attempt to storm a Japanese position.
Jones, who saw action and was wounded at Guadalcanal, devoted fully half of his novel to detailing the capture of Hill 209 and so it seems here. Malick orchestrates what could be the longest battle scene in movie history, and one in which shock and hysteria are pervasive. Charging head-on uphill toward an unseen foe, the men drop at random, often from friendly fire. Everybody, with the exception of an almost frighteningly cool captain (John Cusack) is either terrified or crazed.
In essence, this epic battle scene concerns the stripping away of each soldier’s self (or its obliteration) and, in the midst of this operation, a philosophical argument breaks out. Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) screams orders to launch a suicide attack that his subordinate, Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), stuck on a ridge without shelter, refuses to obey. Nor is the debate restricted to strategy or even words. Abetted by Hans Zimmer’s brooding score, the entire sequence has the aspect of an extended reverie. Repeatedly, Malick cuts away from the carnage to the image of a young woman— Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) imagining his wife as a battlefield angel— or, even more outrageously, to the light as it changes on the tall grass in the wind.
Guadalcanal, at least as it was portrayed in the 1944 Guadalcanal Diary (the key World War II movie released during the war), was the crucible that, more fiery than any urban melting pot, forged the American fighting spirit. The Thin Red Line is no less an ensemble film, although its sense of spirit is more expanded. The archetypes are in place— the sensitive mystic (Caviezel) and the cynical sergeant (Sean Penn in a tremendously concentrated performance), the blowhard warrior Colonel Tall and his tender-hearted adversary (Koteas), the efficient good soldier (Cusack) and the fear-crazed survivor (Adrien Brody), to name only a few. But, if battle-heightened awareness imbues these soldiers with a undeniable, albeit transitory, uebermensch quality, The Thin Red Line is scarcely waving the flag. And if the Japanese— most extensively seen as the wounded, freaked-out, praying denizens of an overrun camp— are hardly individuated and never granted the slightest subjectivity, it is clear that Malick himself is consciously striving for what might be termed a “Japanese” quality of stillness and emptiness in the midst of hell.
For all its documentary detail, Jones’s novel was born old-fashioned. It was published a year after Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 initiated a vast shift in American attitudes; Allied Artists’ quickie movie version was distinguished mainly for having been released on a double bill with Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss. Malick’s version— which unavoidably references the great, flawed Vietnam visions of Apocalypse Now and (especially) Platoon— is, however, anachronistic in a different way. Not exactly timeless and not primarily a narrative, it’s a head movie about death and dying.
The Thin Red Line meanders from Witt’s consciousness into Bell’s and even briefly Tall’s, as if to suggest that they are all one. Tall may instruct the humanist Staros in the cruelty of nature but even that, Malick insists, is in the mind. (It takes only a single communication from the outside world for a previously idyllic Melanesian village to deliquesce into a miasma of fear, conflict, disease, and death.) When, in one crucial scene, the Japanese appear out of the jungle to surround Witt, they appear as woodland spirits. Their helmets are garnished with tree branches; the scene is shot like a ritual. Witt, who has been living inside his head all movie long, can’t believe it; he doesn’t even think to drop his weapon.
At two hours and 45 minutes, The Thin Red Line gives ample evidence of suffering all manner of cuts, if not having been simply hacked into its final shape. But this violence only adds to the movie’s brave, strange, eroded nobility. As mystical as it is gritty, as despairing as it is detached, Malick’s study of men in battle materializes in our midst almost exactly a century after Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage— an exercise in 19th-century transcendentalism, weirdly serene in the face of horror.
More grueling than anything in The Thin Red Line, Hurlyburly is another spectacle of men together doing bad things— if not an argument for war. Indeed, the only reason not to ship the guys played by Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, and Garry Shandling to Guadalcanal would be to keep them out of your foxhole.
Directed by Anthony Drazan from David Rabe’s mid-’80s ensemble drama of Hollywood hacks coking up and getting down, Hurlyburly is a raging torrent of misogynist self-pity— mostly staged in the unaccountably beautiful pad shared by manic Penn and fastidiously suave Spacey. As the most conflicted of the group, Penn gives a flamboyant, lurching performance— rivaled for stridence by the Method conundrum of Palminteri’s badly-acted impersonation of a bad actor. (Palminteri’s scenes with the slightly more skillful Meg Ryan, playing an up-for-anything tart, have the behavioral fascination of a community college acting class.)
Given that these characters are even more delusional than the movies they make, Rabe’s dialogue is not without its mordant zing. “I am my own biggest distraction,” Penn complains to his love object (an eloquently inarticulate Robin Wright Penn). Not so. Drazan’s heavy-handed direction and clumsy camera-placement cuts the performers too much slack, then competes with their antics for attention.
John Travolta conveys more authority in a single scene as a meat-faced general in The Thin Red Line than he does as a bionic, Porsche-
driving personal-injury attorney in the whole overblown legal drama that is Steven Zaillian’s A Civil Action. Adapted from Jonathan Harr’s page-turner, a true story of industrial pollution and corporate chicanery, A Civil Action is a slick, shameless job that takes way too long to make its point (namely, we need the EPA).
There’s a vaguely Clintonian feel to the war between Travolta’s cocksure, crypto-Democrat ambulance chaser and Robert Duvall’s eccentric, if Republican-respectable, Harvard law prof. The chuckling Duvall is an even more opportunistic con man than Travolta— as the better actor, he deserves to win the case. Like Schindler’s List, which Zaillian scripted, A Civil Action concerns a cynic’s redemption. But it’s a transformation that the movie can’t dramatize. Travolta’s part might just have well been given to Sylvester Stallone.